Kissel said this on Tuesday when talking about our favorite movies compared to our best movies. I think this is a perfect starting point for judging Way of the Dragon. Can a kung fu movie ever be better than a B+?
Before we get to that, I want to throw this out there: A proper kung fu movie does not rely on computer or other special effects. Green screen background is one thing, but adjusting the way in which a person moves is boring. Computer imaging of Cameron Diaz doing flips is garbage. Give me Tony Jaa jumping off an elephant any day. Kung fu demands a certain physicality. So that’s where I am with categorizing a kung fu movie.
So, this is Bruce Lee’s debut as a director and writer and I’ll bring up some of his choices here before discussing his presence as a character.
The pacing of this movie is pretty solid in the beginning. Things are happening. This is something that Hart Man has made me more aware of. Even when we’re just getting to know the characters, is something interesting or amusing going on? Lee eating soup is interesting because it’s telling us something: Here is a stranger in a strange land. We see Lee get picked up but the hot Italian chick. We’re now told Lee is pretty desirable. I also love that scene because it crushed my normal bias going in. I just didn’t expect a woman to be hitting on an Asian dude. Now I know better. So just between two scenes that happen pretty quickly and could have been throwaways, we’ve learned something. Not to mention that Lee has enough timing to make this scenes kind of funny. Unfortunately, while the first 60 minutes balanced things happening and the growth of characters, the final 30 minutes happened too fast. This flick could have used an extra 10-15 minutes. I’m still not sure what to think of the uncle’s betrayal. The last third of the film was just too forced even though the fight scenes were damn near perfect.
The choreography for the fight scenes is done pretty well I think. Of course, that first set of thugs looks pretty goofy. But with the actors who know what they’re doing… Those are amazing. But reading interviews about Lee, he really hit the shit out of people. They tried minimizing it, but the guy was a beast. There’s also a lot that he had to dumb down. He was too dang fast for it to be believable. I’ve watched some of these scenes in slow-mo and when I think he’s whiffing on people, he’s actually hit them twice. But then again, that first set of thugs. Ouch. That was not impressive by normal movie standards. Additionally, I love how many empty cardboard boxes are just laying around Rome.
Lee also got a bit aggressive on the camera angles. Some were great, but some were just trying to be creative for creativity’s sake. I feel like he watched a few Spaghetti Westerns and attempted to recreate those scenes. Specifically, a scene at the Coliseum brought me directly back to The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Kudos for going big, but still the execution failed in a few scenes.
Lee does a pretty good job here. He’s got great timing with the comedy and obviously the guy is physically out of this world. It’s hard to say how good his acting is overall because of the dubbing, however. I love Lee’s arrogance because he has the charisma and the skill to back it up.
The rest of the cast is likewise hard to judge. Were they good acting on a technical level? I have no idea. This ultimately can only hurt a movie, not help it.
We do have to talk about Chuck Norris because he’s Chuck Norris. His acting here is nearly as limited as his political analytical abilities. But he does OK here. RIP his chest hair. But at least with his fight, we finally get some stakes. Norris starts of as his equal before Lee just turns on the afterburners and kills him.
But let’s talk about the bad guy’s right-hand man. The presence of the actor playing it was pretty good. Is he 70’s pimp? Is he slick Chinese business man? Is he gay? I could say yes to all these things. The guy convinces me from a physical standpoint. The voice dubbing over him is hilarious and is what people copy now when they’re being racist. I love giving bonus points to movies that have made subtle cultural (low brow or high brow) additions. That guy’s voice is the same voice we’ve used or heard used during a racist joke about Asians.
“I want to call… AMERICA.” I died on that line. I don’t know if it was a joke or serious.
Kung fu is the real star of the movie. That’s the movie’s strength and weakness. The moves, to me, are mesmerizing. Bruce Lee is incredibly fast. Chuck Norris added the element of power to the stealth. Watching those two fight was a pleasure. BUT, it’s limited. Kung fu isn’t a character. We can’t explore its depth. It has no motivation. It just is. Because it’s the focus, we end up with goofy plotlines with serious holes because we have to have the fighting. Forcing something is never healthy for a movie. The dialogue becomes bookends to prop up what the movie is about, which is badass martial artists doing their thing. The dialogue can never really –add- to the kung fu.
But visuals can be added. We see it in Way of the Dragon with some stylistic choices. The cat playing with a toy as Lee crushed Norris was a nice touch, though a bit corny by today’s standards. In Ong Bak, we see tons of colors and outfits that add to the fight. And seriously, Tony Jaa uses an elephant’s tusks the way a gymnasts uses the uneven bars. Entertaining, of course but it can never be emotional.
So, can a true kung fu movie ever be above a B+? I say probably not.
Way of the Dragon: B+
-He really likes soup
-The scene of him awkwardly figuring out if the girl looking for someone was the girl he was looking for. Great observational comedy.
-He abused those toilets.
-I like that it was dubbed into English, but he couldn’t read English.
-He scared that kid into dropping his ice cream. For no reason. AWESOME.