Roman Rumble

Bruce Lee speaks no English in Way of the Dragon. Arriving in Rome, he can’t communicate. Clearly, he’s uncomfortable, unable to socialize or even order food – he’s a goofball, and rare in any of Lee’s action films, he’s seen frequently seen smiling.

Of Lee’s five major martial arts spectacles, Way of the Dragon is the outlier. It’s odd, clumsy, and amateurish, stemming from Lee choosing to star, direct, and write, the latter two firsts. Key themes remain: A Chinese-owned restaurant comes under attack from western mobsters, with Lee’s Tang Lung fighting back against oppression and gentrification. Big Boss stood up for the Chinese working class, Fist of Fury lashing out at Japanese occupation. The trend continues of turning Lee into a Hong Kong folk hero.

Of Lee’s five major martial arts spectacles, Way of the Dragon is the outlier

Lee’s child-like awkwardness breaks the formula, and while still about violence, fighting, and showy moves, it’s less guarded. Tension is reserved for the climax, the rest concerning arrogant villains and an unfortunate, dated effeminate stereotype played by Ping-Ou Wei. There’s little challenge for Lee who runs through goons, returning to a quieter life around Italy, soaking up sights, if visibly self-conscious around this culture clash. It’s sluggish, even stagnant, but charming.

If there’s a sign Lee understood filmmaking behind the camera, it’s Way of the Dragon’s climactic one-on-one brawl. More than pitting Bruce Lee against Chuck Norris in a martial arts dream match, the build-up generates capable tension. A stray cat wanders, leading to a jump scare, and also sensing what’s to come as Lee looks for his opponent. Stealth cinematography nabs footage in the Roman Colosseum against orders, adding a voyeuristic fear. All of this before the clash itself, focused and impeccably structured. Neither man says anything; their faces express deadened emotion. Not a thrill or anger or dread, but confidence even as they know one won’t walk away.

Norris doesn’t have a character; he’s there to antagonize and punch. Lee carries their duel, finding a way to implement clever humor too, maintaining his character’s inelegant persona. After taking a hit, Lee drops, grabs at Norris’ chest hair, ripping out a handful. In an effort to be cool, Lee tries to blow the hair away from his hand, but it doesn’t move. It’s a small, even gross out moment, yet a smart touch as to diminish Tang’s composure without losing Lee’s screen aura.

Video

Criterion notes Way of the Dragon came from an interpositive, scanned at 4K. It never looks as such. Attribute some of the lapses (potentially) to Lee’s inexperience, including some wildly out of focus imagery (although capable Japanese cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto handled things). Other moments display heavy smoothing, reducing grain and leaving behind watercolor-like skin.

Way of the Dragon looks rough and worn. Not with scratches or dirt – there’s none to speak of – but the overall aesthetic brings an unnatural harshness. Fine detail resolves stubbornly, and generally, only in tight close-ups. Resolution doesn’t materialize in a convincing way. Some contrast problems pop up too, clipping at the peak while eroding additional textures. Black levels don’t share the same issue.

Color pushes to extremes, in particular the red uniforms often worn by restaurant employees. Those bleed. Otherwise, saturation sustains a controlled, bold peak. Primaries pleasingly stand out, saved from any fading through the years.

Audio

If going for the Mandarin PCM track, expect problem spots. Criterion doesn’t translate the English-speaking parts, and the nearly lost dialog is difficult to make out. Age takes its toll, and likely the post-production dubbing too. Hefty treble and static wipe out any gains.

The two English dubs sound the best (an additional Cantonese track is here too), still loose if audible. One is the US theatrical dub, the other an English dub released in Japan, a real oddity so kudos to Criterion for its inclusion.

Extras

Hong King cinema expert Mike Leeder provides commentary, and Matthew Polly adds his thoughts in a video essay running eight minutes. An all-encompassing 42-minute documentary on Lee titled Legacy of the Dragon covers the martial artists total career. Actors from Way of the Dragon speak in a seven minute piece, and John T. Bonn chats for 21-minutes about his experiences. Alternate opening credits and trailers come in last.

Way of the Dragon
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
4

Movie

Way of the Dragon doesn’t always connect, but it’s Lee at his most charismatic on screen, letting himself have some fun between fights.

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