"The Dragon Lives Again" (1977) Art House Movie Day Review
This review is for one of three films I watched in one day at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I mention this only because of how much I've fallen in love with the venue and was more than happy to literally spend six hours of my day going in and out of screenings. And this is the third and final film...
You know a movie is something special when the audience literally staggers out of the theater laughing with tears in their eyes.
The Dragon Lives Again is straight up one of the most unhinged movies I've ever seen, and in ways that I'm not sure are entirely legal. I mention the legal aspect because this film has some of the best copyright infringement I've seen in film history to the point that I expected lawyers to descend on the theater at a moments notice. To completely appreciate this film though, we have to talk about a few things. First, let's talk about Bruce Lee.
Now, everyone at least has a baseline understanding of Bruce Lee. He was an immensely talented martial artist that starred in a few major films that ended up being huge hits before his untimely death at the age of thirty-two. What you may not know about are "Brucesploitation films." Brucesploitation films refer to films that would use similar named actors, such as Bruce Leung (who is in The Dragon Lives Again) to cash in on Bruce Lee's name. These films got pretty damn creative towards the end of their run, but none of them are as off the rails as The Dragon Lives Again. While many Brucesploitation films acknowledged the fact that the actual Bruce Lee was dead, few of them leaned nearly as hard into that fact as this movie does.
The plot of The Dragon Lives Again is that Bruce Lee has died and entered the Underworld. No, really, that's what the movie is about. He wakes up in the Underworld and goes to live among other souls, but immediately stirs up trouble. Turns out the Underworld's social strata is just like a Bruce Lee movie. In other words, a local gang controls the terrified populace in its grip while having bigger plans to overthrow the powers that be. In this case, the gang seeks to usurp the King of the Underworld, a horny old fool (that's the nicest set of words I could think of to describe this guy).
Beyond the Underworld setup, this isn't the weirdest movie in the world. What sends it to infinity and beyond then? Well, the local gang. The local gangs' leaders are "The Godfather" and "The Exorcist." While The Exorcist doesn't really do much to evoke the film he's been ripped out of, The Godfather actually has some of the music from the Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece. And that's not even close to the craziest case of outright copyright abuse. Their henchmen include The Man With No Name and James Bond.
No, you didn't read that wrong. It's James Bond. And yes, his music makes an appearance. And for good measure, Dracula is in there too. Luckily for Bruce Lee, Popeye the Sailor, Caine from Kung-Fu, and The One-Armed Swordsman become his allies. And, yes, that Popeye. He eats spinach at one point. You know what happens from there.
There are other characters ripped into this film, most of which are more obscure to an American audience, but are still worth talking about. Zatoichi, the blind swordsman is a really great example of this, a Japanese character that has appeared in nearly thirty films. And twenty eight of those films were made with the same actor, Shintaro Katsu.
The single weirdest inclusion though is the appearance of "Emmanuelle," a henchwoman to the gang. I'm not going to lie, I had to look up and figure out why the film made such a big deal out of a woman named Emmanuelle, but after looking up the history I found a surprising answer. She's apparently a famous soft-core porn character out of France. That's all the information I'll provide here and if you want to learn more, you probably shouldn't look it up at work.
You'd think that listing all of these characters out might give away a lot of the fun to be had in watching this movie, but you'd be completely wrong. This film doesn't just fly off the rails, it careens wildly into an abyss from which logic has no reach. It's completely hilarious and compelling to watch, especially in a large group. The theater I was in wasn't even that large and about a third of the way full, but the laughter was roaring at a consistent pace. The ending in particular shellshocked just about everyone in the room. It's one of the only times I've ever been compelled to ask other people on my way out of a theater, "Did that shit actually happen or did I just imagine that?," and was met with more laughter and tears from those audience members.
There's so much more to talk about here, like how the film actually writes a half-assed explanation about why Bruce Lee looks "different" in the Underworld (and, you know, definitely isn't being played by another actor entirely) or how one of the villains actually tries to use Emmanuelle's sexual prowess to make love to the King of the Underworld so hard he has a heart attack. But I want people to see this for themselves. It's a complete and total riot of a time, highly recommended for large groups. Pulpy weird fun like this doesn't come around often.
The fights are pretty good too.