Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, Part 2: THE WAY OF THE DRAGON & ENTER THE DRAGON

The Criterion Collection’s box set honors a legend

Part 1 covered the first two discs in this box set: The Big Boss & Fist Of Fury

As I continue to work my way through Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, I find myself having the best kind of home video experience imaginable. There’s nothing quite like a deep dive into the work of a cinematic hero. All of these films are revisits for me, having watched Lee’s “greatest hits” on VHS growing up. But not only do we get beautiful new high definition transfers of five of Bruce Lee’s most famous films, we also get enormous amounts of supplemental material on each disc as well. Criterion is known to take me to school, and the most exciting thing about ripping through this box set is how inspirational Bruce Lee truly was and is. A man singularly dedicated to seeing his dreams fulfilled (and whose dreams were magnanimous) is a righteous thing to behold. So much of why Lee has remained an uncontested legend and inspiration to generations long past his death has to do with the excellence he strove for, and the philosophy which he both lived and imbued into his work.

2019 and 2020 have, for whatever reason, been watershed years for the legacy of Bruce Lee. He’s been portrayed on the big screen in both Ip Man 4 and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (to varying degrees of… respect), a martial arts show he inspired and had been developing called Warrior is airing on Showtime, there’s an excellent ESPN documentary about Lee called Be Water available now, and then there’s this unprecedented box set. It’s a great time to be a Bruce Lee fan.

The Way Of The Dragon (1972)

I had complaints in my review of The Big Boss about how the plotting was repetitive and how the escalation of stakes really wasn’t quite there. Somehow, The Way Of The Dragon manages to have almost the same exact problems as The Big Boss and yet simultaneously explode off the screen in such a way as to not bother me at all.

Set in contemporary Rome with Bruce Lee playing the fish out of water Tang Lung, The Way Of The Dragon retains some Hong Kong kung fu movie tropes but mixes in more of a western action cinema sensibility that (at least to my taste) makes this film feel a bit more modern than the previous two. As the new arrival who can’t speak the language, Tang Lung must navigate a world he’s unfamiliar with and win over the respect of his fellow Chinese expats whom he has come to support and defend as their restaurant is being threatened by “the syndicate”. Bruce Lee, incredibly, got producer Raymond Chow’s blessing to to direct, write, choreograph, and star in this picture. As such, there’s at least a case to be made that it’s the ultimate Bruce Lee film. It’s certainly my personal favorite of the three films covered so far.

Thanks to Criterion’s incredibly robust supplemental material, audiences who are paying attention will understand that Bruce Lee was obsessed with working his own philosophy and choreography into his films. With the ability to write, direct, and perform, The Way Of The Dragon gave Lee his greatest opportunity to distill his essence down into a motion picture, and the results are absolute dynamite.

Sure, there’s a case to be made that there’s a repetitive element, as well as simple male stupidity on display. Over and over again we see The Syndicate show up, harass guests at the restaurant, and spar with Tang Lung and his fellow restaurant workers. We switch between a back alley set and a restaurant set almost ad nauseum as the stakes escalate. But those escalating stakes result in highly enjoyable fight sequences that just get to show off Bruce Lee’s various skills and talents. Between proving his skills to his fellow workers and earning their adulation, to wailing on villains until they recognize his skills, there’s a cockiness to Tang Lung and a playfulness to the events of The Way Of The Dragon that I just find amusing and more in line with modern action cinema sensibilities than old school kung fu films.

Besides the unprecedented step of shooting a Hong Kong funded film in Rome, the most remarkable element of The Way Of The Dragon is clearly the epic final showdown between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. One of Bruce Lee’s defining passions was for his own martial art called Jeet Kune Do, “the way of the intercepting fist”. Lee believed in adaptability, flexibility, and a willingness to eschew rigid ways of fighting and thinking in order to prevail. This would go on to be the central philosophy on display in his unfinished masterwork Game Of Death. But here in this historic fight between two big screen (and real world) martial arts legends, we get to see Tang Lung struggle, adapt, and ultimately prevail against Norris’ enforcer. The fact that it’s set in the Roman colosseum (even if much of it was actually filmed on a soundstage) heightens the stakes and makes it clear that this is a battle for the ages.

