Dragon the Master
Hong Kong 2003
Directed by Ray Woo.

Bruce Lee has never truly gone away, living on in the hearts and minds of fans. More than that he is thought of by many as a true Chinese hero, his destruction of the sign that reads "No Dogs or Chinese" in FIST OF FURY being emblematic of the man himself. He would compete in a Western arena, not as anyone's dog, but as an equal. The 30th Anniversary of Bruce Lee's death, then, with its attending DVD re-releases of his films, cannot be described as a resurgence of interest, but rather an affirmation. And now quite by surprise, though we should have seen it coming, here comes a new Brucesploitation movie.

Bruce Lee has long been the target of parody or homage, especially by Stephen Chow, in films from FIST OF FURY 1991 to KING OF COMEDY and even to SHAOLIN SOCCER. Wong Jing also caught the Bruce bug, as this year's SPY DAD offers an amusing parody of the end of ENTER THE DRAGON, with Tony Leung as the rather helpless and inept Bruce lookalike, and comedian Eric Kot as the claw handed villain. Mirrors, needless to say, were mandatory.

But DRAGON THE MASTER is a different breed. It's a throwback to the Brucesploitation pictures of old, where the hero wasn't pretending to be Bruce Lee, he (to all intents and purposes) actually was Bruce.

DRAGON THE MASTER is not a comedy. It's a kung-fu action movie. And even though it is set in the modern day, nobody ever stops our hero and says, "Man, you look just like Bruce Lee." And no one bursts out laughing when he flicks his nose with his thumb or lets out a nut busting scream.

Bruce Lee is imitated here by Dragon Shek Tin Lung, and actor I've never seen before, except in the companion film Big Boss Untouchable, doing the same shtick. Apparently he has also done a series of Jeet Kun Do training videos, though, so I guess that means he really knows his stuff. Thing is, also has decent on screen presence. Not up to original Bruce Lee charisma, but enough so that it seems if he ever gets the opportunity to stop imitating Bruce and do his own thing, he might just make it work.

The story concerns his sister, who works at a computer game company, and her idea for a new game. In a discussion at the opening of the film, she suggests it feature Jeet Kun Do. Others in the firm suggest Drunken Boxing, or Thai kickboxing, instead. Her friend at the firm, played by Roy Cheung, stands by her plan, but ultimately bootleggers catch wind of the project and try to steal it. Somehow, they also manage to involve two competing martial arts schools and a big mainlander looking to join a boxing competition into the mix as well.

DRAGON THE MASTER is a throwback, like the recent DRUNKEN MONKEY. But whereas the latter harks back to the slapstick kungfu of Jackie Chan and Golden Harvest, DRAGON THE MASTER goes back to a different era, when the movies could still be taken seriously, and viewers would savour matchups between different styles of kung fu. It isn't even in synch sound. But it makes sense that it is a throwback, because it is produced by Joseph Lai, the famous schlockmeister behind the endless Ninja and Kickboxing movies from the 80's. It feels like blasphemy to prefer Joseph Lai over Lau Kar-Leung, but it's true, at least in this case: I prefer DRAGON THE MASTER over DRUNKEN MONKEY.

How serious is too serious, though? I mean, it is a bit much that, after describing the sort of fighting styles that should appear in her game, the very same styles play out in real (reel) life before their eyes: Jeet Kun Do vs. Drunken Fist vs. Muay Thai. And Dragon is always appropriately dressed and equipped for whatever bit of Lee impersonation is necessary for the scene. In one bit, he leaps out of nowhere to defend a girl from thugs, wearing the yellow jumpsuit with the black pinstripe (No explanation is given as to why he is wearing it). Numchuks appear out of nowhere, seemingly at will. The last group of badguys are inexplicably in a multi-level pagoda. And when he faces the last, he is wearing a white tank top which gets bloody, cat-like slashes on one side (as does, of course, his cheek). The imitation is completely shameless.

But for a low budget Bruce Lee rip off, the movie manages to do a lot of things right. The martial arts on display are impressive. The master of the other school, who knows Drunken Fist, is as good as the star, in his own way, and I would guess he is known to kung fu fans, though I didn't recognize him. The characters are good, as well, and for the most part manage to avoid neatly pidgeonholing everyone into either a "good" or "evil" category. Even the strongest opponent our hero fights turns out to be working for the bad guys in order to earn money for an operation for his wife. A boyfriend of one of the ass-kicking kung fu heroines (oh yes, kung fu women, too, did I mention that?), played by Edward So, crosses a line trying to earn some cash, too. In fact, the overriding theme of the film seems to be that people are generally decent, but when powerful people use the lure of money to entice, it is hard for us to resist. Dragon is the hero, then, because he doesn't care for money or fame, or even "face". He just cares about his family, his friends, and his school.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on June 29, 2004.

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