|Director: Bruce Lee|
|Screenplay: Bruce Lee |
|Stars: Bruce Lee (Tang Lung), Nora Miao (Chen Ching Hua), Chuck Norris (Colt), Ping-Ou Wei (Ho), Chung-Hsin Huang (“Uncle” Wang), Robert Wall (Bob), Ing-Sik Whang (Japanese Fighter), Ti Chin (Ah Quen), Tony Liu (Tony), Little Unicorn (Jimmy), Malisa Longo (Italian Beauty)|
|MPAA Rating: R|
|Year of Release: 1972|
|Country: Hong Kong / Italy |
Ever the perfectionist, Bruce Lee had long wanted to have complete control over his starring vehicles, and with The Way of the Dragon (Meng long guo jiang), the third of his four headliners, he finally got his way. After repeated disagreements and bouts of power wrangling with Wei Lo, who directed his first two films, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972), Lee convinced Raymond Chow, the head of Golden Harvest, the studio who produced his films, to let him run the show. As star, writer, director, co-producer, and martial arts director, Lee oversaw virtually every aspect of The Way of the Dragon, and as a result it bears the hallmarks of his strengths and weaknesses as an artist.
The film features some of the best fight choreography at that point in Lee’s career, culminating in a genuinely stunning showdown with Chuck Norris, who was then the Professional Middleweight Karate champion, in the Roman Coliseum. But, it is also hampered by a rather pedestrian plot (which, truth be told, is often the case with such films) and, more problematically, some awkward direction and an inconsistent tone that renders some parts of the film absurd while other parts work quite well. It is an uneven endeavor that Lee himself recognized as a failure by his perfectionist standards, which is why he was incensed that Golden Harvest made a deal to distribute the film in the West.
Unlike his previous film, Fist of Fury, which was set at the turn of 20th century, Way of the Dragon takes place in the present and is also the only of Lee’s starring vehicles to take place in Europe. The setting is Rome, and Lee stars as Tang Lung, a young man who travels from his native Hong Kong to help out his cousin (Chung-Hsin Huang), who runs a restaurant that is being muscled by a local syndicate whose boss (Jon T. Benn) wants him to sell the property. The boss, who is the epitome of the cliched, smarmy American gangster, employs a small army of goons to hang around the restaurant and run off the clientele. Tang, with his superior martial arts skills, quickly dispatches said goons, much to the exhilaration of the restaurant’s waitstaff, who fancy themselves martial artists and practice in the alley behind the restaurant while waiting for customers. Tang, with his flying kicks and nunchaku skills, takes out everyone the boss sends his way. The boss’ final effort is to bring in an American martial artist named Colt (Chuck Norris), who challenges Tang’s supremacy in a death-blow showdown that immediately achieved legendary status and remains one of high points of both Lee’s and Norris’s careers.
The intensity of that climactic bout is almost enough to balance out the film’s opening act, which finds Lee trying (and largely failing) to interject a healthy dose of humor, playing up Tang’s stranger-in-a-strange-land predicament with a lengthy sequence in the Rome airport where he inadvertently frightens a young boy and orders the entire soup menu at a restaurant. Lee could be quite funny, as he proved in Fist of Fury, but here it feels forced and misguided, particularly in a bizarre sequence in which Tang is essentially picked up by an Italian woman (Malisa Longo) whose overt (and unclothed) sexual advances send him running from her apartment. Things settle down once Tang asserts himself as protector of his cousin’s restaurant, and his fists and feet fly with speed and fury in a procession of fight sequences that demonstrate Lee’s prowess as both a choreographer and a performer. The intensity of his fighting style remains unrivaled, and when it is the focus of the film, The Way of the Dragon is captivating. It is just too bad that there is so much distraction.
