Bruce Lee died at age 32 from cerebral edema. For a man who was only in a handful of movies in his too-short career, Lee is still remembered fondly for his ability both as a martial artist and generally as a performer. Like any pop culture icon who died young, what is left behind can too often be heavily criticized or over-analyzed. His movies are prime examples of the incredible skill he had and was able to perfect in such a short time. The only other Lee movie I've seen was his classic Enter the Dragon (loved it) but thanks to DVD availability switching at Netflix, I was able to watch 1972's Way of the Dragon.
Movies from foreign markets can be completely hit or miss depending on the print of the movie you're watching and the general quality of the film itself. 'Way' is an odd mix of the two with a carefully-shot, enjoyable movie to look at, but the general quality is lacking. There's not so much a plot as various excuses for Lee to wail on various, nameless thugs. There's some horrific dubbing, cringe-inducing attempts at humor, and some jumps in geography that I don't think anyone in their right mind could explain. That said, the movie is worth seeing almost solely for the quality fight scenes.
Dispatched from Hong Kong, kung fu master Ah Lung (Lee) is sent to Rome to help clear up a problem. His employer is related to the owners of a small restaurant, young and pretty Chen (Nora Miao) and her getting older uncle Wang (Chung-Hsin Huang), that is being harassed by some local low-level mafiosos. The business is struggling so Ah Lung intervenes, helping teach the staff some karate techniques and ways of defending themselves against the waves of nameless thugs. Ah Lung though is the key for he has yet to fight anyone on his own level. That is until the mafiosos decide to pull out all the stops and hire an American karate expert, Colt (Chuck Norris) to come and face off with him, winner take all.
I'll get the criticisms out of the way first before talking about the good portions of the movie. First off, the story is basically nonexistent. The movie is an excuse for Lee to ham it up with some out of place comedy in the first 20 or 30 minutes, and then get to business and start kicking some ass. Characters are never really developed, the precarious situation isn't all that precarious, and it all feels like an excuse to set up more and more elaborate fight sequences. As for the dubbing, I've seen my fair share of spaghetti westerns where English-speaking actors dubbed over the voices of Italian actors with mixed results. This one was one of the worst. Lee's voice just sounds odd and completely takes you out of the movie. Making it worse, the subtitles were like a cliff note's version of what was actually being said. The horrifically bad dubbing eventually just wears you down with its badness, making almost every scene with dialogue laughable.
But come on now, this is a Bruce Lee movie and no one signs up for...um, talking...I guess. The fight scenes are this movie's bread and butter. It takes too long to get to the fights, but when they do pop up they're worth it. Lee's ability as a fighter -- even in expertly staged, choreographed sequences -- has rarely been matched on screen. Watching him fight, you just get that feeling that you're watching a master do what he does best. The fights have since inspired countless other scenes in countless other movies. They've got everything from the great stuntwork to the very distinct sound effect of a fist smashing into someone's face. You know that sound, don't deny it. Sure, the thugs attack one at a time, rendering their attempts useless, but what kung fu/karate movie doesn't utilize that tactic. After all, they are just nameless thugs waiting to be punched, kicked or maimed.
The highlight of all this action is the finale with Lee's Ah Lung battling Norris' Colt in the Roman Colosseum. The build-up to this scene is great -- including using a sample of Ennio Morricone's Once Upon a Time in the West score -- as Ah Lung and Colt circle each other through the Roman ruins waiting for the other one to strike. The actual fight sequence was filmed on a set somewhere with a backdrop serving as the Colosseum, but even knowing they weren't really there, the sequence is a doozy. It's just close enough to be the real thing, and the one-on-one fight is so well-handled you don't even notice. The entire sequence from beginning to end is nearly 15 minutes long (watch some HERE) and is by far the best thing going for the movie. As for that geographical misstep, Lee chases a bad guy into the Colosseum from an Italian villa. Now I've never been to Rome, but I could have sworn the ruins were in downtown Rome. Ah, no big deal, it works here even if it makes no sense at all. And also, don't watch the ending if you're a fan of any of the many Chuck Norris-isms. You'll be sorely disappointed.
So overall, a really eclectic mix of the good and bad that comes with lower-budget foreign movies. At its worst, this movie is pretty bad, and I struggled getting through the early portions of the story. The final run time is 98 minutes so we're not talking a long, epic movie, but it sure did feel like it at times. For me, the only way I can recommend this movie is because of Bruce Lee's immense talent and some still unmatched fight sequences, especially the finale. Know what to expect from 'Way' and you won't be disappointed. Just don't expect a classic like Enter the Dragon.
Way of the Dragon <---trailer (1972): **/****