in Criterion Month

The Way of the Dragon (1972)

Well, here we are about halfway through Criterion Month and Colin and I have collectively written 10 posts! But seriously, I am embarrassed that we’re two weeks in and all I’ve watched are a kaiju movie and a kung fu flick. Criterion Month, aside from reading my friends’ reviews, has been such a non-factor in my life these first two weeks of July that I actually forgot that I hadn’t written this post until 12:30 in the morning the day after it was supposed to go up. But don’t you worry, dear reader, I’ll get my comeuppance. I’ll be paying for my lackadaisical ways when I have to review six movies in the last week of the month. That’ll be a real beating. Just like the many beatings Bruce Lee handed out in The Way of the Dragon.

After being propelled to superstardom with The Big Boss (a.k.a. Fists of Fury) and Fist of Fury (a.k.a. The Chinese Connection), Bruce Lee was given the greatest honor a filmmaker can strive for: the blank check. A chance to write, direct, choreograph, and star in whatever he wanted. Complete creative control. And how did Lee use this power? He went international, shooting on location in Italy. He brought in an unknown American karate champion named Chuck Norris (who would go on to be a TV ranger, a funny bit on Conan, a meme, and ultimately a sad homophobe and racist). But Lee mostly just used this opportunity to get real silly with it. The Way of the Dragon (a.k.a. Return of the Dragon) is the most comedic Bruce Lee movie I’ve seen… until it was time for him to kick ass, that is.

Lee plays Tang, a kung fu master from Hong Kong who is sent to Rome to help a young woman, Chen (Nora Miao), and her uncle, Wang (Huang Chung-hsin), keep their restaurant open after a local crime boss decides he wants to buy the property. Tang arrives at the airport and despite his cool demeanor seems totally in over is head. He doesn’t speak Italian, doesn’t seem to have a plan, keeps getting in awkward situations with locals, and constantly has to go to the bathroom. Chen eventually finds Tang and brings him to the restaurant where we see that the staff have been training in karate to fight off the thugs. This makes sense because it seems like there’s some sort of gentleman’s agreement that no one will use guns. When the goons show up, the staff are outmatched, but, to their surprise, Tang is able to easily dispatch the whole gang. As you might expect, this beating just makes things worse for the restaurant, as now the mafia is going to throw even more of its might at it, and they have Tang right in their crosshairs.

If you know anything about The Way of the Dragon, you probably know that it culminates in a final battle between Tang and “Colt” (Chuck Norris) at the Colosseum. You just don’t see scenes like this outside of martial arts movies: two guys fighting in one location for 10 minutes. No twists or escalations, just a test of strength and skill and stamina. While the movie starts out real goofy, by the time we get here the tone is much more in-line with what you’d expect from a Bruce Lee movie: intense. Maybe even tragic, since Tang and Colt are both masters who respect each other and also don’t have a personal stake in the conflict that has pitted them against each other. They’re both just hired muscle. Yeah, good shit.

There’s a Jackie Chan movie from the Eighties called Wheels on Meals that I kept thinking of while watching The Way of the Dragon. It is also about a family from Hong Kong trying to run a restaurant (or food truck) in Europe (in this case, Barcelona) who get caught up in trouble with a criminal gang. Wheels even culminates in an almost equally iconic match, the fight between Jackie and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. The difference is that Wheels on Meals is funnier and campier throughout, taking times for things like Jackie Chan inventing street skateboarding, a love triangle, and a break-in to a haunted castle. Jackie is suited to this tone, it’s his sweet spot, and I just don’t like Bruce Lee there as much. I don’t think Lee liked it himself, since things get so heavy later and the ending is surprisingly stoic. That said, it’s hard to knock a movie because I like another movie inspired by it more.

Plus there is one thing Dragon always has over Wheels: how hilariously hairy Chuck Norris’ chest (and back!) are. Especially next to the toned, hairless Bruce Lee, Norris looks like a goddamn Sasquatch!