There are lots of strange movies out there.
Heck, even strictly within the Kung-Fu and Martial Arts genre there are plenty of oddities. Weird genre mixes, crazy plots and bizarre characters pop up fairly frequently, which is what can make digging into the genre both a baffling, though ultimately greatly rewarding, experience. But perhaps no Kung-Fu film is more insane; more bizarre; more completely fucking bonkers than THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN. Not only does it fit quite snuggly into the Bruceploitation genre, but it has more weirdness per minute than any production you’re likely to see this side of David Lynch. Part of the pleasure of watching is simply trying to guess what possibly motivated its creators – including director Kei Law who would later go on to direct the ALSO batshit CRIPPLED MASTERS – to possibly think this was a good idea.
This time we have actually quite talented Leung Siu-lung (aka Bruce Leung) in the Bruce Lee role, though his resemblance – even while wearing Bruce Lee’s trademark sunglasses – to Lee is non-existent. But it’s not the Bruceploitation elements that make THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN so mindblowing. It’s not the constant references to Bruce’s penis size, either, though that’s certainly a contributing factor. No, in this case what is most baffling is the decision to populate the cast with many, many famous pop-culture creations, pitting Bruce against such characters as Dracula, James Bond and Zatoichi. Just check out a few of the characters that appear on the film’s poster:
Now, before I dig into the plot I actually want to talk about this poster and these characters a little bit, as the version of THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN (also known as DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG-FU) I own is an awful looking full-screen and dubbed version, and some of the identified characters are at odds with their label here. Going from left to right we start with the famous Japanese chambara character Zatoichi, though he’s billed as The Blind Swordsman and played as a villain – quite ably – by Mei Wong. Next is the Merry Widow, which is a character I’m not familiar with. There’s a famous operetta called The Merry Widow that has been adapted into film form several times, though this character – to my knowledge – isn’t identified as such in the film itself. Next is an interesting case. While identified clearly as Clint Eastwood in the dub, and is obviously dressed as Eastwood’s “Blondie” character from the Sergio Leone Man With No Name trilogy, the poster has the character called Ringo – possibly a reference to the popular RINGO Spaghetti Western series beginning with A PISTOL FOR RINGO. Either way it’s a strange inclusion, particularly since he’s played a) as a villain and b) by an Asian actor.
Next is a character with cultural relevance in China, but not generally recognizable in the West. Yang Kwai Fei (or Yang Guifei) was known as one of the four beauties of ancient China, and was consort to Emperor Xuanzong of Tang before dying at the age of 37 in the year 756. The dubbed version of the film doesn’t identify her. To her right is, of course, James Bond. Also a villain, and played by Alexander Grand – who also appeared in THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE – to confusing effect. After that is Chau Fei Yen (or Empress Zhao Feiyan), an empress during the Han dynasty who was often contrasted (negatively) with Yang Kwai Fei. In the film the two literally compete with one another, though (again) Chau Fei Yen isn’t explicitly named in the film. Next we get a really confusing character – The Godfather – who obviously looks nothing like Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone character from that film, and is equally unlike Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. He’s referred to strictly as The Godfather, so who knows what he’s actually supposed to represent.
Perhaps the most bizarre inclusion is the character of Emmanuelle from the 1959 novel “Emmanuelle” by Emmanuelle Arsan and, most notably for cult film fans, the long series of softcore films. The Emmanuelle of the novel was a “bored housewife” of a French ambassador who involves herself in a variety of sexual exploits, and this foreign nymph characterization would continue into the films, starting with the 1974 film EMMANUELLE. Certainly a notable character, but an odd choice to include in a martial arts film. Finally, we get the One-Armed Swordsman as made famous by Jimmy Wang-Yu in (of course) THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, as well as David Chiang in the later THE NEW ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN. Here he also bears a resemblance to Wang-Yu’s similar ONE ARMED BOXER character, and his appearance at least makes some sense considering Wang-Yu’s character had already appeared in previous cross-over films such as ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN.
And that’s not all. Believe it or not, there are equally weird appearances yet to be mentioned. The concept of a LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMAN style collection of action stars actually has a ton of potential but, as you can see, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to who was included. However, equally as strange as the characters is the actual plot, so let’s just jump right in.
Bruce Lee is in Hell. Yes, despite an opening title card promising that the film is “Dedicated to the millions who love Bruce Lee”, the first shot is of Bruce Lee (Leung Siu-lung) dead on a table in “the underworld” and sporting what appears to be a massive erection. Seriously. Now, we’ve already witnessed an opening title sequence featuring Bruce facing off against some of the previously mentioned bizarre opponents, as well as a collection of “zombies” who are simply actors in skeleton costumes. Yes, you read that correctly. This underworld is controlled by THE KING (sadly, not Elvis), who maintains power because his palace has a pillar that, when shaken, can destroy the entire underworld. Yeah.
