FACT: Bruce Lee = pretty much the most badass mofo to ever walk this earth. That may not be exactly, well, news, but it is an ineffable stone truth nonetheless. He was an exemplary physical specimen. He bucked traditions and created his own brand of Kung Fu. He could knock you on your ass with a punch from one inch away. He also happened to be a massive film star in Asia, and just 6 days after his death in 1973 he became an international screen legend, forever cementing his place in film history with the release of the barely-posthumous Enter The Dragon. Sadly, the legendary badass pop culture icon-of-icons only made a handful of films before his mysterious passing, and even more tragic is the fact the he was obviously just getting started.
Working with Rayond Chow (an ex-Shaw Brothers producer who went on to form the Golden Harvest film studio in 1970), Bruce Lee made The Big Boss (1971) and Fists of Fury (1972), which were both hugely successful thanks in part to Lee's particular talent for being, oh, only the greatest Kung Fu fighter that ever lived. It must have been pretty clear that he also knew his way around on-set, so for his third major outing as a screen sensation, he took on directing and writing responsibilities, and ended up turning out one of the most iconic Kung Fu films ever made. Way of the Dragon (1972) is, without a doubt totally awesome, and it features one of the greatest Kung Fu fights ever committed to film. What surprised me the most as I was re-watching it though was the man’s potential as not just a star, but as a filmmaker.
Way of the Dragon (WotD) has got all the classic Kung Fu movie themes goin’ on: the fish out of water, the struggles of immigrants, good vs. evil, Kung Fu vs. Karate, etc. etc. but what makes it stand out as a film in its genre is the story's unconventional backdrop: then-contemporary Rome. Whose awesome idea was that? Lee plays Tang Lung, sent to Italy from Hong Kong to protect the niece of a family friend (Nora Miao) whose Chinese restaurant is under constant threat by the local mob boss. The Roman setting and Lee's clueless but pure-of-heart character allow for lots of humour throughout the first chunk of the film, and the pacing is very, very relaxed, allowing the unconventional-for-kung-fu scenery to speak for itself. Lee had an eye for composition and loved using wide-angle lenses, really working the picturesque scenery. Apparently, he and his crew only shot in Rome for a few days, filming the bulk of the flick back in Hong Kong, but besides a few suspect interior locations (and the geographically illogical exteriors towards the end of the film) it's not that obvious. They really squeezed every drop of Rome they could into this film, and it shows, resulting in one of the most visually appealing Kung Fu movies you could hope for.
But of course, the slow pacing in the beginning of WotD serves another purpose: to slowly crank up our anticipation, our anxious need to see Bruce Lee hand someone their ass. And boy, does he ever. The mob boss sends goon after goon into the restaurant to cause trouble, and Lee's Tang Lung makes short work of them all, using his fists, feet, nunchuckas and even a bo staff to persuade these gentlemen to leave the young lady alone, the only way he knows how. All these dudes totally ham it up, smirking at how easy kicking this scrawny Tang guy's ass is gonna be, and yelping, "Mama Mia!" when it doesn't go as they planned. Watching Bruce Lee fight never gets boring, no matter how many times you've seen his films. The volatile, spring-loaded Kung Fu fighter inside him bubbles to the surface, replacing the friendly, easy-going guy's guy with something otherworldly... he’s taken over. That was his gift, his ability to just… change. The laser-sharp gaze of his eyes, the odd vocal squeals and cat-like meows he emits while jamming his fist into someone's face at lightning speed, it's eerie. There's no way that a human being can move that fast or be that devastating. It's incredible to watch.
The final sequence of this film is the stuff of Academy Awards Show movie montages. Picture it: Bruce Lee fighting Chuck Norris. At the Colosseum in Rome. With a little kitten as their audience. Oh, and this was back when Chuck Norris resembled a bear. Again, I've got to marvel at the camerawork here, as well as the editing. It's like there's a narrative to this fight, a story... and yet, the two characters exchange no dialogue. So cool to watch these two go at it, and it's all effortlessly captured with such precision and focus... This one scene in WotD is Bruce Lee's masterpiece, and it's no accident that half the world considers it to be one of, if not THE most iconic Kung Fu action sequences of them all. Really, really sophisticated stuff for a first time director. It's absolutely heartbreaking that he never got to direct more movies, as he clearly had the chops to be one of the greats.