The Way of the Dragon (1972) Film Review

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Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (1972)

30 November 2014

(Film Review from my wordpress

Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (1972) Film Review

Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon (1972), a film written, directed, and starring him displayed the creative brilliance he was often not credited for. Bruce Lee, in this film, showed that he was not just a martial artist. He was an artist, period. Adding to this was the authority which he possessed, as a practitioner of multiple combat styles, to give a commentary on the essence, the roles, and the implications of violence in general — the theme and overall message of the film. It gave the film an authentic feel, given that he knew what he was talking about.

Before I elaborate, a word of caution to all those who dismiss Bruce Lee films as nothing but simple, action-packed kung fu films. Although they most certainly are filled with entertaining, adrenaline-rush fight scenes, and the plots are often far from being overly-complicated, there’s a lot more to his films once you go beyond surface level. Nevertheless, do not take this to mean that I’m overanalyzing The Way of the Dragon or intellectualizing it in any way. It is still a great kung fu movie in the end. But here’s the thing. People often think these kinds of action films are shallow entertainment. Bruce Lee, with this film, proves them wrong.

Martial arts’ centrality to the film precisely why the theme and message about violence is worth dissecting. Bruce Lee, having had practised and encountered violence had a lot to say about it in this film. We must remember that the martial arts are still a form of violence no matter how refined. Bruce Lee, as the ultimate martial artist knew this fact well.

The plot was clear-cut enough. The storyline follows the classic storyline of a noble hero venturing off to a foreign land to save the day. Tang Lung (Bruce Lee) was sent to Rome by his sick Uncle to help out Uncle Wang (Wang Chung Hsin) , Ms. Chen/Ching Hua Chen (Nora Miao), and the rest of the employees of a Chinese restaurant who were being bullied by local thugs whose boss wanted to take over the profitable business.

This is where Tang Lung, a Hong Kong native with a boyish charm and a poor command of the English language, gets caught up in the system of violence. In the end, as with any Bruce Lee film, he almost single-handedly beats the thugs and went on his way. As simple as the plot was, however, the message about violence seems to be more complicated.

The film ends with Tang Lung and Ms. Chen in the cemetery, quietly mourning the loss of their friends — the employees of the Chinese restaurant. The hoodlums were sorely beaten and the mastermind was arrested but it was a bittersweet victory with the number of deaths they faced. Uncle Wang, in a wholly unexpected 180 degree character transformation kills his own employees — people who were practically family to him. The reason behind this is explained in his brief monologue after his betrayal. Having grown tired of the violence that hindered his dreams of living an easy life with his family back in Hong Kong he resorted to drastic measures. His daily encounter with violence had taken a toll on him, and in desperation, he gave way to it.

This brings us back to the core of the film’s theme. Power corrupts. And violence, as a tool to consolidate and maintains power, corrupts as well. No one understood this better than Bruce Lee. His film illustrated the pitfalls of violence. The darkness that had ultimately changed his film’s  characters was the direct result of violence. Being driven to kill people who are like family to you — Wang was after all called “Uncle Wang” by these workers — having no choice but to end the life of a fellow warrior — Colt, Chuck Norris’ character who fought until the very end only to bow down to Tang Lung — and living to carry that burden . These were the consequences that were brought on by the use of violence.

These two instances of violence presents an excellent comparison.  Both illustrated opposite approaches to violence that nevertheless ended with the same results, with the perpetrators having to deal with same repercussions. Uncle Wang’s betrayal of his family through murder was perhaps the most despicable form of violence, violence towards your flesh and blood. In contrast, Tang Lung’s killing of Colt, was done in the noblest way possible. He was given all the honors a valiant warrior deserves. And in one of the most iconic scenes in film history, Bruce Lee covers Chuck Norris’ corpse as a gesture of respect that will echo through the ages as the time when the world’s two greatest martial artist showed us the real meaning of their art.

Despite that gesture, however, both Uncle Wang’s betrayal and Tang Lung’s noble act resulted in the same thing. For Wang, it was the death of life, the essence of his existence as a human being, his life, in a metaphorical sense, was taken away when he killed his family. For Tang Lung, it was a life of death. Having been burdened by his killing of Colt — clear in his reaction to seeing the lifeless body before him and his decision to pay respect to Colt by covering his corpse — Tang Lung was condemned to live a life shrouded in darkness. Both cases are the same in that they both present the burden of committing violence, the burden of having to live with oneself after such acts.

Violence, as demonstrated in the film, by itself is a battle of two forces. The positive and the negative aspects of it that are inextricably intertwined. The very violence that condemned the two to a life of darkness, is the same force that liberated them from their problems — the issue of the restaurant being taken over by the thugs. Going deeper, violence, in the form of the Chinese Boxing that Tang Lung had introduced to the Karate-practising workers had also liberated them from complete helplessness they had suffered in the hands of the hoodlums. Violence, here, was an empowering force. A force that helped affirm human dignity and self-worth embodied in the right to property and a peaceful life.

This is the message Bruce Lee wanted to impart in his commentary on violence. Tragically, the merits of violence are inextricably fused with its consequences. One cannot avoid encountering the negative side of it while pursuing the positive side. Violence as an art, the martial arts, is still violence, subject to all its perks and repercussions. The Tang Lung, who said that even in the midst of violent movement, the martial arts are still a form of honest self-expression — one of the characteristics of art — is the same person that grieved the deaths all the violence had caused.

The climax of the film illustrated it better. Tang Lung and Colt’s final showdown in the Coliseum — Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in the greatest fight scene in cinematic history — is reminiscent of the days of gladiator matches in the ancient Roman Empire. The matches that embodied both the highs and lows of Roman civilization. The Coliseum, an enduring testament to the pinnacle of Rome’s advanced technology was the arena that hosted the brutal and senseless murder of thousands of men. The violence that served the militarily-inclined society and built a civilization that is responsible for countless advancements is the same violence that destroyed their humanity.

Bruce Lee, quite obviously, was no pacifist. He understood the role violence had in the world. Yet he understood the dangers of it. Perhaps why all his roles featured a character that was the epitome of restraint. This was a reflection of his real-life philosophy, at least the one he wanted to convey through his films. Violence, like power, can easily take over oneself and it’s important to keep this in check. Tang Lung’s decision to use darts against his gun-slinging opponents was perhaps the best example of this. His choice to turn the barbaric battle into a proper and honourable duel was commendable. He allowed for preparatory rituals  prior to the match, he gave Colt the chance to surrender when he was handicapped, and he honoured his fallen opponent with an act of respect after the fight. In the end, Tang Lung, and his real-life counterpart Bruce Lee, was the fine line between men and monsters in the realm of violence. But even the greatest of fighters can be overwhelmed by the awesome power of violence.


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