WAY OF THE DRAGON (1972)
(Cantonese audio – 30th Anniversary Hong Kong Legends DVD set)
During the filming of FIST OF FURY Bruce Lee was feeling greater confidence in his bargaining power and frustration with the lack of influence over his films’ direction - so he re-negotiated his contract with producer Raymond Chow to make them equal partners in ‘Concord Productions’. This enabled him to star in, write and produce his next film. He considered working again with Lo Wei who directed his previous two projects, even to the point of posing for promo photos for YELLOW-FACED TIGER, but crucially he opted to produce his own film. Chow did not want Bruce’s new-found independence to lead him away from his studio’s prized asset so he gave the project his full support.
Bruce spent over a million Hong Kong dollars in 1972 on a Kowloon property which became his base for immersing himself in the craft of becoming a real film-maker. At the time he said in the press: “This is the first time I have directed a film and on the whole I must say I am satisfied with the result”. He wanted no directorial touches that drew attention to themselves as a ‘style’, similar one could say to his stated intention for his ever-developing fighting technique.
The new movie WAY OF THE DRAGON was originally titled ENTER THE DRAGON but Bruce let Warner Brothers have this and he called it WAY OF THE DRAGON (Confusingly RETURN OF THE DRAGON in the USA). Chow supplied him with contact support in Rome and filming there was greatly facilitated.
Bruce described the film as “A really simple story of a country boy going to a place where he cannot speak the language, but he comes out on top because he honestly and sincerely expresses himself by beating hell out of everybody who gets in his way”.
He plays Tang Lung, a Chinese guy who comes to Rome to help his uncle run the family restaurant and finds himself embroiled in a war with gangsters who want to take it over - with combative consequences.
His style as a director is simple and emphasises comedy especially in the early scenes. The opening is admittedly a little heavy-handed where he waits at the airport for his cousin (regular love interest Nora Miao) and is scrutinised very closely by a genteel Caucasian lady. She stands unnaturally close to stare brazenly at him. He then has fun at his expense by showing Tang asking a restaurant waitress for ‘eggs’ and somehow ends up with six varieties of Campbell’s soup on a tray.
The fight scenes of course are what make Bruce Lee’s films, and WAY stands out with more of them than before and with varied weapons and locations. In a back-street battle behind his uncle’s business, Tang unleashes a double set of nunchakus, building on the single-set used so memorably in FIST OF FURY. He throws darts with deadly accuracy and demonstrates beautiful fluidity in his preparatory moves (the slow-mo image trail of his hands fanning elaborately during his brawl with Bob Wall is a stand-out).
These fights have undeniable cultural significance as well. Not only is Tang defending his family’s territory as Asians in western territory, but in battling 1970 World Karate Champion Bob Wall and then six times champion Chuck Norris Bruce the actor is pitting himself against the best of the west. He dispatches Wall fairly easily but it is the climactic face-off with Norris in the Coliseum that justly made WAY OF THE DRAGON famous.
Bruce’s first choice as an opponent was Joe Lewis but after some disagreement (with no grudge borne) he instead chose Norris and increased the American’s profile for a long career on screen. Chuck’s red hair, coating his chest as well and thicker-limbed physique make a great contrast to Bruce’s smooth wiry smaller frame and cat-like poise. Bruce exhaustively planned the fight scene with twenty pages of meticulous storyboarded angles and the resulting fight is exciting, longer than most and even allows the danger element of enabling Norris to get the best of him early on before Tang ends him with a guillotine choke. For light relief there are cutaways to a bemused kitten looking on at these human foibles. He also permits the westerner the respect of a soulful pause after killing him and a ceremonial shrouding of Norris’s body with his belt placed on top. There only remains the business of taking out the top boss and his weaselly effeminate consigliere (Paul Wei, familiar from FIST OF FURY).
Despite some gauche choices in the film, Bruce achieved a number of firsts. WAY OF THE DRAGON was the first Chinese film shot on western soil although it is a peculiar depiction of Rome in that it seems bereft of any Italians; whilst it has great travelogue shots, it seems only populated with Chinese or very American-looking characters. Bruce was also the only Hong Kong director at that point to see colour ‘rushes’ (rough assemblies of a day’s printed takes) from shooting and moreover the first Hong Kong director to successfully produce a film by Asians to become a cross-over western box office hit. This would prove his vital career bridge to the U.S. audience with Warner Brothers’ ENTER THE DRAGON the following year…