Q: What’s better than watching one Bruce Lee movie?
A: Watching TWO Bruce Lee movies!
London’s National Film Theatre (and that is what I intend to continue calling it, no matter how much they shove rebranding down my neck with BFI Southbank splashed all over it. It will always be my lovely NFT) is just pulling into the final stretch of its Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film Part II season, so I ambled down there on Wednesday night to catch a double-bill of high-kicking, bone-snapping Bruce Lee chopsocky classics: Way of the Dragon and Fist of Fury.
Both produced by Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest studio in 1972, the tragically short-lived ascendance of Bruce Lee marked the shift in martial arts cinema away from the period-set wuxia pian movies that were the bread-and-butter of Shaw Brothers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, trading in elaborate swordplay for more brutal hand-to-hand (and foot-to-face) combat.
Now, Enter the Dragon is one of my favourite movies of all time. I have seen it many, many times over the years, and I never tire of it. And it’s not just because of Bruce Lee. From Lalo Schifrin’s glorious score and Bolo Yeung having the living piss kicked out of him, to Jim “Black Belt Jones” Kelly cherry-picking a bunch of hookers for some light relaxation before dissing the Big Bad Boss as “Mr. Han Man”. Then there’s the great John Saxon, and the hall of mirrors, and…it’s just a brilliant film. Writing about it makes me want to watch it again right now. But I’m zipping off on an over-excitable tangent now. Back to the other night at the NFT...
The NFT had programmed the films so that Way of the Dragon played first, followed by Fist of Fury which, to my mind, was getting it all ass-backwards.
Fist of Fury was the last film that Lee would make with director Lo Wei, troubled by the racist undertones that permeated the film (a story of a vicious rivalry between Japanese and Chinese martial arts schools), in addition to other disagreements. Nevertheless, the fight sequences are pretty spectacular as Lee carries out his sustained campaign of revenge, and Lee’s body is just a thing of beauty, a finely-honed instrument of his art. The look on his face as he feels the bones of his enemies cracking under his feet, it's almost as if he is the one in pain, as if every death he causes is a stain on his soul that he can never remove. Every yelp is a combination of anguish and release, every vanquished enemy is another step closer to hell. And, is it just me, or does the soundtrack sound like someone has plagiarised massive chunks of Quincy Jones’ Ironside score? No matter, it's still a great film.
But not as great as Way of the Dragon. That movie kicks things up a notch. Set in Rome (although shot predominantly on sound stages back in Hong Kong), and both written and directed by Lee, this is something else. Unlike the steady stream of fight scenes in Fist of Fury, Lee here aims for delayed gratification, opting for fish-out-of-water slapstick as Lee tries to adapt to another culture for the first half hour of the movie. It’s all a bit clumsy, and Jackie Chan would have greater success with that shtick years later, but when the fists do start flying, it is undoubtedly worth the wait, as everything inexorably draws us to the final face-off between Lee and Chuck Norris in the Colosseum, watched only by a confused kitten that mewls at them at judicious cutaways so we can catch our breath before the body parts start flailing again. Selected refrains of Ennio Morricone’s score from Once Upon A Time In The West only bolster the sensation that we are watching something that is both mythical and epic. Beautifully shot, Bruce Lee understands that in cinema, action is character. And he makes sure that, at least for the audience, revenge is sweet.