I was a fan of Bruce Lee before I had ever seen one of his films in full (which wouldn’t have been until my college years). Further, he died before I was born, so the fact that he had (and I would argue still has) such a cultural impact is fascinating. Ironically, the first film of his that I was intrigued by as a youth was Game of Death, the one during the production of which he died. When I saw that brief shot from the trailer of Lee squaring off against Kareem Abdul Jabar, I was mesmerized. It had to be a special effect or a trick shot. The difference in size between the combatants was mind-bending for me. More than that, it made Jabar into a monster simply by dint of his gargantuan size, something which was right in my wheelhouse.
Later, when I saw the slow motion shot of Lee preparing for battle (I want to say from Enter the Dragon), his arms duplicating and flowing into one another, reminiscent (again, maybe only to me) of Ray Harryhausen’s Kali statue from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, it made the man into the myth in my eyes. How many pop culture figures can say that they inspired an entire wave of exploitation films feeding off both their lives and their legends? I don’t know that Lee would have appreciated films like Law Kei’s The Dragon Lives Again (aka Deadly Hands of Kung Fu; incidentally, also the title of a Marvel Comics magazine that featured martial arts characters like The Sons of the Tiger and Iron Fist), but you must admit, it would certainly catch his attention.
Bruce Lee (Bruce Leong aka Siu-Lung Leung) lies in state before the King of the Underworld (Tang Ching). Upon waking and learning of his situation, Bruce is shunted off to a local village, where he runs into and makes an enemy of Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman (Wong Mei). Turns out, Zatoichi is in league with the Exorcist (Fong Yau, dubbed in English with a French accent for absolutely no reason), the Godfather (Sin Il-Ryong, who looks more like a Sonny Chiba character than either Vito or Michael Corleone), Clint Eastwood (Bobby Canavarro, in Eastwood’s Man with No Name guise), Dracula (Cheung Hei), James Bond (Alexander Grand), and Emmanuelle (Jenny), who want to usurp power from the King. Joining forces with the One-Armed Swordsman (Nick Cheung Lik), Kwai Chang Caine, and Popeye (a very young, fit Eric Tsang), Bruce takes on the villains and stands up for the rights of the common man. Huzzah!
Bruceploitation is one of the oddest trends to ever hit celluloid. I can think of no other personage who inspired an entire exploitation cottage industry. Sure, there have been Nazisploitation, Nunsploitation, Blaxploitation, Mexploitation (which is just exploitation films made in Mexico, not genre films exploiting Mexicans), Canuxploitation (again…), but there has never been Elvisploitation (for the most part, and if there has been, it’s an extremely small pool), McQueensploitation, and so on. Lee’s legacy carried beyond his actual achievements. Many of the Bruceploitation films are either factually inaccurate biopic/documentaries (a la Chariots of the Gods) or simply cheap Martial Arts films where its star was given a moniker similar to Lee (Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bronson Lee, ad nauseum) and billed on the poster as the true successor to the genuine article. The Dragon Lives Again is something altogether different. It’s a pure fantasy that plays with the legend of Bruce Lee as a symbol.
The film skirts the more unsavory aspects of the whole Bruceploitation movement (but that someone had this idea at all is audacious as hell) by dealing with the man as myth. Bruce is first shown with a blanket over his dead body and sporting a massive erection. Said tumescence is revealed to actually be Lee’s signature nunchaku, a weapon he keeps on him at all times. Right off the bat, we get allusions to Lee’s sexual power and his skill with nunchucks in one fell swoop. The two are inseparable. Just about every character remarks about how sexually powerful Lee is, and the women all want to bed down with him (even the King’s wife and concubines, who want to “try him out for size”). Once Bruce gets to the village, he becomes a hero of the people, teaching villagers Jeet Kun Do (let’s just say that’s what it is), standing up to corrupt policemen, and staving off the machinations of both the bad guys and the King. Yet, Bruce isn’t exactly a nice guy. He’s a conceited braggart who knows just how good he is at what he does. He has posters of himself in his room, for crying out loud! Conversely, Bruce realizes that he was flawed when alive. He states that, “I used to play around just too much,” and even apologizes to Linda Lee Cadwell (Lee’s widow) directly.
Similarly, the characters Bruce encounters in the Underworld are myths, cultural icons of the time. That he is thrown in with them asserts that this is an idealized Bruce, a character of superheroic proportions. Still, Bruce is Bruce, and though he is the legend, he is also the person (though he’s not really). Even when the other characters use actual peoples’ names (read: Clint Eastwood), they are still acting as the character that person made famous. Most surreal in this regard is the appearance of Kwai Chang Caine, a character reputedly created to be played by Lee on the Kung Fu television show but that wound up being portrayed by David Carradine. Needless to say, Bruce takes potshots at Caine throughout the film, and the floppy-hatted, wandering warrior-philosopher takes it all with a sheepish grin, knowing his place before the true master. Further, Bruce himself appears in the film in the guise of Kato, the sidekick character he played on The Green Hornet. Why? Why the hell not?! The point is that Bruce is simultaneously the most iconic and the most real of all the legends of the world in this film. While he’s still a cartoon portrayal of the man, Bruce is less of one than everyone else here. The sole exception to this is the villagers, and even they are playing the roles laid down in every Kung Fu movie ever made; even they are cultural reference points.
You can’t really judge this film based on its story (it doesn’t really have one that it cares enough to follow, and what is there is standard for its base genre), its acting, its success as a comedy (it isn’t, or at least, not intentionally), or even its fight choreography (which is passable but unremarkable). Instead, The Dragon Lives Again should be judged on how far it’s willing to go, on how imaginative the producers were willing to get with their premise. For example, whenever Bruce squares off against one of the villains, they suddenly all appear in a rock quarry, and the film essentially becomes one shade away from a Japanese Tokusatsu effort. The film pushes every limit it has (budget, scope, taste, you name it), and though it’s ultimately a wildly hot mess, it’s still wild, and, I would argue, one of the most unique films ever made to cash in on a pop culture icon.
MVT: The size of the balls it took to make this film.
Make or Break: The opening credits where Bruce spars with each of the fantastical characters he’s about to meet in the film. This itself is a common trope in the Martial Arts genre, but it’s somehow more insane in this instance.