Hey, look! it’s that time of the month again – you know, when us guys get together and do the usual, but in public and with way too many people watching (well, hopefully). Yes, it’s time for an all-new (but not very much improved) installment of…
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This month’s other entries can be found at Mike’s Take on the Movies, The Cinema Monolith, and Wolfman’s Cult Film Club, so go get reading (you’ll need your own popcorn and beverage of choice, though).
If my fading memory is correct, the first martial arts flick I’d ever seen was Way of the Dragon (or Return of the Dragon) sometime in the mid 70’s on a black and white TV, either on WOR or WPIX, I believe. It was pretty horribly dubbed from what I recall, but then again, so were way too many foreign films of all genres from what I can remember. That version was what I saw as “definitive” in my youth until I finally heard from a few friends in the late 80’s that I’d probably want to see it in its original language. That took a while, as I finally got around to seeing a cut of the Cantonese/Mandarin version with English subtitles about 10 years back and it made for a much better experience.
As a kid, I didn’t pay close attention to dubbing other than cracking up at the way the mouths moved while wondering how those actors onscreen often said the dopiest things. As I grew older and gained more knowledge about films and the dub/sub process, I saw that more often than not, bad dubbing was the result of rewriting dialog and trying to fit those words into the mouths of whichever actor was speaking lines. Granted, Bruce Lee’s first complete work as a writer/director/producer isn’t exactly going for the gold on the scripting front, but it works far better when you see how Lee uses the language barrier as a major part of the film’s plot.
Lee plays Tang Lung, sent to Rome by his uncle in Hong Kong to aid Chen Ching-hua (Nora Miao) and her uncle, Wang (Chung-Hsin Huang), who run a Chinese restaurant there that’s been under threat by a crime boss (Jon T. Benn) and his not so merry band of thugs. Miss Chen meets Tang at the airport and initially thinks he’ll be of little help thanks to him not making the greatest of impressions and despite him noting with pride that he trains in martial arts daily. Of course, things change when after initially avoiding a fight thanks to a bathroom break, Tang Lung gets to play Whack-a-Mole with a few of the thugs which gains him not only the respect of the restaurant’s staff (who all want to train under him), but the moon eyes from Chen, who cozies up to him as best she can.
Or tries to cozy up to him, actually. Unfortunately, he’s 100% oblivious to her charms (Wait, what?)
As a writer/director, Lee took a chance on starting off the film with a comedic tone that gradually vanishes completely as the story progresses. That English deficit Ling has gets him into an amusing situation at the beginning when at the airport’s restaurant, the elderly waitress brings him five bowls of assorted Campbell’s soups (nitpick: he only points four times at the menu) and he has to eat them all in a single sitting. This leads to a few chuckle-worthy bathroom break request bits that linger until just shortly before the first fight sequence where we finally get to see Lee doing some of his stuff. The buildup before that first battle is a neat game of “almost!” with Lee playing with the audience up to the right time when he has to deal with trouble by using his Fists of Fury (but not on The Big Boss, though, ha and ha).
While that first fight scene is tremendous stuff, it’s only a warmup. When the Bruce is truly let loose, we get a pretty outstanding burst of choreographed brilliance in this classic sequence below. Note the sudden appearance of not one, but TWO pair of nunchaku* that make the scene both thrilling and hilarious. No nitpick here, as it’s just completely fantastic work (and yep, credit also goes to the poor stuntmen who sell those blows they take along with the painful-looking falls). Even more amusing are the slight resemblances to other actors some of the dudes have. You could almost half-swear Lee is taking out the house band of a TV talk show, some dude who looks a little like Dean Stockwell, and a David Duchovny lookalike before he gets back to Wolfman Jack above.
(Thanks, Tole Knez!)
So yeah, the first time I saw that scene as a kid, I laughed out loud for a few too many minutes (and recall missing a few lines of dialog during the post-fight scenes) because it looked as if poor Wolfman Jack was getting that royal ass kicking as leader of those thugs. Hell, even when discussing the movie later on with friends at school, a few of them got a huge laugh out of the resemblance that actor had to the still popular at that time radio DJ.