Now you may wonder why “Bruce Lee” looks nothing at all like Bruce Lee, but the movie has you covered. Apparently “when a person dies their face AND body go through a change.”, so there! Oh, and don’t concern yourself with Bruce’s massive boner, it’s really just his nunchucks. Of course. Bruce and the King have a heated confrontation, but he’s given permission to leave after admitting that the “pillar to heaven” trick is pretty neat. And they give him back his boner/nunchucks.
Since this is a kung-fu movie, Bruce immediately heads to a local inn, called the COOL INN because “it’s so much cheaper than air conditioning”. I don’t get it. Anyway, sitting at a table – believe it or not – are fucking POPEYE (future star Eric Tsang) and a nearly unrecognizable Kwai Chang Caine from the television series “Kung-Fu”. Also nearby is Zatoichi, though he talks in a weird, faux-gangster style (“I reckon the jerk is taking the mickey. We better rub him out”), which is a bit confusing. Bruce is warned to not cause trouble, lest he rouse the ire of The Godfather’s two bodyguards, James Bond and Clint Eastwood. But Bruce doesn’t give a shit, and soon he’s fighting a group of skeleton zombies, before eventually getting taken out after a mini freak-out session.
Bruce is tended to by Wa To (I think), the king’s former physician, who takes some time to talk at length (ha!) about Bruce’s dick while he’s healing up. There’s also some weird references to Bruce’s possible infidelity while he was alive. Is that supposed to be the explanation of why he ended up in hell? Is this REALLY something you want to include in the movie? Bruce asks the doctor if he ever has a chance of returning to earth, but Wa To seems skeptical.
Meanwhile at the headquarters of the LEGION OF DOOM (or this film’s equivalent), we see our first gathering of baddies, and it’s fucking insane. Sitting around talking is The Godfather, Clint Eastwood/Ringo, Zatoichi, Emmanuelle, James Bond and a character referred to as The Exorcist. Is it supposed to be Father Merrin from THE EXORCIST? I have no idea. They debate how they are going to take care of Bruce Lee, which leads to the immortal line: “We’ve got Dracula. And he can summon up all his zombies to help us too!”. Yeah. Someone said that.
I have to say, I feel for the small number of actors tasked with dubbing the voices of this huge cast. I’m not a fan of dubbing in general, though almost all of the films covered in this column have post-synced sound either way, and even the Chinese performers are often dubbed by other actors. I just prefer the quality control of the dubbed voices in the original versions. That said, I still have a lot of nostalgia for the English dubs of a lot of Shaw Brothers titles, and you hear a lot of the same voices again and again, including some recognizable ones here. But how are you supposed to dub the voice of a Zatoichi, or a Clint Eastwood or a Dracula? Not an easy task, and I can only imagine what these western actors must have thought about some of this dialogue.
So, Bruce decides to open a gym dedicated to teaching his fictional friends Kung-Fu, though he does pause a moment to attempt a little gambling before deciding to instead distribute the money out to everyone in the room, except to sad sack One-Armed Swordsman (who is oddly sword-less). Lee and the Swordsman effectively fight off a few *sigh* zombies outside the casino, and soon everyone wants to be taught by Bruce Lee! After all, as the King’s wife coos (while bathing naked with some other ladies) “Steve McQueen was a Pupil and James Coburn and Charles Bronson..”. Basically, they all really want to bang Bruce Lee, and are repulsed by the King, who justifies this repulsion by saying things like “What a fine pair of breasts you have and such smooooth skin.”
Next we’re back outside and some nosy cops are giving Popeye and Cain a hard time, at least until Zatoichi shows up with his trademark wit (“He’s really a pig ignorant twit!”) and challenges Bruce Lee to a fight. If he loses, Zatoichi promises to leave for good. During this scene you would have trouble not noticing that the background to the city is a particularly poor matte painting. Thankfully, we get a brand new location: a rock quarry! And get used to it, because it’ll be the location for most of the major remaining fights. It’s actually quite an entertaining fight, particularly when Zatoichi finally reveals his cane-sword and when they start identifying their various fighting moves (which appear as text on the screen). Zatoichi attacks with BLIND MAN KILLS MOSQUITO or BLIND DOG PISSES, while Bruce returns fire with attacks based on his famous films – THE BIG BOSS, WAY OF THE DRAGON, GAME OF DEATH, etc. Eventually Bruce reveals his wang.. uh.. I mean nunchucks and finishes off the blind masseuse once and for all.
Despite James Bond’s cold (and accurate) protestation that “Kung-Fu is no match for a gun”, the collection of baddies decide that the next step is to send Emmannuelle to try and seduce Bruce. The ultimate plan seems a bit hazy, but we do get to see Bruce Lee and Emmanuelle dance to polka music, so the whole scene is worthwhile. Eventually Bruce figures out the ruse, though his first tip-off should have been the doorway full of people watching as he was trying to get it on. Emmannuelle throws a tantrum while The Godfather sits Bruce down and asks him to join their gang so they can rule the underworld. HA HA HA! But this is Bruce Lee, not some layabout like Clint Eastwood or James Bond, so he tells them to buzz off and leaves.
