Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Dragon Lives Again

I’ve often wondered what the most patently absurd film in existence could be. Before last night I’d always assumed that it was a toss-up between The Hottie and The Nottie and Caligula Reincarnated as Hitler, but it turns out I was wrong. You see, before last night I’d never seen The Dragon Lives Again.

In order to understand this film, it’s necessary to learn a little about a movement in Hong Kong cinema known as bruceploitation. The term’s a portmanteau of Bruce, as in Bruce Lee, and exploitation. When Bruce Lee unexpectedly died in 1973, movie producers in Hong Kong panicked, fearing that international audiences wouldn’t care for films from Hong Kong not starring The Little Dragon, and subsequently produced a slew of Bruce Lee-themed movies, some bearing titles similar to genuine Lee movies (Re-Enter the Dragon leaps to mind) and others starring Bruce Lee lookalike actors, most of whom sported names like Bruce Li, Brute Lee, Lee Bruce and so on. Most of these so-called bruceploitation movies were pretty generic martial arts flicks, released purely to cash in on audience ignorance and confusion, but The Dragon Lives Again is a different beast indeed: definitely the most bizarre of the bruceploitation films, and probably one of the craziest movies ever committed to celluloid.

The movie opens in the Underworld, a place apparently between Hell and Earth, where departed pop culture icons go to…well, it’s not entirely clear what they’re supposed to be doing in the Underworld but, m’eh, they’re there. We open on Bruce Lee (well, actually, Bruce Leung) lying in state before the King of the Underworld and his court, apparently suffering the effects of rigor mortis most profoundly.

In fact Bruce’s dong is discussed at some length in this film, if I can put it that way, with the King’s concubines wittering endlessly in stilted Dublish about his ‘endowment’. But to the court’s shock and disappointment, the bulge only turns out to be a set of nunchucks, which Bruce awakes from his eternal slumber to retrieve from the King.

It is worth pausing at this point to consider one glaringly obvious problem with this film: Bruce Leung looks nothing like Bruce Lee. Not even a hint of a resemblance. Nada. I mean, look. However, the writers get around this monumental problem by having the pair of penis-obsessed courtesans discussing Bruce’s ‘changed appearance’. Apparently ‘when you die, your body and face undergo a profound change’. So that’s that, then.

Anyway, when Bruce is told to show reverence to the fringe-crowned monarch he initially scoffs but is rendered speechless when the King demonstrates his power: shaking a big red pillar in his throne room, which causes earthquakes throughout the underworld. Suitably awed, Bruce agrees to respect the King before jump-cutting into a diner, apparently in the Underworld’s party district. But Bruce Lee’s not the only pop culture icon in this café. No, sir. Why, look – here’s Popeye.

Despite the oddness of his fellow patrons Bruce settles down to a well-earned meal before running afoul of Japan’s premiere blind swordsman, Zatoichi, for some trivial offense or other and it’s not long before Zatoichi brings in some of his dastardly allies – namely James Bond and Clint Eastwood. Yes, in this film 007 and The Man with No Name both work for the forces of evil and are part of a bizarre syndicate of international pop culture icons who are planning a coup to take over the Underworld.

In fact the choice of villains in this film is probably the best demonstration of Chinese supremacy I’ve ever seen in my life. The nefarious cabal consists of the following international icons, all of whom are bested by Bruce Lee (China/Hong Kong): James Bond (UK), Clint Eastwood (USA), The Godfather (a piss-poor Al Pacino lookalike, Italy), Emmanuelle (the soft-porn character, France), The Exorcist (one of the priests from Linda Blair’s pea-soup commercial, and bizarrely sporting a French accent). Oh, and Dracula acts as a sort of contractor for this dastardly team of rogues too. Initially I thought this group was pretty random, but as a collection of characters all of whom chosen to represent other cinematic territories, it’s a fairly well thought-out bunch.

So Bruce ends up meeting up with the syndicate after having the stuffing knocked out of him by Clint, Bond and a pack of zombies and predictably refuses to join them. Naturally, their only option is to snuff him out (although how you can ‘kill’ someone who’s already passed on is never touched on in the film – maybe the makers were hoping to sow the seeds of philosophical debate in the audience), and in fact the remainder of the film essentially consists of the attempts of the cabal to whack Brucie.

