It’s been 30 years since Bruce Lee passed away, and it is impossible to think of a more unlikely (or more entertaining) tribute to the martial arts superstar than the 1976 fantasy “The Dragon Lives Again.” Now available on DVD, this is the rare kung fu caper which would probably be more at home in a surrealist film festival than in a martial arts round-up.
“The Dragon Lives Again” follows Bruce Lee into his life after death. The mysterious circumstances of his death are not discussed, but never mind. Poor Bruce Lee winds up in The Underworld, which is a predominantly Chinese purgatory approximately one flight up from Hell. The Underworld is run by a king who wears a beaded lampshade on his head and chases naked concubines around a giant hot tub (nice work if you can get it).
It seems that the king is facing a possible coup by a variety of ‘60s and ‘70s pop culture icons who want to take over The Underworld. This gang includes James Bond (a bushy haired white guy in a cheap tuxedo), Clint Eastwood (a Chinese guy with a beard, wearing the poncho costume from the Leone westerns), the Exorcist (another Chinese guy, wearing a black Nehru jacket), Zaitoichi the Blind Swordsman (who simulates his ocular disability by fluttering his eyelids) and Emmanuelle (the happy hedonist of French soft-core porn). There is also a Chinese Dracula, who seems to have overcome his Transylvanian counterpart’s aversion to sunlight.
Bruce Lee, however, recruits his own gang of good-guys to fight this evil band. Part of the heroic team is the fabled One-Armed Boxer (whom Bruce casually refers to as “One-Armed”) and Popeye the Sailor. Yes, Popeye the Sailor is here…at least in the form of a Chinese guy with a shaved head, a large corncob pipe and the Popeye costume. This Popeye doesn’t need spinach, however, as he handles villains by squeezing their noses and pushing them by their faces into walls.
Adding to the chaos is the presence of Bruce Leong as Bruce Lee. To be charitable, Leong (real name: Hsiao Liang) bears no physical resemblance whatsoever to the man he is supposed to portray. The filmmakers were obviously aware of this drawback, thus prefixing his entrance into the action by having the supporting female characters comment that the lack of resemblance is expected since people are physically transformed after death into different appearances. While Leong doesn’t look like Lee, he sure as hell doesn’t fight like him. The movie’s fight sequences seem to have been choreographed by a group of 10-year-olds who’ve seen too many kung fu films and think they know how to stage a rumble. “The Dragon Lives Again” is thick with air punches and slaps that miss contact by a good measure while the soundtrack chokes up with Three Stooges-style sound effects of pokes, bangs and knocks in a vain attempt to fool the audience into thinking someone is actually getting chopped.
Speaking of knocks, “The Dragon Lives Again” takes more than a few minutes to talk about a celebrated aspect of Bruce Lee, which never found its way into camera range during his lifetime. After much talk among the concubines about the high number of women eager to have hoochy-koo with Bruce Lee, one of the admiring ladies comments on the late star’s manhood with the deathless line: “When a man’s endowed like Bruce, the girls are bound to want him.” Sadly, the film never puts it money shot where its mouth is, and Bruce’s only fling with the ladies comes when the wicked Emmanuelle tries seduction tactics by dancing the mazurka with him in her bedroom.
Being a 70s Kung fu flick, “The Dragon Lives Again” is dubbed into English by people who probably never saw the film they were asked to loop. The Exorcist is inexplicably given a French accent, the king’s advisers sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Bruce Lee is given a Noo Yawk honk somewhere between Al Pacino and Leo Gorcey. Popeye is not given a voice equal to the cartoon original, but instead has a fairly normal-sounding Chinese-inflected American speaking voice.
What any of this has to do with Bruce Lee’s legacy is never entirely clear. But when you have a scenario when Clint Eastwood and James Bond are trying to take over a Chinese purgatory and Bruce Lee calls on Popeye the Sailor to help save the day (not counting the interlude for the cast to talk about Bruce Lee’s penis!), it would seem that cogent and coherent thought is not high on the priority list.
“The Dragon Lives Again” will probably annoy enthusiasts of martial arts films and the diehard fans of Bruce Lee, but it will provide endless amusement for those who enjoy watching crazy films while filling their systems with endless mugs of beer or puffs of weed.