Once again, Lee is reminding viewers how self-aware he was as a movie star. In much the same way people like Eastwood and McQueen forged screen personas, taking this and “Big Boss” as a double feature makes it easy to see a star defining his legacy for himself. For years, he had struggled as other people tried to define his role in the entertainment world, but these films show him taking that into his own hands, melding his diverse background and styles into something riveting. “Fist of Fury” has a bit too much downtime for its own good, but the fight scenes in the final third, especially one in which Lee’s arms blur, feel so influential that you won’t be able to watch a movie like “The Matrix” again without thinking of it.
“The Way of the Dragon”
After the control issues on “Fist of Fury,” Bruce Lee took filmmaking into his own hands with his directorial debut, which also happens to be the only Lee film that Roger Ebert reviewed, apparently under the title “Return of the Dragon.” As Roger notes, there’s an unusual amount of humor in “Way of the Dragon,” the story of a young man who goes to Rome to protect a restaurant under siege by a crime boss. Once again, Lee is aligning himself with the downtrodden, portraying himself as a hero of the common man, while also making it clear how much he’s unlike any other fighter. A final showdown in the Colosseum with Chuck Norris is legendary in the history of martial arts cinema.
Overall, “Way of the Dragon” is an unusual film tonally. The opening act practically qualifies as comedy, a way for Lee to show off his range and his affinity for the work of Jerry Lewis, and then the film takes a sharp turn into drama. The tonal balance doesn’t always work, but, again, the film is fascinating when one considers it in terms of legacy building. Here’s Lee saying, “I can do anything anywhere.” He had been put in too many boxes by Hollywood and Hong Kong, and so making a genre hybrid set in Rome feels like a statement. And that Norris fight still rules. (One of the special features notes how Lee cast martial arts experts instead of actors because he actually liked to make contact with his co-stars instead of faking it. You can tell.)