|The Way of the Dragon Criterion Collection Blu-ray|
|The Way of the Dragon is available as part of The Criterion Collection’s Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits boxset, which also includes The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), Enter the Dragon (1973), and Game of Death (1978). |
|Aspect Ratio||2.35:1 (all films)|
|Audio||Mandarin Chinese Linear PCM 1.0 monauralEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Supplements||Audio commentary on The Big Boss by Bruce Lee expert Brandon BentleAudio commentaries on The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and Game of Deathby Hong Kong film expert Mike LeederAudio commentary on the special-edition version of Enter the Dragon by producer Paul HellerHigh-definition presentation of Game of Death II, the 1981 sequel to Game of DeathGame of Death Redux, a new presentation of Lee’s original Game of Death footage, produced by Alan CanvanVideo interviews on all five films with Lee biographer Matthew PollyVideo interview with producer Andre Morgan about Golden HarvestVideo program about English-language dubbing with voice performers Michael Kaye and Vaughan SavidgeVideo interview with author Grady Hendrix about the “Bruceploitation” subgenre and a selection of Bruceploitation trailersBlood and Steel, a 2004 documentary about the making of Enter the DragonMultiple programs and documentaries about Lee’s life and philosophies, including Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend (1973) and Bruce Lee: In His Own Words (1998) Video interview with Linda Lee Cadwell, Lee’s widowVideo interview with actor Jon T. BennVideo interview with actor Riki HashimotoVideo interview with actor Nora MiaoVideo interview with actor Jun KatsumuraVideo interview with actor Robert WallVideo interview with actor Yuen WahVideo interview with actor Tung WaiVideo interview with actor Simon YamVideo interview with director Clarence FokVideo interview with director Sammo HungVideo interview with director Wong JingAlternate opening credits and titles Alternate ending for The Big BossExtended scenes for The Big Boss“Bruce Lee: The Early Years” featurette“Bruce Lee vs. Peter Thomas” featurette The Legacy of the Dragon documentary “Bruce Lee Remembered” featurette The Grandmaster and the Dragon documentaryTrailers, TV spots, and radio spotsEssay by critic Jeff Chang|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||July 14, 2020|
|It may be hard to believe, but this is the first time all five of Bruce Lee’s starring vehicles have been collected into a single Blu-ray package, and Criterion has pulled out all the stops, giving us new high-definition transfers of all five films and hours upon hours of supplements that should keep even the most ravenous Bruce Lee fan satiated. Let’s start with the presentation of the films themselves: They were all transferred and restored in 4K, with the exception of the theatrical version of Enter the Dragon, which was done in 2K. The Big Boss and Fist of Fury were transferred from the original 35mm camera negatives, although the latter used a 35mm interpositive for the opening credits. The Way of the Dragon and Game of Death were transferred from 35mm internegatives, and Enter the Dragon was scanned from a 35mm interpositive. All of the films look better than they ever have on home video, as the new high-def transfers bring out additional levels of detail and texture that were missing in previous editions, as well as improved color timing that results in more natural looking flesh tones and stronger color saturation. Digital restoration has the films looking virtually flawless, with very few instances of dirt and wear. All in all, the films look great. The soundtracks were transferred from a variety of sources (including from materials held by a number of unnamed collectors), and while many of them (especially the early films) are certainly lacking in technical polish, they are reflective of the original aural experience and should be understood as such.|
And now, onto the supplements, which are … voluminous. How voluminous? Well, there are supplements on each of the discs for the five films and there are two separate Blu-rays just for supplements. I would be lying if I said I had watched and listened to every minute of it all, but I did get through a lot and would like to note some of the highlights. I really appreciated all of the audio commentaries. Each film features a track by Hong Kong film expert Mike Leeder. The Big Boss features an additional track by Bruce Lee expert Brandon Bentle, and the special edition version of Enter the Dragon features an additional track by producer Paul Heller. Each film also includes a video introduction by Matthew Polly, author of the recently published biography Bruce Lee: A Life and himself a practitioner of kung fu who was the first American to be allowed to study at the Shaolin Temple in China. There are hours of archival video interviews with Lee’s family and collaborators, including his widow Linda Lee Calwell and actors John T. Benn, Robert Wall, and Sammo Hung, among others. There are also some new interviews and programs, including a highly entertaining rundown on the Bruceploitation genre by author Grady Hendrix (along with 13 minutes of trailers for some of the more well-known Bruce Lee knock-offs), an engaging look at the history of Golden Harvest with producer Andre Morgan, and a fascinating program on dubbing the films into English with voice performers Michael Kaye and Vaughan Savidge. There are also multiple documentaries about Lee’s life and philosophies, including Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend (1973), which weirdly and morbidly spends nearly half an hour on Lee’s death and funeral (all of the footage used in Game of Death appears here) and Bruce Lee: In His Own Words (1998). Other highlights include a high-definition presentation of Game of Death II, the 1981 sequel to Game of Death (not a good film by any means, but it is nice to have it hear for historical context) and Game of Death Redux, a new presentation of Lee’s original Game of Death footage produced by Alan Canvan. There are also alternate opening credits and titles for several films, as well as an alternate ending and extended scenes for The Big Boss. Throw in a making-of documentary about Enter the Dragon, a featurette on Bruce Lee’s early years, and tons of trailers, TV spots, and radio spots, and you have a package that can arguably be labeled as definitive.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection