The third Bruce Lee vehicle is just ok. And it pains me a little to say that not only because it’s a fucking Bruce Lee movie but because it’s also Bruce’s baby. He wrote and directed this thing and man does it reek of someone’s first time out.
The story is that Bruce travels to Rome to help out at a restaurant that’s owned by a friend’s niece. And as these things go, they’re being muscled out by some gangster who wants their land. Sounds simple and simple is good, especially if this is your first writing and directing job. But there’s a whole myriad of shit that isn’t explained well or isn’t explained at all. Here’s a short list I worked up:
How exactly is Bruce going to help?
If you think about it from the point of view of the niece Bruce’s presence doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s never explicitly stated that he’s there for protection and to beat the shit out of the bad guys. In fact Bruce isn’t supposed to be there at all. This chick who owns the restaurant (who is also the love interest) really wanted her uncle to come over from China but he couldn’t make it and sent Bruce instead. So Bruce must be there to do what the niece’s uncle was going to do like help in the kitchen or maybe drum up a slick marketing campaign or some shit. We never see him do any of that though, only fight people.
I think the question I posed is important to ask because it legitimizes the existence of our main character. I mean the audience knows that he’s Bruce Lee and he’s in a movie to kick people’s asses. And if it was played up that way it would’ve worked a helluva lot better. But since it isn’t there needs to be more, there needs to be motivation behind Bruce’s willingness to help and justification for using martial arts against people. And both are pretty vague and flimsy. Even though Bruce wasn’t the guy that was originally sent for he seems eager to be of service which is fine. The problem is that he doesn’t seem all that concerned with the restaurant itself which is what we are assuming he’s there to fix. When Bruce gets picked up at the airport in the beginning he tells the niece to tell him all about the problems with the restaurant at a later time and shrugs it off. But right before that he gives a big wink to the audience with the line, “oh I can help” which translates to “I know how to fuckin’ drop some dudes. Check back later for a bunch of that.” My point is Bruce wrote this character poorly and wanted to make him kind of naïve and innocent but at the same time it’s like he knows he’s a hired gun that’s there to fuck people up. I’m not sure if you can have a character like that because it just comes off in a very odd way in this movie. Bruce wants to be wholesome yet deadly. It’s not like in The Chinese Connection where his mentor was slain so he must get revenge or in Enter the Dragon where his sister was attacked so once again he must seek revenge. There’s never really a point in Return of the Dragon where Bruce suffers a heavy blow. He’s on top of shit the whole time and that creates a serious lack of danger.
Why does the bad guy want ownership of the Chinese restaurant so badly?
We’re never told what the head bad guy has to gain by obtaining this place. Since the restaurant isn’t really getting customers anymore due to the gangster’s scare tactics why not just wait until the eatery goes into foreclosure and then buy it. Maybe the bad guy doesn’t have a ton of cash and can’t afford to buy the restaurant which is why he wants it signed over. I don’t know about that though, seems pretty unlikely. This guy looks to be in kind of a hurry to take the restaurant so maybe there’s a time factor. But if there is we’re never told about it.
Now, you could ask this same question about the Chinese school in The Chinese Connection (which I’m pretty sure I did actually). The Japanese in that film…just want to close it down. There’s no specific reason given. That worked a lot better but I’ not totally sure why. We’re not given any more information in that movie than in this. Maybe it’s because everything else is better in The Chinese Connection so it’s easy to overlook an over simplicity like this.
Spoiler on the last question
What the fuck is up with the uncle that works at the restaurant?
This is what had me scratching my head the most. If he’s really a bad guy that wants his boss to have the restaurant then why does he keep insisting to his niece/owner that she shouldn’t sell it? I mean he’s on the inside so you would think that he would try to use his position to convince this lady that it’s not worth the trouble of keeping the place and get in good with the head bad guy. Instead he exacerbates the problem. Sure at one point in the movie he says that Bruce should be sent away because he’s stirring up too much trouble (in other words, this sonuvabitch is getting in the way of my crime boss’ plan) but then a couple of lines later he vows that the restaurant will never be sold.
And it’s not like these bad guys didn’t have options, especially when it comes to using the uncle. The uncle could’ve tried to have the restaurant signed over to him or he could’ve bought it from his niece. Or how about just killing his niece? The uncle certainly doesn’t have a problem murdering people as we see at the end of the picture. This guy probably could’ve offed Bruce too at any moment because he’s completely not under any kind of suspicion. It seems to me that the uncle allowed all of this shit to go on for no reason when he could’ve hatched a plot at any time.
But of course, the main reason why you would want to watch this film is the fight between Bruce and Chuck Norris. And, yeah it’s a pretty good fight. I mean it takes place in the Roman Coliseum for fuck’s sake. Both guys get beat up so it’s not totally one sided which is awesome and Chuck actually does one of the best acting jobs I’ve seen him do. He really looks like he’s in agony towards the end.
All of the other fight scenes are ok but nothing really spectacular like the dojo fight in The Chinese Connection.
I want to say that Bruce was better off starring in films and choreographing fight sequences while letting someone else direct and write. But he didn’t live long enough to get better at those other aspects of filmmaking so it’s a little unfair to make that statement. It’s unfortunate that Return of the Dragon is the best example we have to go on because it’s just not that well made. The dialogue is terrible, the story isn’t developed quite enough, it’s shot in a pretty stiff manner and every once in a while the editing gets really bad. Also there’s one music cue that pops up every so often (like the one they use during the airport scene) that’s a little too silly sounding. And what the fuck is the deal with those cartoony timpani hits when Bruce punches a couple of guys? That kind of shit is inexplicable. There’s also the question of, why Rome? It’s a very odd choice of location. Not to mention Bruce shits on the majesty of the city when he looks at one of their magnificent fountains and says, “It’s a waste…in Hong Kong I would build on it, make money.” I guess he’s making a comment on the excesses of western culture and how gaudy and inconsiderate it can be.
It’s interesting to see a film that Bruce had a bunch of control over but like I said, it’s a rough first attempt. Well he did give us the Chuck Norris fight and I guess that’s reason enough to see this flick.