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When Bruce Lee died in 1973, the world lost a great martial artist and action film hero. What is sometimes forgotten is that it also lost a budding director. Shortly before he starred in Enter The Dragon, he used his fame in his homeland to land the job of directing Way Of The Dragon. Instead of doing a safe vehicle for his martial arts skills, he used the opportunity to play with his image and the conventions of the martial arts film. The results don’t entirely succeed but they show enough promise to suggest he could have matured into a fine director.

In Way Of The Dragon, Lee plays a comedic variation on the “country bumpkin/martial arts genius” character that he originated in The Big Boss: Tang Lung is sent by his uncle to Rome where he is supposed to assist a restaurant that is being hassled by mobsters angling to take it over. Restaurant owner Chen (Nora Miao) and her staff don’t believe he is anything other than a rube at first but changes her mind when he takes out a group of mob thugs in an impressive show of martial arts skill. Morale boosted, Chen and her staff rally around Tang Lung, training to emulate his skills and building up the restaurant’s business. However, the mob isn’t through with the restaurant yet – and they face additional danger from a hidden threat.

Way Of The Dragon finds Lee in a very playful and experimental mood. He didn’t want to lean on his obvious skills – it’s over thirty minutes before he gets into his first fight – and instead spends the first act showing off comedic skills and doing a lot of visual, oft-silent humor. The results are hit and miss, particularly a restaurant gag that isn’t inspired enough to sustain its length, but Lee makes an agreeable comedian. Once the fights kick in, the blend of humor and action works pretty well. Highlights include extended fights in and outside the restaurant, not to mention a sequence where the freshly-trained staff aids Tang Lung in fighting the mobsters.

That said, the biggest highlight for martial arts fans is an extended scene where Lee takes on a young Chuck Norris, who plays a hired gun for the mob. The scene is impaired by some cost-cutting measures – after an atmospheric buildup chase shot in the Roman Coliseum, the actual fight is filmed on a none too-convincing soundstage subbing for a part of the Coliseum – but the actual fight is skillfully staged and filmed. It’s one of the highlights of Lee’s short career and fondly remembered by fans.

The biggest problem with Way Of The Dragon is pacing: at 100 minutes, it’s at least a reel too long for such a slender premise. Also, the surprise twist that pops up during the finale is a little too left-field for its own good, creating an abrupt tonal shift that rest of the film can’t really support. That said, Way Of The Dragon remains an enjoyable film and suggests that Lee had promise as a director. With a little guidance and more time, who knows what might have happened?

DVD Notes: this title was recently reissued by Shout! Factory on a two-for-one DVD with Game Of Death. The transfer was supplied by Fortune Star so it isn’t too different from previous 2006 Fox discs that used Fortune Star-supplied transfers. The anamorphic image is a little unstable in spots but watchable. Both 2.0 and 5.1 stereo mixes are provided for the film: the 5.1 version was used for this review and sounds like the foley work was “enhanced” in the fight scenes. There are no extras.