Delivering into every aspect of life in the 1970s, Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a dusty, romantic fairytale of life in the magical landscape of LA in one of the most significant decades of American history. Playing a major role in how culture was shaped during this era, Bruce Lee’s appearance in the movie demonstrates the extraordinary power the late 20th century icon had on the mainstream zeitgeist.
Disrupting the Hollywood system during his rise to prominence in the late 1960s, in such TV series as Batman and The Green Hornet, before breaking American cinema at the turn of the ‘70s, Bruce Lee brought an unprecedented potency to the industry, making him an influential name in every corner of international culture. Though he found fame as a martial artist, actor and filmmaker, the real enduring essence of Bruce Lee was in his philosophical presence.
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water,” famously quoted in an interview, referring to how the liquid lives by a rhythm of adaptability, a key concept that he worked into his directorial debut, Way of the Dragon, a martial arts classic that remains the most influential film of its genre even half a century later.
Translating his philosophical beliefs into the very fabric of the martial arts film, Way of the Dragon represents Bruce Lee’s very best cinematic work, well-reflecting his meticulous nature and ambition as a humble creative. Very much an international feature film, Lee brought himself outside his own Hong Kong comfort zone, travelling to Rome to tell the story of a man who visits his relatives in Italy, only to find himself defending them against a gang of brutal gangsters.
Although Lee’s film was remarkably innovative, providing significant momentum for the popularity of martial arts cinema around the world, as the plot for the film likely suggests Way of the Dragon remained indelibly part of the genre’s identity. Telling a peculiar story featuring Italian caricatures, villainous cliches and familiar out of sync dubbing, Lee’s film retains a homemade charm whilst very much looking to the future of martial arts filmmaking.
Still with one foot in the traditions of the genre, Lee provides the perfect stepping stone for martial arts cinema to enter into a new era, taking the film to global audiences thanks to its intercontinental storyline and debut appearance of American cultural icon Chuck Norris. Intelligently constructed, the film is essentially a ‘fish out of water’ story in which Lee’s character travels outside his comfort zone to challenge a totally new enemy, providing the perfect introduction to those who have never experienced Lee, or indeed martial arts cinema in general.
Displaying his magnetism as an iconic screen presence, much of the film is follows the familiar route of a martial arts movie, spiked with moments of exemplary action (of which Lee himself choreographed), all concluding in one of the finest endings in film history where Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris go face-to-face.
Taking 45 hours to film, Lee put in an extraordinary amount of time to ensure that this final fight sequence was a masterful feat in and of itself. Dedicating almost a quarter of the original script to this epic showdown, Lee wrote down how each specific move should be played out, crafting a careful scene that had a self-contained narrative. With no dialogue and a sparing use of music, the ten-minute scene set in the walkway of the Roman colosseum toys with themes of rhythm and adaptability, harking back to Lee’s own philosophical ideals that he holds so dear.
Representing the very best of the martial artist, filmmaker and philosophical thinker, Way of the Dragon undoubtedly remains Bruce Lee’s greatest feat of cinema, acting as a timeless ode to the cultural legacy of an undisputed icon.