Also, either the restaurant makes their own dumplings, or that alley REALLY needed to be swept clean as all that flour or whatever on the ground was a kind of a poor cushion for those stunt guys to flip and flop around on. Yeah, yeah – it’s an ancient Chinese secret (well, ancient movie secret) that some sort of “dust” on the ground makes for a great way to show impacts and “sell” them accordingly to the masses. I’d say everyone who saw this from back in the day until now was sold for sure.
While the melding of martial arts and humor worked well here, the cameo by “Italian Beauty” Malisa Longo comes off (to me) as a total dud despite the model/actress’ knockout looks. As they sit in a public space, Chen berates Tang Lung about being too wary of a handsy bank manager being a bit too friendly when meeting him, Longo strolls up, sits near the couple and exchanges smiles and glances with Lung. So far, so good… until the two stroll off together, which has Chen storm off in a huff. The next thing we see is Lung and Longo in what seems to be her place and when she vanishes for a about a minute, Lung goes and starts practicing his kung fu moves in a wardrobe mirror only to have a topless Longo appear from behind him… which sends Lung straight into that wardrobe to hide. End Scene.
In the TV edit, I believe that scene in the hotel room was completely snipped, so all I recall was Lung meeting and walking off with her, followed by the scene where he later arrives back at Miss Chen’s apartment and is greeted by Ah Quen (Ti Chin), the jovial, chubby dude who’s not much into practicing martial arts like the rest of the restaurant’s waiters are. Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t mind nudity at all in my films – what’s here seems to be just tossed in just to get a rating or make someone a little famous for one throwaway scene. Eh, whatever – it’s there and you’ll likely forget about it as the humor bleeds right out of the film by the third act.
Which is a good thing, mind you. That crime boss sends an overdressed sniper after Tang Lung, he misses, but Miss Chen is kidnapped and we see Lung’s lack of English fail him again, this time sans any humorous asides. After another confrontation, that boss’ somewhat, er… quirky assistant, Ho (Ping Ou Wei) decides the best defense is a better offense. So, some phone calls are made and three men arrive in Rome to take care of that Tang Lung problem for good. Those men are Robert Wall (Fred), Hwang In-shik (who’s nameless), and Chuck Norris ( as Colt, in his first movie role). Only one of them is Chuck Norris, so you kind of know who Tang Lung gets as his final opponent.
It’s here where Lee shows off his skills at putting together a pretty spectacular fight scene where it’s just two men, the “ring” they’re in (Rome’s classic Colosseum, of course) and whatever happens happening. The genius of this sequence is you may find yourself rooting for both men to walk away from the path they’ve chosen, but the outcome is pretty much set in stone. The really interesting thing is what happens both before and after the battle where certain scores are settled and things end on a somewhat downbeat note for the remaining principals. It almost feels as if Lee wanted this film to be continued at some point in the future, but that’s more speculation on my part rather than any intent, as there is a definite feeling of closure to at least Tang Lung’s dealings in Rome.
As I saw this film first, followed by the TV cuts of The Big Boss and later Enter The Dragon a number of years later in a theater when the film was back in theaters for a limited run, I’ve always liked it the most despite ETD being more polished look and TBB’s kind of Warner Bros. cartoon approach to the violent battles in that flick.One has to wonder where Le’s career would have gone had he still been around past 1973 and if he were still alive and kicking today, what sort of influence he would have had on whatever he would be working on. Eh, but that’s wistful and wishful thinking territory we’ll avoid for the time being.
*Saaaaay, did anyone else have like two or three relatives of even more friends who actually owned a set of nunchucks? For some reason, I recall seeing more of those weapons here in NYC (where they were illegal for decades) in the closets or dresser drawers of a few too many people who managed to buy them from ads placed in martial arts mags or even comics of that era. No one I knew had a clue as to how to use them, from what I remember. I’d guess that first time you conk yourself in the noggin or accidentally break a window while being a big swingin’ dip makes that the last time you’ll try to be a kung fu master, huh?