A Movie A Day #161: The Way of the Dragon (1972, directed by Bruce Lee)

Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris in a battle to the death!

That alone makes The Way of The Dragon worth seeing.  This was Bruce Lee’s only completed directorial effort and it was the last of his films to be released during his lifetime.  (Lee’s best known film, Enter the Dragon, was released 6 days after Lee’s death.  When Lee died, he was directing Game of Death.)  In Way of the Dragon, Lee plays Tang Lung, a martial artist who travels from Hong Kong to Rome to help protect the owners of a restaurant from the Mafia.  At first, everyone dismisses Tang Lung as being an unsophisticated bumpkin and he does little to convince them otherwise.  But when the Mafia tries to intimidate him, Tang reveals how dangerous it is to underestimate him.

The only version of Way of the Dragon that I have seen is the badly dubbed version that was released in the United States so it’s hard for me to judge either the script or the acting, through Bruce Lee was a natural-born movie star and, even when dubbed, as charismatic as ever.  During the first half of the film, there is so much humor that it almost seems like a comedy but, unless you find Bruce Lee begging someone to tell him where the bathroom is, a lot of that humor falls flat.  Far more interesting is the scene where Tang and a waiter debate the merits of Japanese vs Chinese martial arts.  This scene reveals that Lee was just as serious about the philosophy behind the martial arts as he was about the actual fighting.

Most people who watch The Way of the Dragon will do so for the fighting and the film does not disappoint.  The Way of the Dragon features some of the best martial arts action ever captured on film.  The Mafia hires three martial artists to take on Tang, which means that, along with the usual collection of Mafia thugs, Bruce Lee also fights Bob Wall, Hwang In-shik, and Chuck Norris.

Bruce Lee’s final battle with Chuck Norris is The Way of the Dragon’s most famous scene and perhaps one of the greatest scenes in the history of world cinema.  Both Norris and Lee are in top physical form and the two real-life friends held nothing back.  The fight was filmed in the Roman Colosseum, confirming that Norris and Lee are meant to be modern-day gladiators, battling to the death but never viewing each other with anything less than respect.  Neither Norris nor Lee say a word during their climatic face-off.  They let their fists and their feet do the talking.  It’s a brutal battle between not just two men but also two different philosophies of fighting.

The Way of the Dragon was Lee’s biggest hit during his lifetime.  A modest success when first released in the west, it was re-released following Lee’s death and was retitled The Return of the Dragon.  While the American co-production Enter The Dragon is a bigger and slicker production, The Way of the Dragon is the best of Lee’s Hong Kong films and his final battle with Chuck Norris remains the perfect showcase for his skill as a fighter.

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