I was going to offer a concise summary of the rest of the movie’s plot but narrative consistency is not one of the film’s strong points. Still, pressing on, Bruce finds himself in a quarry for no particular reason where he’s ambushed by Zatoichi, who attempts to off Bruce with some of the most quirkily named martial arts moves I’ve ever heard.

But before long the nunchucks come out and Zatoichi is sent packing. Emmanuelle is up next, threatening to use her womanly wiles to lure Bruce to his doom. Alas we’re spared her seduction technique, for no sooner has she announced her intention at that morning’s Cave of Evil general meeting than the film cuts to her inexplicably in bed with Bruce. Unfortunately for Emmanuelle her decadent ways mean that she quickly moves in to give Little Bruce a kiss and reveals the evildoers sneaking into Bruce’s room. However, despite having caught him with his pants down, the baddies choose to retreat. Bruce follows, and despite both Bond and Clint pulling their guns on Bruce, he’s allowed to leave unharmed. Makes no sense, but there we are.

Next we’re treated to some Henry VIII-style marriage management by the King of the Underworld, who is gifted Emmanuelle by the Exorcist as a replacement for his two current brides, both of whom have been cursed by drinking a potion they intended to poison Bruce with, which has rendered them ugly as Bernard Manning’s greyest pants.

Bruce meanwhile bumps into and defeats Dracula and a another herd of zombies in the quarry before running into James Bond outside the King’s palace and, in the film’s shortest fight scene, accuses him of harbouring ‘stolen money’ before dispatching Bond with a flurry of roundhouse kicks. I can only assume Bond puts up virtually no resistance because the only white fellow they could find to stuff into the cheap tux sported by ‘Bond’ didn’t know any martial arts.

Clint’s up next, as Bruce once again finds himself in the quarry with no explanation. The Man with No Name puts up a valiant effort but his pistols and clumsy kicks are easily overcome by Bruce who offs Clint, reducing the evildoers’ camp down to two.

The Exorcist and The Godfather are both naturally displeased that their crew is being pared to the bone and decide to go for broke and assassinate the King. They storm the palace and confront the monarch, easily overcoming his guards and forcing the King into his chamber where, in an attempt to scare off the marauding fiends, he shakes his pillar like it’s never shaken before, causing massive earthquakes throughout the Underworld. These earthquakes raze most of the kingdom to the ground, causing many, many deaths, which angers Bruce who is caught up in the middle of it all. However, back in the throne room, The Exorcist and Godfather advance on the King, who has literally nowhere left to run…

So of course the film jump-cuts to the quarry again at this point, with both the Exorcist and Godfather striding towards Bruce, who seems to have appeared from nowhere. Combat ensues for about 10 minutes of screen-time before both are dispatched. However, Bruce can’t let the King’s negligent treatment of his subjects pass unanswered and threatens to topple the King. Enter the King’s sorcerer from stage-left, who promises to protect the King with a troupe of mummies he summons up and calls his ‘demon dozen’. While the fight initially looks unwinnable, Bruce’s allies Popeye, Caine and One-Arm come galloping in and assist with vanquishing the Andrex-clad demons. The sorcerer is drawn into the fray after Popeye wolfs down some spinach, and is eventually stabbed with his own scimitar. With no allies left, the King attempts to flee, only to be cornered by an angry crowd of his subjects. Cornered, he pleads with Bruce for his life, which Bruce agrees to grant him if only he will send Bruce back to Earth. The King readily agrees, casts a spell and, in a scene very reminiscent of Bjork’s video for It’s Oh, So Quiet, sends Bruce hurtling upwards and Earthwards, watching the crowd of Underworld dwellers wave him off from below.

As you can now hopefully understand, not much about this film makes a lot of sense. The dialogue is nonsensical and the dubbing atrocious, the fight scenes aren’t especially well choreographed, everything looks like it had next to no budget behind it, and the plot is so disjointed it feels like the kind of dream you have when you’ve been snacking on Leerdamer before bed. But despite all this, The Dragon Lives Again is one of the most bizarre but also most enjoyable exploitation movies ever. Sure, it’s not high art but it puts a whole new spin on the bruceploitation movement and, well, the site of a big-sideburned Englishman and a Chinese fellow in a beard approximating James Bond and Clint Eastwood is almost too delicious. Bizarre, hard to follow, but buckets of fun, The Dragon Lives Again comes highly recommended. As the whole thing’s on YouTube, I think all I need do now is link you to it and send you on your way…

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