Apr 3, 2020

Martial Arts Month: Day 3

The Way of the Dragon
Dir: Bruce Lee
I’ve never been the biggest Bruce Lee fan. Obviously, he changed martial arts cinema for all time and arguably, more than 45 years after his sadly early passing, remains its best known name, but I’ve always enjoyed the stars who followed just in his wake more. The Way of the Dragon is a pretty good encapsulation of why.

Lee was coming off the wild and widespread success of Fist of Fury, so he had a lot of sway, and was able to cash it in to make his writing and directorial debut. The results suggest that, while a charismatic star and the most talented martial artist of his generation, he had a way to go as a filmmaker. Lee’s screenplay is basic and dull. It sees him coming to Italy to help protect a Chinese restaurant under threat of takeover from the mob. Lee never manages to establish larger stakes, nor much connection between himself and co-star Nora Miao or the staff of the restaurant, who have been training in karate. The fish out of water comedy of the first half is, to put it mildly, not Lee’s gift as an actor, and makes an already uneventful build up feel grindingly slow.

There are two great scenes in The Way of the Dragon. The fight with Lee wielding dual nunchaku and the finale, with Lee facing off against a young, clean shaven, Chuck Norris. Both sequences deliver the hard hitting action we expect of Lee and are brilliantly choreographed by the star and Unicorn Chan. The direction isn’t always as successful, for instance, Lee’s repeated cutaways to a kitten during the finale are much less funny than he may have imagined. Still, for these blessed minutes, the film delivers what we’re looking for from it. Even the rest of the action sometimes disappoints, never more so than when Hwang Jang Lee steps up, only to be so soundly beaten by Lee that he barely gets a chance to show his abilities (look at his films with Jackie Chan for a far better showcase).

On the whole, I found The Way of the Dragon disappointing. There are isolated moments that explain why Lee was and is so revered, but the film as a whole is largely tedious, not especially well made, and plods its way to those moments.

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