Set in Italy, the movie has Bruce Lee playing Tang Lung (Cantonese nickname: A-lung, denoting familiarity). He’s a country bumpkin from Hong Kong who’s sent to Rome to work at his uncle’s restaurant. Once there, however, he ends up fighting the Mafia.
After a mobster who looks like American radio personality Wolfman Jack floors one of the Chinese waiters (Jimmy) with one punch, A-lung’s new family is put into a precarious place. Yet to A-lung, it’s merely an invitation to intervene. With aloof grit and guile, he sends the thug and his wolf pack running with their tails between their legs.
When the wolf leader returns with reinforcements — a larger pack to continue their skull-thuggery — A-lung becomes a pulse-pounding, weapon-wielding predator as he uses a bo and two nunchaku to mow his way through wimpy hordes of maligning Mafiosos.
Eventually, two karate killers played by Korean actor Whang In-shik and American martial artist Bob Wall are hired to lessen A-lung’s life, which only expands his artistic maneuvers into controlled maniacal moments of astonishment and admonishment as he teaches them a lesson.
Return of the Dragon climaxes with an exquisite battering-ram rampage bout between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Rome’s Colosseum. Lee originally planned to face karate champion Joe Lewis in the fight, but they had a falling out. Of note, the death blow in the film is not about anger, revenge or hatred; it’s about respect for a fellow warrior and sadness that it had to end the way it did.
Bruce Lee’s potential as an innovative director and influential filmmaker is apparent throughout the movie. The Colosseum fight, for example, features intercut shots of a kitten toying with a rock, which mirrors the dynamic of the duel. Lee additionally incorporates the creative use of sound to accent moods and emotions with percussion instruments as he utters his patented battle screams, which sadly have been mimicked ad nauseam, thus cheapening the effect. Note that the musical cue used when Chuck Norris gives Lee a thumbs-down at the Colosseum is borrowed from Sergio Leone’s famous spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West (1969).
Return of the Dragon also draws on Bruce Lee’s own life for inspiration: the time he spent as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Oakland, California, and the occasion when he taught a lesson to an American stuntman by knocking him 15 feet backward with one kick. Actor Wu Ngan, who holds the air shield that Lee kicks in Return of the Dragon, was Lee’s childhood friend, as well as a male servant in the Lee household when he was growing up in Hong Kong. The film also reflects the racism Lee was exposed to while living in Hong Kong and America and while working in Hollywood.
Bruce Lee’s fights were symbolic messages that Chinese folks inside or outside America didn’t need to be subservient. He showed that a little Asian man could stand up to the big powers. It’s no wonder Chinese audiences cheered when Lee beat the cruel Japanese and the proud Russian in Chinese Connection and in Return of the Dragon when he disposed of the arrogant Japanese karate fighter (Whang) and the silent, sneaky American Colt (Norris).
It’s ironic that none of the white bad guys beaten up in Bruce Lee’s films was British, especially when one considers the first brunt of racism he faced was while living in Hong Kong when it was a British colony.
It’s been established that Bruce Lee’s existence was metaphysically and thematically shaped by the essence of water, and the Chinese title of Return of the Dragon reflects several psychological touches of genius that to Lee had significant relationships with water, one obvious and others subliminal.
The Chinese title Meng Long Guo Jiangmeans Fierce Dragon Crosses the River. On the surface, it’s an analogy of Lee, the Fierce Dragon, physically crossing the Pacific “river” to return to Hong Kong to make it as a film star in Asia. The Hollywood snubbers soon became Lee lovers — a psychological victory!
The subliminal meanings evolve around Lee’s childhood friend Choi Yuen Cheung. As kids, they would ride on the water buffaloes that belonged to the villages where Lee’s father’s opera troupe would perform along the rivers. The older Choi was protective of little Bruce, making sure he never fell off the animals. Bruce did not know how to swim, so Choi would wade out into the water with Bruce on his shoulders so he could experience the rush of the current and watery malevolence. One day, Choi decided to teach Bruce how to swim.
After a few lessons and feeling confident, the two floated out into deeper waters. Choi let Bruce go and watched him go for it. For a split second, Choi was distracted by a water buffalo entering the water, then when he looked back at Bruce, he was gone. Choi frantically swam out to where he thought Bruce went under. When Bruce finally came up, Choi plucked him out of the water.
From that day on, Choi became Bruce’s best friend as he saved and thus protected him from water. Out of gratitude to an old friend, Lee insisted that Choi (aka Little Unicorn) get bit parts in several films. Yet for Return of the Dragon, Lee hired Choi to play Jimmy — and A-lung saves and protects Jimmy. It’s as if they had returned to the river of water buffaloes and it was Lee looking out for Choi. In other words, it was A-lung saving and protecting Jimmy as they safely crossed the river between Hong Kong and Italy.
A final never-reported note: One of Sammo Hung’s funniest films was Enter the Fat Dragon (1978), a parody of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon in which he played a portly character that emulated Lee. When Hung starred in the CBS series Martial Law, the show’s Chinese title Guo Jiang Long, which means Dragon Crosses the River, was an homage Lee and Return of the Dragon, in which Hung had become the dragon that crossed the Pacific “river” to America.
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