Ninja in the Dragon’s Den is the best ninja movie. It is that rare kind of exploitation movie – it surpassed the instigator of a trend. Corey Yuen had no problems with the studio’s attempt to find a Jackie Chan clone, hence why he was not against having Conan Lee starring in his directorial début. The result is no less Chansploitation than the Bruceploitation movies which feature actors with names like Bruce Le, Bruce Li and Dragon Lee. Tiger on the Beat, with Chow Yun-Fat as the star, was basically a Chan clone movie in disguise. This is because, by 1987, many had wondered what it would be like if Jackie made a movie with Chow. Really, it’s no more different than Jackie and Bruce to the Rescue (a 1982 movie released in the same year as Ninja in the Dragon’s Den and starring Lee Siu-Ming as Jackie). Both Conan movies inspired Joel Silver (a U.S. producer) to cast Conan and hire Corey for the martial arts directing of Lethal Weapon 4. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jet Li was the very last addition. Conan cemented his clone status by starring in a video movie called Rumble in L.A. except it wasn’t a patch on Rumble in the Bronx.
Ironically, he could’ve been a Hollywood movie star had he not left Hong Kong prematurely. Granted, his departure was to do with being blacklisted after letting his greed be quickly fed by a fickle-minded H.K. producer who lured him away from the founder of Seasonal who made him. Lee Van Cleef was smart to capitalize on his success in Italy before moving to Hollywood, likewise with Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood. Look at Bruce Lee – he made it in Hollywood because he had been in his fair share of Hollywood TV serials along with making a name for himself in the U.S. martial arts community, especially by gracing covers of a magazine called Black Belt. By comparison, Jackie did not become an instant success in Hollywood because he was a virtual unknown. Bruce was not already a national institution but he was at least recognizable. From the apathetic perspective of the U.S. market, Jackie came out of nowhere whereas Bruce’s emergence was seen as a long time coming. To examine this further, the success of Kung Fu and re-runs of The Green Hornet didn’t exactly result in Pan-Asian U.S. TV serials.
Henry Sanada, Conan’s co-star in Ninja in the Dragon’s Den, has become something of a staple of U.S. television by gracing the likes of Lost and The Last Ship. Then again, we are living in the golden age of television. Even his roles in Helix and Extant are more dignified than what Conan did by guesting in a dodgy episode of MacGyver. By dodgy, I mean that The Wish Child (1986) was a rip of The Golden Child (1986) despite being shown earlier. Following his deportation from Hong Kong, Conan should’ve exploited his newfound fame by working in Japan before moving to Taiwan (where his presence wasn’t that of a pariah). The irony is that his command of the English language is more relatable to an American audience than Bruce or Jackie, yet he lacked the influx of opportunities that each guy received on either side of the globe. Conan’s mistake in seeking full-time employment in Hollywood was accepting B-graded movies where he was downgraded after being given the opportunity to have his first film be a star vehicle in the form of Ninja in the Dragon’s Den, where it wasn’t exactly a case of being the biggest fish in the smallest pond.
He would probably have gained a better career by not focusing on martial arts roles. It wasn’t like his accent was Oriental. In fact, he speaks with a New York accent. In spite of his fall from grace, he still managed to grace the covers of several issues of Inside Kung Fu. Although you can tell that the filler articles were tantamount to making mountains out of mole hills. Speaking of geography, it’s a perfect example that the left hand of the West doesn’t know what the right hand of the East is doing. Usually, publicity articles are puff pieces but the aforementioned issues really are nothing much than damning with faint praise. You know that you have limited chances of success when even Jackie couldn’t score a gig like starring in an A-list Hollywood movie. In the `80s, the closest that Jackie got to being a mainstream movie star was the Cannonball Run duology. Even then, it was an extended cameo (a running gag role) because of the ensemble nature. For a star like Jackie, a Hollywood role should’ve been like a prize. Conan should’ve used Jackie’s failure as a warning.
