In an article series such as this it was only a matter of time before Bruce Lee was featured. For many, Bruce Lee is Martial Arts. He is one of the most identifiable stars film has ever produced. His legacy endures to this day, forty two years after his death in 1973. His list of films is nothing short of legendary. At some point in your life you will see Enter the Dragon; it is one of "those" movies. (I mean that as the highest compliment. "Those" movies consist of things like Shawshank Redemption or Forrest Gump) But, Enter the Dragon is not the film up for discussion here. That, along with Chinese Connection and Fists of Fury, would be too easy as would Game of Death. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fighting Bruce Lee? Big ass footprint notwithstanding that's just weird... interesting but weird) No, for this article Way of the Dragon, or Return of the Dragon, is the focus.
Released in 1972, Way of the Dragon is the only completed Bruce Lee film. (He wrote, directed, starred, and produced) Other films saw Bruce Lee involved in various aspects of their production but this one is truly his. And it stands out among his work because of that. The story in and of itself is nothing revolutionary for Hong Kong cinema. Mafia bosses want to take over a restaurant in Rome, an Uncle and his Niece refuse to sell, the mafia threatens them, help is sent, fighting ensues. There are a few plot twists such as the Uncle wanting to sell by the end of the film and return to Hong Kong, but the basic tropes are there. When Bruce Lee first arrives to help the restaurant, the workers, who are learning Kung Fu naturally, don't think his style is worth the hype or swagger with which he carries himself. As with most Kung Fu films, Bruce Lee proves his style superior and gets the students on his side. The dialogue is good enough. There are some moments of levity sprinkled throughout the film but that is not this films calling card. The non fighting scenes are good enough but that is not this films calling card. The set design, costumes, the minutia of film is good enough but they are not this films calling card. Where this film shines is in its action. It is, in a word, a-fucking-mazing!
The film makes you wait for that first fight. It comes a little over a half hour into the movie but it is completely worth it. Bruce Lee was on another level entirely. His movements were so fast that modern actors have had to have their scenes sped up to match. The fights are brutal in the way most Kung Fu movies are but have a beauty about them that few films have captured since. (Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are stunning btw and will maybe be covered in the future) Lee used the camera like a dance partner in these scenes. Whereas most Kung Fu cinema is shot well, this was shot more like an art house project that happened to be a Kung Fu film. There is motion in the camera movements and angles that highlight the action interspersed with stillness and pull back shots that give the scenes depth. No one was shooting movies like this in 1972; Lee was ahead of the game in every way.
Now, there is this one other thing about Way of the Dragon. It is the type of thing that when you see it, it stops you. Completely. You watch it, and don't really know how to react. So you watch it again. And again, you are left speechless. So again, and again, Eventually you accept that what you have seen is art. It is beautiful and perfect. So you share it. And the process repeats. What I am talking about of course is the fight between Bruce Lee and a then unknown, and pre-beard, Chuck Norris. The rumors surrounding this scene, that it was real/that they hated each other/that Chuck refused to lose so Bruce HAD to kick his ass, are almost as legendary as the scene itself. The fact that it is conducted wordlessly, that the action tells the story well enough that you know everything you need to know from the performance alone, is nothing short of remarkable. It is perhaps the most confident scene ever filmed and deserves a spot among the highest pantheon. And what brings me great joy is to be able to share it with you. Check out the trailer below, and click here for the full film. I implore you to watch from start to finish; do not just skip to the final fight. It's impact is so much greater when experienced in the way Bruce Lee intended. Remember to follow me on twitter, @geekadedan, and let me know what you though of Way of the Dragon.