Two of the king’s wives – likely Chau Fei Yen and Yang Kwai Fei – decide that they want nothing better than to make the beast with two backs with Bruce, so they break into his apartment (where he’s being taken care of by the Doctor’s daughter who *might* be named Suman) and attempt to drug him with a magic powder (that is meant to “stiffen his resolve”. Eww). However, if a woman is to ingest the powder it has HORRIBLE SIDE EFFECTS. As you might imagine, the two ladies end up fighting before feeding each other the powder, which turns them into old, busted hags. They head back to the king and lie, saying that Bruce caused their condition, but the King is having none of that and tells them to go to hell. Especially as he has a brand new lady friend: Emmanuelle.
While all of this is going on, Bruce has dressed himself like Kato from “The Green Hornet” for no particular reason and is facing off against Dracula and his ARMY OF ZOMBIES. Another quick fight which ends with Bruce being held down by the skeleton creatures, until he kicks Dracula in the face with his THIRD LEG. Yes, a leg comes out of his crotch and kicks Dracula in the face. It’s at this point that I realize that THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN is, at heart, simply a massively misguided comedy rather than a massively misguided, bad-taste Kung-Fu movie.
Bruce returns to the palace with a list of The Godfather’s men, proving that Emmanuelle is trying to kill the King through excessive lovemaking. Or, as the king so eloquently states it, “her pussy’s in this plot too. She was using it to murder me!”. Bruce is made captain of the king’s bodyguards, and it’s a good thing as the plot is about to kick into hyperdrive. First James Bond tries to skip town with a suitcase full of money, but runs into Lee who quickly kills him. Then “Clint Eastwood” takes on Lee in the rock quarry – complete with fake Ennio Morricone music in the background and Sergio Leone-style closeups – before Bruce dispatches him with equal ease. The townspeople throw him a big part afterward, celebrating their new-found freedom, giving The Exorcist (who speaks in a French accent for some unknown reason) and The Godfather (who looks a lot more like Sonny Chiba from THE STREETFIGHTER if you ask me) an opening to attack the King directly. Staring death in the face, the king shakes the pillar, causing a massive earthquake which kills a bunch of townspeople and sends the baddies running.
They decide to hide out in the rock quarry, but that’s a big mistake. Bruce Lee just happens to wander by (“It’s a small world.”) and we actually get a very impressive fight between the three. Leung Siu-lung shows off some amazing leg work, while The Godfather (played by Shen Ie Lung, who also appeared in the Jackie Chan film TO KILL WITH INTRIGUE) and The Exorcist (in his priest robe) both hold their own. Of course Bruce wins thanks to piercing The Godfather with his FINGERS OF FURY. Now, you might think that with all the bad guys killed, this would be the end of things. Not quite.
The King, still fearing for his life, recruits a bearded character to help him. He seems to identify this character as Chung Kwei, a character from Chinese history usually appearing on items used to protect people and places from demons and evil spirits. He does indeed dress like the character, before whipping up a shit-load of mummys. Yep. They all – of course – head into the rock quarry, where Chung Kwei has words with Bruce Lee (“I’m going to boot you in the ass!” “You ignorant heap of buffalo dung!”) since the King believes Bruce was lax in his protective duties. This leads to a final huge fight where Caine, Popeye (with spinach!) and The One-Armed Swordsman (with broken sword!) show up to lend Bruce a hand. It’s a really silly fight, and soon the enemies are dispatched and the king is left begging for his life. He offers his throne to Bruce, but instead Bruce asks to be able to return to earth, and for the king to be good to his people. The King promises and works some magic on Lee, which leads to one of the most amazing final shots in the history of cinema. A Bruce Lee dummy, hanging completely vertical, flying through the air. I mean, it’s tough to make out, but just LOOK:
Wow. Just. Wow.
Who knows why this film even exists? What sort of a release did it get? How did audiences respond? Great questions, but sometimes you just need to be thankful that for a brief period the planets aligned in a particular way that allowed THIS to exist. It’s obviously not a good film, but THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN commits so fully to its own brand of weirdness that you can’t help but be impressed, even as your jaw drops in sheer amazement.
Leung Siu-lung would go on to make a few more Bruceploitation films (including appearing in THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE) before vanishing in the late 80s, eventually finding career rebirth thanks to his memorable casting in Stephen Chow’s KUNG-FU HUSTLE. Sadly, Bruce Lee did not appear again on earth after this film was released, but the Bruceploitation phenomenon still had a few more years left before it burned out for good. But, even with THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE, it would sadly never quite reach this level of nuttiness again.
NEXT WEEK: LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (1982)
Long live the fist,
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