Despite its distinctly ’70s flair – afros, mustaches, bellbottoms, and all – Chun-Ku Lu’s The Black Dragon’s Revenge (1975), which screens this Friday at the Coolidge as part of its Kung Fu Connections series, fails to feel like an anachronism. In fact, it’s one in that small category of old movies where the imperfections add character. The smoky 35mm is more dreamlike than obscuring, the clunky dubbing gives a touch of panache to what would otherwise be run-of-the-mill dialogue, and the tonal dial, which is constantly turned up to 11, takes any sense of austereness away from the story…yet it’s still glorious. The Black Dragon’s Revence perfectly delivers on its intent of being a mind-numbingly fun movie.
A classic ’70s martial arts film sharing part of its DNA with a crime-thriller, The Black Dragon’s Revenge sees two kung fu masters, a crime syndicate led by an ever-cackling boss, and a group of Bruce Lee’s apostles duke it out in the alleyways, street-corners, and beachfronts of Hong-Kong, their aggressions centering around one unsolved mystery: the death of Bruce Lee. What exactly is behind the passing of this martial arts deity? Natural causes? Murder? Oversex? (No, I will not elaborate. Watch the movie to see what this means). All these possibilities are entertained as the movie’s elaborate cast of characters, punch, kick, and chop their way to an answer.
Ron Van Clief, playing himself, leads the movie as the eponymous “Black Dragon,” guiding the viewer through the shifty underworld of Hong Kong, all the while exuding a smoothness that’s both unemotive and combustive when need be. His presence seems intangible – gliding into every scene and often leaving a pile of bodies in his wake–his afro sensibly staying intact during the process. Tempering this attitude is the oft comedic Charlie Woodcock (Charles Bonet) as his opposite. The latter effortlessly meshes with the former, resulting in a buddy-cop dynamic that’s subtle enough to not be superfluous. Their interactions are charming, but their chemistry is most apparent when it comes to the many fight scenes generously littered throughout the movie.
With almost ballet like precision, they move amidst the cacophony of thuds, “whoosh”-es, and explosions, engendered by their hits. At times they’re back-to-back, others swiftly maneuvering around each other, but regardless, they constantly deliver at providing a bombastic moment of spectacle, no matter how brief it may be. The same can be said for the rest of the cast, who, like Clief and Bonet, also perform their own stunts, and who, no matter the relevancy of their parts, unanimously convey an energy that can only be spurred from a deep dedication to their craft.
In The Black Dragon’s Revenge, style is substance, and it’s better for it. This film has no qualms about what it wants to be, because from its opening montage, it knows what it is: a fun, sub-two-hour action movie, whose impressions are meant to be felt long after you first see it, when the aching nostalgia warrants another viewing. In The Black Dragon’s Revenge, what you see is what you get, and that’s more than enough.
The Black Dragon’s Revenge (The Death of Bruce Lee)
dir. Chun-Ku Lu
Screening (on 35mm!) Friday 4/29, 11:59 p.m. at Coolidge Corner Theatre
Part of the ongoing series: Kung Fu Connections