There used to be this DVD store in the Times Square subway station. Maybe it's still there. Probably not. Why was there ever a DVD store in the Times Square subway station? Some things just make no sense. But one day, maybe seven or eight years ago, I was walking through that hellmouth, and I saw a crowd gathered. There is almost no reason to spend a second longer in that station than you have to, and yet here was this group of strangers, maybe 20 or 30 people strong, gathering to watch the TV in the window of that DVD store. They were all watching the fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in 1972's The Way of the Dragon. Naturally, I stopped, too.
The scene is the sort of thing that stops you in your tracks. You don't really have to know anything else that's happening in the movie to enjoy it. You don't need to know that Lee's character is a boy from the Chinese countryside, or that he's come to Rome to help some distant relative deal with Mafia threats. You don't need to know that Norris is an almost entirely silent American martial-arts heavy, one hired by the local don to take out Lee after all other attempts had failed.
You don't need to know anything about the movie's real-world context, either. You don't need to know that it was Lee's third movie as a star and his first as a writer, director, producer, and the guy who sits in on percussion when they're scoring it. You don't need to know that he made it just before making Enter the Dragon, and just before his death. You don't need to know that it's Norris' first real role in a movie, made back when he was a karate master, when he was still decades away from becoming an internet meme and a Huckabee mouthpiece. Since this was pre-beard Norris, you might not even recognize him as Chuck Norris. Doesn't matter.
No, the two fighters tell you everything you need to know just with that fight. They don't exchange a single word. Lee goes running into the Colosseum, sees Norris giving him a thumbs-down sign, and then it's on. Norris, all controlled raw power, knocks the shit out of Lee at first. But Lee recovers, starts to adapt, dances into a rhythm. He wears Norris down, and pretty soon Norris is totally broken and unable to accept his fate. There are great, nuanced character moments: Lee grabs a handful of Norris's chest hair, yanks, and then blows it off his fingers. Norris gives Lee the Dikembe Mutombo finger-wag. And when it's all over, Lee starts to develop a certain respect and empathy for Norris. Norris is mad, fight-drunk, no chance of winning, and he's still trying to fight. Lee quietly warns him not to try, then feels bad for breaking his neck when he does try. He takes a short moment to pay tribute before running off to kick more ass.
It's a beautiful scene, a complete work of art in its own right. With apologies to the weird-as-fuck Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scene from Game of Death or the Japanese dojo one-man nunchucks assault from The Chinese Connection, it's probably the best fight scene Lee ever filmed. As a director and a fight choreographer, Lee was ahead of his time. He knew to pull the camera back, to use a bit of slow-motion, to leave in extended long takes that let you see everything these guys are doing to each other. He knew this fight was his showstopper, and he treated it as such.
The rest of The Way of the Dragon is a fun movie, a kung-fu comedy that manages not to be Jackie Chan-level goofy and turns bloodily tragic so fast that your brain scrambles to keep up. Lee's character, Tang Lung, doesn't understand Rome and doesn't like it. He tells his host that all these old ruins are taking up too much room, that he'd build on them and make money if he could. He keeps disappearing into the bathroom to shit, sometimes missing chances to fight bad guys as a result. When women throw themselves at him, he reacts with either total obliviousness, or, when they finally get naked, something like horror. Everyone who meets him thinks he's an idiot until they see him fight.
Half an hour of the movie goes by before the first fight, and Lee pulls it off anyway, thanks to his burning charisma and his willingness to be ridiculous. Unlike Chan, who's happy to play a bumbling fuckup, Lee still comes off as a badass. He's just a badass in situations where his badassery does nothing for him. (He can kick harder than anyone else, but that won't help him order eggs in an Italian restaurant.) But the real joy of the movie is when he does start to fight, and when it slowly dawns on everyone that he's an absolute alien fighting genius who can rip through sneering petty crooks without even trying. It's a blast to see these mobsters strut into the Chinese restaurant that Lee is protecting, getting swiftly destroyed, and then stumble out wondering what the fuck happened.
There are these great little touches in the movie. This being a rarity —a kung-fu movie set in the present day— the characters have to make excuses for why they don't use guns. (The mobsters apparently have a rule about not bringing out their guns in the open, though most of the fights are in back alleys or private offices, and anyway that never explains why the police are completely cool with wild street brawls.) A local Italian mobster, for reasons never explained, is completely obsessed with owning this one Chinese don, to the point where he'll hire martial arts masters from abroad to make it happen. And when the movie turns bloody in its final moments, it does so completely out of fucking nowhere, complete with a betrayal and a massacre.
Even with those goofy digressions, though, The Way of the Dragon is a beautifully focused and constructed movie. Enter the Dragon was probably Lee's best, with its epic scope and its great music and its Bolo Yeung. But this one works just as well as a showcase for Lee, and that's because of its simple, unpretentious nature. If the rest of the movie mostly exists as an excuse to get Lee and to Norris fight, that's fine. The fight is worth it.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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