If Conan stayed with Seasonal, he would’ve starred in their English language productions before making it in Hollywood; like how Jackie starred in Rumble in the Bronx, First Strike and Mr. Nice Guy before being asked to star in a Hollywood movie (Rush Hour). As for Jackie not being persona non grata after breaking his contract with Lo Wei (the infamous Bruce director), Lo wasn’t entirely respected like Ng See-Yuen was. Ironically, things got so bad for Jackie that he was forced to work in Hollywood for over a year. In Golden Harvest’s official statement, he was ready to crack the big time. The local press suspected that the reality was extradition (Conan was sort of extradited). As for Jackie epicly failing, it was because he didn’t contractually demand to have final say like Bruce did for Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon. Even by that point in his career, Jackie had a lot more experience in choreographing fights. Then again, Bruce’s relationship with Fred Weintraub had enough history for the iconic iconoclast to have leeway. Jackie didn’t have that leverage.
This is what makes Bruce’s death all the more sadder; if he was alive then he would’ve kept in touch with Jackie enough to maybe convince Fred if not Robert that Jackie should call the shots. There’s a misconception that Jackie wouldn’t have been famous if Bruce was still alive, but Golden Harvest would still have needed a new Kung Fu star to compensate for Bruce leaving them. As for Warner Brothers, Bruce didn’t want to be tied down to one studio for so long. Yuen Woo-Ping, being older, was smarter than Jackie to demand total control of the fights in The Matrix. Jackie could easily have used his experience on ETD as a reference point since he knew first-hand who called the shots on that movie. Besides, Jackie proved himself to be a more worthy fighter than Bruce. Ironically, he was being told to fight like him despite being given some allowance to do his own style.
Jackie had a better track record as a movie star and a director. As a matter of fact, it would’ve been better if he directed Battle Creek Brawl. Either that or hire George Roy Hill since he actually directed a movie that took place in the `30s (a 1973 classic titled The Sting). Before production had commenced on ETD, Bruce got Clouse to view Fist of Fury so as to see who was the boss. The surface reason was to acclimate to the H.K. atmosphere but the ulterior motive was so that Clouse would be aware of his reputation. Although Jackie didn’t want to be in Bruce’s shadow, this is the one instance where he would’ve benefited from following his footsteps. Otherwise, having the same producers, editor (i.e. Peter Cheung) and composer pretty much amounts to little more than nothing.
Even choreography control would’ve been a lost cause since he still had to deal with woeful production values akin to a PBS show. Put this into perspective: the budget was a million higher than the 3 million budget for Project A (a 1983 movie which has more opulence). Wheels on Meals had the same budget as Battle Creek Brawl, but is better. Game of Death cost 4.5 million, but is Z-grade. Miracles cost 6 million dollars but looks like it could’ve been a Hollywood production. Battle Creek Brawl, on the other hand, has the sort of historical inaccuracy that is associated with a H.K. movie trying to tell an American story (such as Bruce Lee: The Man, The Myth and The Dragon Lives). It also had a ho-hum script.
As far as what became known as The Big Brawl goes, Michael Allin should’ve been hired because he contributed more to ETD than Robert did. This is all while taking into consideration that his script for ETD was far from perfect. In retrospect, Bruce should’ve hired Roman Polanski (who received martial arts sessions from Bruce) to direct ETD given how he described Lo Wei as not exactly being as good as him. A man of Bruce’s special stature needed someone better and bankable. Naysayers will dismiss Roman’s involvement as wishful thinking, but his character in The Tenant treats a woman to a screening of ETD (whose French title was Operation Dragon). His final scene is opposite a cinema which is screening it.
I’ve looked at Roman’s schedules and there was a sizeable-enough gap in 1973 that would’ve allowed himself to direct Bruce before moving on to work with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway for Chinatown. ETD would’ve made the list for the top ten highest-grossing films in 1973 with Roman directing. Here is the list: The Sting, The Exorcist, American Graffiti, Papillon, The Way We Were, Magnum Force, Last Tango in Paris, Live and Let Die, Robin Hood and Paper Moon. ETD grossed 25 million dollars in the U.S. whereas Paper Moon grossed 30 million. If Bruce lived long enough to be interviewed by Johnny Carson, Paper Moon would not have been in the top ten.
