My copy of "Return of the Dragon" sadly only contains the dubbed version; which gets on my last nerve since the English dubbing is particularly atrocious. However, we deal with the hand we're dealt. And I still quite enjoyed it. Naturally, the plot concerns a young Chinese woman and her uncle summoning Bruce to Rome in order to help them fight local mobsters who are trying to take over their Chinese restaurant. Not the most prepossessing of plots but it serves to put Bruce in opposition to a gang of baddies in order to showcase his martial arts. In that sense, it serves it's purpose. After all, the point of any Bruce Lee film is to watch Bruce Lee. The movie is fairly successful in providing us with a number of fight scenes. Naturally, the most eagerly awaited is the climactic battle between Bruce Lee and real-life student Chuck Norris inside the Colisseum (watched by some kittens, no less). The fight scenes are nicely spaced out in the film to occur just about when the viewer begins itching for another one; and the climactic battle is a winner, obviously. Now, I agree with the "spoiler rule" espoused by Mr. Frost over at the Paleo-Cinema blog in that I'm not worried about giving spoilers to movie's over 5 years old since you should have seen them by now. So, skip to the next paragraph now if you haven't seen the film. Although it's not MUCH of a spoiler to reveal that Bruce Lee wins and Chuck Norris dies. In fact, Lee is losing the fight until he follows his real life philosophy to abandon "fighting styles" and to fight fluidly. Pre-thought-out styles of martial arts held one back, according to Lee's mature belief system towards the end of his life, and he strove to illustrate this in his films; his unfinished "Game of Death" would have illustrated this belief much more vividly had he lived to complete it.
"Return of the Dragon" (original title "Meng long guo jiang") is a most enjoyable entry in the vast "kung fu" genre. In fact, Bruce Lee directed the film with a much surer hand than a few Hollywood directors I could name. One strange detail was the theme music of Joseph Koo which sounded very much like the Streisand song "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever" -- at least the first four notes of the song are identical). This lead me to constantly look for Babs to make an appearance; possibly as a customer at the Chinese restaurant. There is, in fact, a nice twist near the end of the film which I had forgotten about and genuinely took me by surprise. It's not really possible to accurately judge the performances due to the unsubtle English dubbing. However, all in all, I enjoyed the film very much. More, in fact, than I would find myself enjoying "Enter the Dragon". . .
"Enter the Dragon", of course, was the big Hollywood collaboration with Chinese producer Raymond Chow. It is also the film which postponed Lee's work on his pet project "The Game of Death". This is not to imply that Lee didn't want to make "Enter the Dragon". I'm just sayin'. Perhaps I had never watched "Return" and "Enter" back to back but I found myself being a little disappointed in the latter film mainly because Bruce Lee doesn't have as much screen time as I remember. Once tends to think of Lee as the star of this film; however, he's actually more like a supporting player for 2/3rds of it -- only taking center stage in the climax. Now, I like John Saxon and Jim Kelly but neither man has the magnetism and screen presence of Bruce Lee and the film would have benefitted by placing them (particularly Saxon) further in the background. In fact, the script by Michael Allin seems to be a bit muddled in the choice of knowing what to do with essentially three leading men with separate storylines. All 3 men arrive separately with different agendas and never really team up together. Regardless, Bruce Lee nearly disappears from the middle of the film.
The film itself (directed by Robert Clouse) plays very much like an early-70's Bond picture and the photography by Gil Hubbs (who bizarrely was responsible for photographing Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder "The Hellcats" as well as Ray Dennis Steckler's "Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters") looks beautiful. Whoda thunk it?!? The plot (at least that which concerns Bruce Lee) finds Shaolin monk and martial arts master Bruce Lee recruited to infiltrate the private island of a former Shaolin now crime boss Han (Kien Shih). The early scene where Lee is shown his mission via a movie projector reminded me of a similar scene with Michael Caine in "The Italian Job". There are countless subplots involving backstories for Saxon, Kelly, a scar-faced man (Robert Wall -- who ALSO appeared in "Return of the Dragon") who caused the death of Lee's sister, a female agent already undercover on the island, Han's drug operation, etc. etc. For so many subplots, the film is oddly slow-moving in spots. Of course, things pick up every time Lee (or Kelly or Saxon) make with the martial arts. Lee nearly bursts off the screen whenever he's turned loose and Kelly and Saxon are also extremely watchable. Kien Shih, with his various screw-on hand-weapons, is a Bond villain from head to toe. It's also a nice treat to see a fantastically young Sammo Hung square off (briefly) against Lee in an opening scene. One of my favourite scenes involves Lee and a boorish martial artist from New Zealand (he just CAN'T be -- I mean, his accent is taken directly from Dick Van Dyke in "Mary Poppins") on board a boat. After tripping and kicking a young man carrying a basket of oranges, the Kiwi bully confronts Lee and tries to pick a fight. Lee calmly suggests that there isn't enough room on the boat; they should take a lifeboat to a nearby beach and fight there. The Kiwi gets in the lifeboat and Lee plays out the rope so the boat (with the bully) float away. He has just demonstrated his martial arts style: "the style of fighting without fighting".
Both "Return" and "Enter" are very enjoyable and not to be missed for anyone even remotely interested in Bruce Lee. My slight disappointment in "Enter" this time out is really mild and only stems from my wish that Lee had been given even more to do in the film. I guess this is why we watch films we like over and over again; no opinion is ever set in stone. The next time I watch "Enter" I'll probably love it knowing the amount of Lee's screen time.