There are many reasons why the popularity of Way of the Dragon has not waned since its release in 1972. Its setting in the ancient city of Rome, the first onscreen matchup between Bruce Lee and Bob Wall, and the fact that the film marks Bruce’s first directorial effort, sadly the only one he’d live to complete. However, it’s probably safe to assume that the continued popularity of Way of the Dragon can, for most people, be summed up in just five words – Bruce Lee versus Chuck Norris!
In his third outing as leading man, Bruce Lee portrays Tang Lung, a martial arts master from Hong Kong summoned to Rome to aid a family friend whose niece’s Chinese restaurant is being targeted by the local Italian mafia. On top of portray the lead and writing the film, Bruce also got his first opportunity at directing, giving him a level of control over the film which he’d never experienced before. As such, the film’s abundant martial arts fights are layered with Bruce’s deep philosophical influence, especially the finale.
Bruce’s co-star from “The Big Boss” and “Fist of Fury” (Nora Miao) portrays the owner of the Chinese restaurant, Chen Ching-hua, while Jon T. Benn handles the role of the arch-villain, known simply as The Boss. This is, of course, the type of film where the henchmen are everyone’s favorite villains, and Way of the Dragon has some of the best from the early 70’s, specifically American Karateka Bob Wall and the famed Korean Hapkido master Hwang Ing-shik portraying a pair of fighters brought in by the mob. Their big gun, however, is the American Karate champion Colt, played by the man who hears sign language, who boils water by growling at it and who once counted to infinity twice – the indestructible legend, Chuck Norris.
Tang Lung, a martial arts expert from Hong Kong, travels to Rome to help a family friend whose niece, Chen Ching-hua ,is being harassed by the local mafia. Despite her refusals to sell her flourishing Chinese restaurant, the mob won’t take no for an answer. With some assistance from the restaurant’s waiters, Tang fights off numerous assaults on Chen’s property by the mob. The frustrated criminals put several hits on Tang’s life, to no avail, and later kidnap Chen to coerce her into selling off her property, only for Tang and the waiters to come to the rescue, leaving with the stern warning for the mob to back off.
Unwilling to write off Chen’s property, the mob recruits three martial arts experts from around the world to defeat Tang and the waiters – one fighter from Japan and another from America are summoned, with the mob’s real trump card being Colt, America’s most renown Karate champion and teacher of the other American fighter. The mob feigns an offer of a truce, only to summon Tang and the waiters into an ambush against their own martial arts experts.
By the time Way of the Dragon was made, Bruce Lee had become the most widely recognized name in Hong Kong and arguably throughout all of Asia. As such, he had no trouble requesting being allowed into the driver’s seat on his third film. He had always seen his career in movies as a vehicle towards expressing the beauty of Chinese culture and his philosophical perspective on martial arts, and he would use Way of the Dragon toward both ends.
The film is a classic fish-out-of-water story showing Tang’s often clumsy efforts to adapt to Italian culture, and it actually becomes a radically different experience when watching it with the English dub. The fact that the Chinese and Italian characters, for the most part, don’t speak the others’ language makes Tang’s presence, which is essentially that of a bouncer, that much more intimidating for the mob. It also lends itself to the surprisingly humorous nature of the film, such as Tang’s awkward interaction with an attractive local girl whom he later discovers to be a prostitute, or just about everything done or said by the Boss’ right hand man and interpreter Mr. Ho. That being said, the English dub should not be entirely overlooked, for therein lies some of the most comical and oft quoted lines of dubbed dialogue ever recorded (i.e. “Is your name Tang Lung?”, “I’d like some Chinese spear ribs!”)
For all its popularity among martial arts fans, it’s almost a half hour into the film before Bruce springs into action. It actually happens so suddenly that even viewers who have seen Bruce’s other films are likely to wince in empathy with the poor fellow on the receiving end of a roundhouse kick to the floating ribs. As you’d expect, Bruce rarely, if ever takes a hit from the bumbling mafia thugs, and his dispatching of their numerous assaults is frequently the source of much of the film’s plentiful humour. In one fight, after Tang has single-handedly dispatched a dozen thugs, the lone remaining opponent picks up a pair of nunchakus to defend himself, looking at it like an illiterate man trying to read through “The Odyssey” before clobbering himself with his own weapon! The action gets noticeably more intense and serious in the third act when more worthy opponents enter the picture.
The hired fighters portrayed by Bob Wall and Whang Ing-shik make formidable enemies for the waiters, much noticeably less so for Tang. Needless to say, the final duel between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris is the real crown jewel of Way of the Dragon, and these two legends of martial arts do not disappoint. Set in the Roman Coliseum, Bruce specifically orchestrated the duel to resemble two gladiators battling in ancient Rome, along with communicating his martial arts philosophy of adapting to circumstances and “being like water”.
The unusually clean-shaven Norris provides a perfect contrast for Lee both in physical build and each one’s approach to combat, something that would not be replicated by any of Lee’s onscreen opponents until Kareem Abdul-Jabar in the much maligned “Game of Death” (their duel can be seen in its intended form in the documentary “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey”). Their fight is also incredibly brutal for the time, and each strike both men land will probably still elicit the same visceral “owwchhh!” from modern viewers weaned on contemporary cinematic action. The only thing missing for Lee and Norris’ Coliseum matchup is for both men to face the camera at the conclusion of their duel and exclaim, “Are you not entertained?!”
Like all the Bruce Lee movies, Way of the Dragon is a true historical relic. For most of its running time, it shows Bruce’s adeptness both as a filmmaker and as a comedian, before leading up to the iconic duel of legends in the Roman Coliseum. And like all the Bruce Lee movies, it continues to influence generations of martial artists and filmmakers alike (in more ways that one – had Bruce lived to see the movie “Road House”, he’d probably be collecting a monthly royalty cheque!)
- According to Bey Logan, Bruce Lee’s original choice to portray Colt had been Joe Lewis, who had studied Jeet Kune Do with Lee. However, both men allegedly had a falling out, which led Lee to recruit his frequent training partner Chuck Norris in the role.
- Linda Lee-Caldwell, Bruce Lee’s widow, lists “Way of the Dragon” as her personal favorite of her late husband’s films.
- The film was released in English-speaking territories after “Enter the Dragon”, and carried the title of “Return of the Dragon” in order to appear to be a sequel.
- Chuck Norris, who portrays Colt in “Way of the Dragon”, once, urinated in a semi-truck’s gas tank as a joke. That truck is now known as Optimus Prime…bet you didn’t know that! 😉
Film Rating: 8.5/10
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