As for the H.K. box office, the only reason why ETD didn’t break the record was because the distributors rose the admittance fees to capitalize on the fact that it was Bruce’s final complete movie. Noel Parrott mentioned this in his review for the South China Morning Post. They wouldn’t have done this had it been known that there was another Lee movie on the way. It was noted by Bruce Thomas (the author of Fighting Spirit) that failure was down to Lee being unrecognizable, but there was already a big difference in the way that he looked in The Way of the Dragon when compared to his image in The Big Boss. A collaboration between Lee and Polanski would’ve just about pushed Paper Moon out of the equation from both sides of the equator.
One of Roman’s specialties is the key use (or feature) of water in a scene. Bruce is often quoted about being like water, so it would’ve made for compelling cinema if his character finds himself in rooms which have waterfalls and ponds. Coincidentally, Weintraub (the main producer) wanted swans and a fountain for the banquet scene but Raymond Chow put his foot down because he controlled the below-the-line budget. In an earlier draft, there was a scene before Han’s tour where Roper saw his reflection in a garden pool prior to seeing Han’s reflection. With Roman, the spy reel of the female corpse being fished out would’ve added prominence. It also meant that Lee’s sister would’ve been thrown onto the waterfront as a sign to potential whistleblowers like “the refuse found in waterfront bars.”
The novelization described Roper as having a waterbed, so a love scene between him and Tania could’ve preceded a scene where another hooker is fished from a riverbed. Roman would’ve been more than obliged to direct given how he was proven wrong in suspecting Bruce instead of Charles Manson as the killer of his wife (Sharon Tate). Roman would’ve wanted to symbolize letting water flow under the bridge. After all, it was her former boyfriend (i.e. Jay Sebring) who helped Bruce get started in Hollywood during the swinging sixties.
Another Polanski specialty is claustrophobia, which would’ve richly benefited the mirrored room finale. Even though it was Clouse’s idea, Roman would still have envisioned it because he is a fan of The Lady from Shanghai, which informed his directorial début (Knife in the Water). As for what sparked the creativity, it was a H.K. restaurant where the producers were having lunch. Although, Clouse claimed that the scene was going to happen anyway because he went to a boutique with his wife.
Unlike Clouse, Roman wasn’t near-deaf. Even though ETD was dubbed, the vocal acting could’ve been improved. As for the on-set acting, enunciation influences the facial expressions to be more pronounced. It takes a real master of the craft to visualize how the voice can affect the face. Exerting the mouth means that the cheek muscles are being manipulated to the point that a ripple effect causes the eyebrows and maybe the eyelids to be exerted. Actors who enunciate are never accused of being wooden.
Roman wouldn’t have allowed John Saxon to take away the dialogue from the other main characters, especially since there is an awkwardness that stems from the fact that Williams never converses with Lee. To digress, ETD has numerous flaws. The first flaw is that it would’ve made more sense for Williams to be sought for recruitment given that he is an outlaw for beating up corrupt policemen who are racist. Roper, by contrast, isn’t a wanted criminal for simply being in debt with gangsters.
In the original cut, there was a scene where Mei Ling (Betty Chung) was talking about the unexplained disappearance of Williams. It would’ve been cool if, like The Untold Story, his body was instead being used to feed the old men in the cells. As for deleted footage in general, maybe it’s being held back for a 50th anniversary Blu-ray. Bruce’s death made the footage more valuable. Look at Tower of Death a.k.a. Game of Death II. If it wasn’t for that movie, we would’ve assumed that the deleted scenes were jettisoned like Bruce’s deleted scenes from his previous movies. You really have to question (second guess) what happened to Henry Wong’s ETD documentary footage.
