The Way of the Dragon (1972)

D: Bruce Lee
S: Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris

Bruce Lee's directorial debut proves that his superb martial arts skills are enough to keep an audience spellbound, because the rest is pretty terrible. To be fair, Lee has enough self-consciousness to try to inject a note of humour here, playing up to the expectations of the audience by withholding the action fireworks for some time, then finally rewarding them with a series of spectacular fights, climaxing with a classic duel with then U.S. Champion Chuck Norris. He has made an earnest attempt to cash in on the Spaghetti western style of excessive close ups, zooms and hero mythology (and uses an Ennio Morricone score which includes excerpts from Once Upon a Time in the West), and genuinely tries to be funny playing a fish-out-of-water character, namely a Chinese farmer in modern-day Rome. But like Lee's acting, the film is too desperate for a response. He mugs horribly, and makes you feel uncomfortable most of the time unless he's punching, kicking and screaming his way through hordes of baddies. In the hands of even a hack like Robert Clouse, Enter the Dragon seemed like a classy film. But in Lee's hands The Way of the Dragon (sometimes known as The Return of the Dragon because it was released in the U.S. after the success of Enter the Dragon, even though it was made before it) is a sad, laughable affair that makes you feel sorry for him, though perhaps a bit indulgent.

It's hard to really hate the film, perhaps precisely because Lee clearly tries so hard. He's not quite as inept as Ed Wood, but elicits the same kind of happy love-hate response. And, as with any of his previous films, the real attractions are the martial arts, which are wonderfully choreographed and typically balletic. In the staging of each of the spectacular fight scenes, his control of action and ability to put the camera just where it needs to be to show off the movements to the best advantage demonstrate his understanding of his own art, if not the art of the cinema. His sinewy physique has never seemed so taught, and his movements in battle are as graceful and balanced as ever. The sheer physical pleasure of watching an artist of his calibre in action almost makes up for the fact that he simply cannot act or direct.

The plot has Lee arriving in Rome to help the owners of a Chinese restaurant who are being harassed by the local mafia. Some contrived love interest adds a moment or two of quiet dialogue, but this is really a premise for a movie wrapped around the action possibilities. The inclusion of a homosexual sub-villain, some familiar martial artists as hired guns and a variety of baffling twists and character transformations are simply testament to Lee's need to toss as many things into the brew as he can in order to keep things lively. It does not even have the simple revenge-motivated spirituality of his earlier efforts, and only the aftermath of the battle with Norris gives the film a moment of dignity.

The opening scenes of Lee finding himself unable to cope with the customs and rituals of Italian society are funny in the way the Three Stooges are funny; they appeal to the basest instincts to laugh at other people. But they are not even executed with the gusto of the Stooges. Instead, every gag is telegraphed and then emphasised with a clumsy double take, evidence that Lee had studied the history of comic cinema, but not that he understood the nature of comedy. It is certainly proof, if any were needed, that Jackie Chan better understands what made Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin funny, and how to adapt their humour to his own. His frantic slapstick seems the height of comic hilarity compared to Lee's amateurish schtick.

But at the end of the day, this is a film for fans of the genre, and those predisposed to its particular pleasures will enjoy it as thoroughly as any they have enjoyed before. They will also get to see the master at work, which might be enough for them. Anyone else will be thoroughly baffled. The film a silly mishmash of comedy and action put together with little to no skill showcasing a truly awful actor who beats people up really well. Yet within its own frames of reference, The Way of the Dragon works well enough to keep going, and boasts some great fight scenes, distracting and all as the plot is in between. Of course, it can't but succeed on those terms, and for those able to accept them, a good time may be in the offing.

Note: The Region 2 UK DVD is from Hong Kong Classics, whose respectful and detailed treatment of this kind of cinema continues to impress, with trailers, commentaries, stills galleries and interviews which flesh out the good intentions behind the not always stellar results. The DVD also restores previously banned fight scenes, including the stunning double nunchuku scene. A must for fans of the genre.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.