Stars: Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Nora Miao, Bob Wall
Genre: Kung Fu, Comedy
Way of the Dragon, released as Return of the Dragon in the United States, is Bruce Lee's third film right after The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, and is the only film Lee has ever directed himself and is, in my opinion, some of his finest work of his career in film.
Unlike Bruce Lee's previous films Way of the Dragon takes place completely outside of China and instead is set in Rome. Tang Lung (Lee) is sent there to help a family friend and their restaurant which is being targeted by local thugs. The local gang will do anything they can to have the restaurant shut down, including hiring a martial arts master from America named Colt (Norris) to take out Tang Lung.
The plot is standard and conventional and follows little logic, but Bruce Lee never was known for his script writing abilities. Along with writing Lee tried his hand at directing this time around as well, and does a well enough job. He definitely gets the job done and captures all the film's awesomeness. What really counts is the fighting, but I'll get to that later.
Way of the Dragon definitely has much more comedic elements present than any other Lee film...especially towards the beginning. Sometimes the humor works really well and sometimes it fails completely. While seeing a Martial Arts master constantly having to go poop (along with funny music playing every time he asks where the toilet is) is amusing, it just doesn't feel right in here. And then there's the scene early on where Bruce Lee has a brief detour with a prostitute...but the scene wasn't at all funny and it served no purpose whatsoever...it was just there.
Some of the humor works really well though. A thug hitting himself in the head with nunchucks is hilarious, the gay mafia guy worked well, and even some of the dialogue is very funny. I'd say that all in all the humor worked well more than it worked bad, it's just a shame that they didn't know their limits. The humor though gives the film a sort of self-aware nature, but I will say that they made good use of their very small budget.
The second half of the film is when things get real though. All jokes are set aside and the fists come out. Bruce Lee was at the top of his game in this film. His fighting was top notch and his body was incredibly toned (which he doesn't hesitate to show off). In the beginning of the film we're constantly teased; we think we're about to get to see Bruce Lee kick some ass but it is repeatedly delayed to the point where I was just dying to see Bruce Lee punch something, which made it all the more rewarding when he finally did. And boy does he!
Bruce Lee kicks so much goddamn ass in this film it is glorious. From street fights with a dozen thugs to intense duels with terrifying opponents. In Fist of Fury we got to see Bruce Lee go up against a katana, in this one we get to see how well he fares against guns (he fares well, obviously, and awesomely). All the fighting is choreographed very well, and the final fight scene against Chuck Norris is perhaps Bruce Lee's best ever (though I'd probably give that honor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death).
Speaking of Chuck Norris, he's great in here as well and was definitely a worthy opponent for Bruce Lee. Any fans of Chuck Norris: you have this film to that for starting his acting career.
I must also compliment Lee's directing in many of the fight scenes, especially the last one. There's some great location shots and the Colosseum was a great spot to have the last fight. The creepy voice echoing in the empty arena and even the cat are nice touches. Bruce Lee is such a fast fighter, and part of the charm is watching his speed on camera, but the film made sparing though incredibly perfect use of slow-motion that's added at just the right parts to add to the intensity.
I criticized the writing before but some things were handled very well. There's a twist that adds a bit more depth to the film. And perhaps what I thought was done best was how they made Bruce Lee's character someone with emotion, but they didn't achieve this through boring drama or misplaced romantic sub-plots, they did it just by the way he reacted to things. After he beats Chuck Norris you can tell just by his face and the way he walks away (and then further when he covers Norris' face) that he's not just a emotionless killing machine; he has morals and feelings and him displaying that in turn makes you question certain morals. And again, achieving all that without any boring drama, making a kung fu ass kicker have some depth to him, is very impressive.
The Way of the Dragon is my favorite Bruce Lee film by far. Despite a somewhat bumpy start the film manages to include some well-done humor, some interesting characters, and a final fight scene that is easily one of the best, most memorable fights of all-time.
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