There are silly bits, dated stereotypes, odd comedic moments, and a nonsensical loyalty twist that serve to perhaps date the movie or tag it as a burgeoning filmmakers’ work. But what’s there on the screen so fully entertains and so clearly informs the action cinema that comes in its wake, one can’t help but to fall in love with The Way Of The Dragon.

Enter The Dragon (1973)

Iconic and record shattering in every way, there’s no doubt that Enter The Dragon is the film most Bruce Lee fans immediately associate with him and which largely introduced him as a superstar and cultural icon in the western world. In and of itself, I’d argue that Enter The Dragon lives up to that hype today and stands out on its own as a top notch action/martial arts film at just the right time in history to really push the envelope. Bruce Lee would never live to see the cultural impact the film would have, passing away from a shocking cerebral hematoma that simply took his life without warning. Bruce Lee has passed into legend; a star, a philosopher, a martial artist, a teacher. Would Enter The Dragon have become the film it did had Bruce Lee not passed away before its release? We’ll never know. But my point in bringing up Lee’s death at this time is simply to state that Enter The Dragon is a damn fun film and while it isn’t as distilled of a vision as The Way Of The Dragon was, this is the only time we get to see a Bruce Lee film with a pretty sizeable budget, in English, loaded with western stars and slick James Bond-like production value.

Aside from Bruce Lee, there’s a lot to love here. The studio’s requirement to pad the cast with other leads reeks of a lack of confidence in their Asian lead, (something that has remained a problem in Hollywood and is only now potentially changing after a series of such hits as Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, among others) but having John Saxon and Jim Kelly in the film does actually broaden the appeal and reach of Enter The Dragon in a way that possibly couldn’t have been predicted. Bruce Lee is beloved in the African American community and Kelly would go on to do quite a few Black martial arts films carried by his charisma alone. It’s almost a bummer that the cast had to be padded, but at least it was done with loveable leads. There’s also appearances from Chinese action legends Sammo Hung and Bolo Yeung, which is exciting for martial arts film nerds.

In terms of plotting, Lee’s character (named uh… Lee), is called on to infiltrate a martial arts tournament hosted on a mysterious island by disgraced Shaolin monk and criminal mastermind Han (Shih Kien). It’s a James Bond film wrapped around a martial arts tournament. Which… let’s be honest… is cool as shit. The world had seen all the James Bond tropes by 1973. But Bruce Lee was the wild card and the martial arts tournament was what you couldn’t get anywhere else in American cinemas at that time. Western martial arts films will now eternally riff on the tournament motif, thanks in large part to Enter The Dragon.

Importantly, though Robert Clouse was the director and Michael Allin the credited screenwriter, Bruce Lee was able to have a large amount of influence over the film. Sometimes this kind of star interference in a director’s vision can play out badly. But here it’s a relief and breath of fresh air that, even though the studio shoehorned some extra leads in, Lee was able to do fight choreography for Enter The Dragon and even filmed some early sequences of the film on his own (the aforementioned Sammo Hung fight). It’s so important that we’ll always have some of Lee’s philosophy and god level martial arts choreography on a western, English language studio film that will act as an eternal gateway drug for those who are curious about Bruce Lee.

With visuals that will live forever, a tragic fairy tale of a rising legend cut short from seeing his wildest dreams realized, and a badass final film that appeals to a broad cross section of cultures, Enter The Dragon’s place in history is unassailable, and rightly so.

And I’m Out.

Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits is now available of Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection

Part 1 covers the first two discs in this box set: The Big Boss & Fist Of Fury

Part 3 covers the final discs in this box set: Game Of Death & Supplemental Material

This interview highlights Game Of Death Redux producer/editor Alan Canvan

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