Documentary writer/director John Little, who also gave us the longer Bruce Lee documentary, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000), decided to follow that project up with a one-hour feature about the current status of the locations where Bruce Lee’s legendary movies were filmed in the early 1970s. So in this film, taped in October 2009, he travels to the likes of Bangkok, Macau/Hong Kong, Rome and elsewhere in order to take a look at what remains of Bruce Lee’s silver screen haunts.
Tracing the locations of the four completed Lee movies – The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), Way of the Dragon (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973) – Little takes us through strange and exotic locales and landscapes, looking for the various details from the movies, literally walking in Bruce Lee’s footsteps. Some places are much like they were; others are significantly changed, but in most cases bits of evidence do remain, linking the past to the present.
Little interviews various locals who worked on the Lee movies, or witnessed Lee’s presence, often eliciting the comment that Lee was usually seen training in the morning, for several hours before going to shoot his scenes.
The most amazing place we visit in this documentary is the Villa D’Este park of fountains in the Italian city of Tivoli, used as the backdrop for The Way of the Dragon. It is a collection of stunning fountains, many dating all the way back to Roman times, and this location immediately shot to the top of my list of places I want to visit.
This short documentary doesn’t feel much like a film in its own right, but more like a very nice piece of extra material for some special features-crammed home entertainment movie release. It has to be said that it is only of interest to die-hard fans of martial arts cinema, and, while I do consider myself to be such a fan, I must admit I do not think enormously highly of Bruce Lee’s movies, and have not spent much time watching them. There is no question that Bruce Lee was an innovator and a perfectionist and worked hard to make his fight scenes look good, but by the time he died he was only just getting started and had not yet really attained the standard that he was shooting for. The movies that he did make do not in my opinion have a timeless quality, except perhaps for the actual major fight scenes. There are too many and too protracted stretches of tedious and poorly acted “story”.
I am a much bigger fan of more authentic Shaw Brothers fare, starring the likes of Angela Mao and later stars of the genre like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. In comparison, the Bruce Lee movies do not actually have that many fight scenes, the stunts (by everyone except Lee himself) tend to be quite awful, and both the stories and acting (esp. by the white actors) are rather weak. Bruce Lee did not appreciate the more escapist fantasy and adventure elements of a lot of the Hong Kong movies of his era, but wanted to do realistic tales set in the modern day. Personally, I don’t think that worked very well, nor do I think that posterity has been kind to the storytelling style of medium-budget ’70s mainstream revenge plots. To me, a “heroic age” fantasy adventure is far more timeless.
The best of Lee’s movies is clearly Enter the Dragon, a key scene of which was cut from the original Western release because the distributors were idiots. But even Enter the Dragon has many weaknesses, incl. a John Saxon who doesn’t actually know any kung fu and a James Bond-style silly villain who doesn’t, either.
I am still a huge fan of Bruce Lee, though; of the man and his legacy. His fighting ability was truly through the roof; his philosophy was impressively admirable, and there is no denying his personal charisma. His influence has been incalculable; in the West he almost singlehandedly launched a wild and fabulous kung fu fad, with ramifications into all sorts of media and pop culture. And he did it with the right kind of attitude and style. To have had such an effect on the world, I am sure Lee would agree that it was worth dying young for.
The screener disc only has the main feature and scene selections; no further extras. The picture quality is all right, but not extraordinary.
Bruce Lee: In Pursuit of the Dragon is released on DVD 12th March 2012.
Director: John Little
Cast: John Little, Riccardo Billi, Malisa Longo, Chaplin Chang, Yuen Wah and others.
Runtime: 61 min.