Way Of the Dragon was Bruce Lee’s directorial debut, after making The Big Boss and Fist of Fury with director Lo Wei. I’ve never been that much of a fan of Lo Wei’s direction, and it is interesting to see how this film differs under Bruce’s complete control.
As the film starts, the most obvious change is Bruce’s infusion of comedy into the mix. Gone is the tightly-coiled sombre hero of Fist of Fury: here he plays Tang Lung, a bumpkin from Hong Kong who comes to Rome to help out with a restaurant run by a relative, Miss Chen (Nora Miao). Lung is thoroughly out of his element — unable to read English and unsure of the strangeness of his surroundings, he wanders around in puzzlement for the first act of the story.
Miss Chen’s restaurant is in trouble: a local group of thugs headed by a crooked businessmen want to buy it, and are willing to use underhanded methods to force the sale. They bully prospective customers, beat up the staff, and spend a great deal of time standing over people and grinning nastily. Miss Chen and her staff are helpless — they don’t know how to fight back, and don’t want to sell out and give up, either. Enter Tang Lung, the Chinese fish-out-of-water who can’t do anything right… except kung fu, of course. The story shifts gear as the restaurant gains a protector, and our crew of thugs throw everything they can at Tang Lung. Even Chuck Norris, who they fly in specially for the purpose.
Bruce Lee’s fight with Chuck Norris in Rome’s Colosseum is the iconic scene that this film builds towards. The two men have very different builds and different styles of fighting, and considerably more effort is put into staging and choreographing this scene compared to earlier action sequences. Witnessed only by a street cat, they square up and do battle, matching Bruce’s agility and speed against Norris’ power and size.
It’s interesting to note the elements of Bruce Lee’s personal philosophy and approach to fighting that creep into this film, too. In what appears to be a build up to the “karate vs. kung fu” brawling that was so common in HK film at the time, the restaurant’s staff have been training in karate in order to protect themselves. When challenged, Lee doesn’t extol kungfu as superior, though, as is the expectation — instead, he suggests that the form is unimportant, so long as you put your whole mind and body into it. This is a principle that he would reiterate many times in interviews, and was the underpinning concept of his unfinished film Game of Death, as well.
Unfortunately, Way of the Dragon has a lot of flaws, and has dated quite a bit since its release in 1972. Some of the acting is a bit cringeworthy, and much of the comedy early in the film is overdone. Nonetheless, it’s good to see a film in which we see Bruce (however briefly) as more than just a fighting machine, smiling and laughing with the rest of the cast. The action sequences are well worth a watch, of course: particularly his fights with Chuck Norris, Bob Wall and Whang Ing-Sik. Curiously, Whang Ing-Sik’s playing a Japanese fighter here, rather than displaying his impressive taekwando kicks (see The Young Master with Jackie Chan, for example!).
Watch it for its uniqueness: Way of the Dragon is Bruce Lee’s only completed film as director, with an exotic Roman setting, Chuck Norris, some martial arts philosophy, and a bit of comedy involving bowls of soup and Italian ladies of the night. You’ll not find anything else quite like it.