It’s no secret I’m a fan of the legendary Bruce Lee, the famous martial arts star who died at the age of 32, just as his film career was taking off. Lee completed just four films as lead actor before his death. My favorite is Return of The Dragon.
I discovered Bruce Lee as a boy. At that time, grindhouse theatres were still a thing, and it wasn’t uncommon for older films to accompany a new release as a second feature. Such was the case with Return of The Dragon. I’m not sure what the main feature was, but I will never forget the experience of seeing Return for the first time.
My father was on a deadline so he recruited one of his college students to take my brother Egan and me to the enormous, aging Plaza theatre in downtown Asheville. The lively crowd was comprised primarily of young black men who had no issue with voicing their enthusiasm for our hero’s triumphs.
Years later, I acquired a VHS copy of Return from a video store closeout sale. It was an excellent SP copy that came with a hard clamshell case, the cover of which was the original release poster, bearing the great tagline “Man, can we use him now!”
Return of The Dragon bears that title only in U.S. territories, where it debuted a year after Lee’s breakout Hollywood hit Enter The Dragon. The “Return” in the title was probably meant to give the impression that it is a direct sequel to Warner Brothers’ Enter, though it was in fact produced by Golden Harvest and Lee’s own Concord Films a year before Enter, and is a wildly different film in almost every respect. The more apt British title Way of The Dragon hints at the subtext that Lee, serving for the only time as writer and director, attempted to weave into the film.
From a critic’s standpoint, it’s not exactly a mindblowing artistic achievement. The story: Lee’s character Tang Lung travels to Rome to help his cousins fend off a small time mob boss with designs on their restaurant property.
That’s about it; a far cry from the international scope and James Bond feel of Enter. The camera work is something less than subtle, even a little clumsy at times. Plot points tend to repeat. The English dubbing is ridiculous. But I’m not a critic. I’m a geek. And what I want from my kung fu films is good characters fighting good fights, both morally and technically.
Return has been on Netflix streaming for a while and I finally got around to revisiting it, seeing as how the VCR half of my DVD/VCR combo has taken to angrily chewing to bits anything that disturbs its years-long hibernation. I can’t stand the thought of my treasured heavy-ass VHS copy being digested and pushed through the bowels of that hungry, obsolete beast. Plus, the streaming version is in glorious widescreen!
That’s not all, as I learned. As I saw it in theatres and on VHS, Return of The Dragon runs a few minutes shorter than the version Netflix has acquired. Somewhere along the distribution route, someone decided some cuts were needed–but this version is fully intact. Thus, I was delighted to see footage in this lifelong favorite that I had never seen before! Perhaps this is the British “Way” cut, but the title card says otherwise.
Do the cuts change the story? Well, let’s say that seeing them added back in adds to the story, but will probably not mean anything to the average, non-obsessed viewer.
It opens with Tang Lung standing in a Rome airport, an Italian woman staring at him like he’s an odd creature. His stomach is growling, you see, and he doesn’t speak Italian, so he can’t ask about restaurants. Eventually, though, he finds one, and this is where the first cut fits. He sits down to order, only to find the menu incomprehensible. So he points at several random words, expecting the smaller portions common to Asia. Instead, he receives a massive tray loaded with dishes, which he now feels obligated to finish.
Not exactly a riveting flashback loaded with fascinating back story, but it illustrates that Tang Lung is not the usual kung fu bad ass, but rather a simple fish out of water. This adds a great deal of contrast that makes his later fistic exploits seems all the more violent and explosive–and tells us not to judge this book by its cover.
Even more telling is a later scene where Tang’s female cousin, played by Nora Miao, encourages him to be more receptive to the friendly overtures of Italian locals. Shortly, Tang is approached by a prostitute, and innocently accompanies her to her flat. Left in the bedroom alone, Tang finds a full length mirror and checks his techniques; first a blistering backfist, then a series of kicks so fast, it is impossible to tell whether he is throwing a sidekick or a lead leg snap roundhouse.
His new friend reappears–topless. Tang is so shocked he beats a hasty retreat. Contextually, with this scene missing, it’s easy to assume they’d had sex, undermining the notion of Tang Lung as an innocent naif.
Not surprisingly, it’s the fight scenes for which Return/Way is most remembered, but not just because Lee is a spectacular martial artist. Lee’s training and fighting method, dubbed Jeet Kune Do, was based around the philosophy he espoused in his books and lessons, which is freedom of individual expression over adherence to a set system. This applies to physical training obviously, but also to just about everything else.
The third act finds the mobsters sending out for a trio of fighters to dispense with Tang Lung and his cousins through sheer physical intimidation. These fighters include Korean Tae Kwon Do master Whang In Sik, 70s karate tournament stalwart Robert Wall and of course Chuck Norris, who at that time was a semi contact world champion and frequent training partner to Lee.
Lee puts Whang In Sik and Wall on the road to defeat, allowing his cousins to finish the job while he is lured to no less than the Roman Coliseum for the showdown with Norris’ Colt character. What we get next is pure martial genius.
Lee, who choreographed the fights in addition to his many other duties, eschewed traditional chopsocky multiple combination exchanges for a more intimate, stop-and-start style of fight that allows the characters and the audience to occasionally catch their breath and register what they had just experienced. But cooler still, and consider this a spoiler alert, Lee’s character, finding himself losing to his stronger, pastier opponent, does something truly inspired.
Rising from his strong low stances, he begins to move about like Muhammad Ali, light on his feet, constantly moving in circles and side to side, frustrating Colt by hopping in to strike then fading away. By the time the American karate champ realizes that the smaller man’s new tactic has overcome his power, he is seriously injured, his shattered arm trembling, his supporting leg useless.
And this is when Lee makes perfect use of an opportunity to create layers of psychology and subtlety rarely seen in action films. An unspoken communication takes place, as Colt struggles to rise, the determination on his face painted with pain. Lung stops his rhythmic footwork, something like shock on his face.
In what is the single most sublime moment of Chuck Norris’ acting career, his Colt character gives Tang Lung a slight smile. Lee/Lung shakes his head -not theatrically, just a tiny movement with a clear understanding of what he is being asked to do.
Colt attacks, essentially just falling into Tang Lung’s neck crank and firing a couple of weak punches to the body, knowing he will now die at the hands of a great warrior. Tang Lung snaps his neck and eases him to the ground, his bloody face now very sad.
Tang Lung fetches Colt’s gi jacket and black belt and drapes them across the American’s body, kneeling with him for a moment of reverence.
In that fight scene was drama, suspense, supreme action, and the ultimate wordless expression of Lee’s philosophy; absorb what is useful. The individual is more important than the style. All men are brothers.