The second flaw is that, by film’s end, Bruce doesn’t have much dialogue. In fact, most of his dialogue was taken out for pacing reasons. I suspect that those scenes would’ve been left in if the spy was played by James Coburn (who was trained by Bruce). Coincidentally, Coburn tried to help Lee make The Silent Flute (which Roman rejected). The third flaw is that Roman would’ve made Bruce’s character practice what he preaches by not taking his eyes off Oharra as he bows. The fourth flaw is that Han’s daughters (who happened to be his bodyguards) don’t fight in the finale.
If ETD had been a H.K. movie, Mei Ling alongside Lee and Roper would’ve fought them after chasing Han away from the outdoor arena. If Bruce had died during the making of the film, they would’ve filmed such a scene but under the condition that there are reshoots which would allow for Williams to only be held captive like Roper instead of being killed off. The fifth flaw was that a Shaolin man wouldn’t allow himself to be a government agent unless he renounced his position at the temple. The sixth flaw is that Roper doesn’t get killed by Bolo, yet Williams gets killed by Han.
The seventh flaw is that there were deleted scenes between Roper and Tania that could easily have replaced unnecessary scenes featuring Bruce, especially considering the commercial intentions of the U.S. producers. Artistically, Tania’s deleted scenes would’ve made her final scene more touching. The scene where Oharra informs Lee about the uniform requirement is pointless when it’s pointed out in the next tournament scene. As for reminding the audiences of Lee’s vendetta against Oharra, we already have a flashback in Lee’s fight with him.
Considering that most of Bruce’s philosophy scenes were done away with, they should’ve got rid of Lao’s tutorial since it has less relevance to the plot than Lee’s conversation with the Abbott which not only references Han, but is echoed in the finale. The counter-intuitive editing is second to only The Medallion in the martial arts genre. The eighth and final flaw is that Bolo is a useless character in that he can’t be a bodyguard when you have Oharra acting as Han’s bodyguard for when he is outside his own island. Even though he has a muscular physique, Bolo is a gratuitous character who may as well have been there for sexual appeal.
He’s supposed to be the executioner, but the main villain’s daughters would’ve been more effective in homicidally punishing his guards because of their number. The moral of the story would’ve been greater in that if you can’t defeat the daughters then how can you possibly put down the father. A similar statement was stated by Leung Kar-Yan’s character in Yuen Woo-Ping’s Legend of a Fighter. Like The Big Boss, the main character in Yuen’s film truly lets loose after his jade pendant is broken. If Bob Wall hadn’t forced Bruce to cast him in The Way of the Dragon then Bolo could’ve been Oharra.
Roman, like Bruce, believed that cinema should make you forget that you’re sitting in a theater. Roman knew Bruce better than all the other Hollywood directors, so I’m surprised that he was never considered. I believe that he would’ve been a better candidate to revise (instead of actually complete) Game of Death because he would’ve filmed it in such a way that you perceive Bruce’s replacements (of which there were three) as being played by one doppelgänger. He would’ve been smart enough to bring back Michael Allin as the writer. This means that Roman would’ve directed Jackie in Battle Creek Brawl. Roman’s taste in absurdism and black humour would’ve elevated these movies.
However, this also means that he wouldn’t have directed Gymkata (this is not Clouse’s most dismal movie as reported since such a claim would only make sense if he finished directing in the eighties). Clouse should never have been the go-to guy for G.H. whereas Roman was already way more successful with critics and audiences. It’s with the benefit of retrospect that Roman has been come to known as being vastly more cosmopolitan because of his preoccupation with foreign culture.
Back in 1973, he would’ve been smart enough when it came to casting ETD. Bearing in mind that Roper was originally intended to die, it would’ve been pointless for Rod Taylor and William Smith to be rejected in favour of Saxon because of Bruce not wanting to come off as diminutive. Jim Kelly was taller than the two of them but his character only died because of John’s agent. I suspect that Smith didn’t get the role because he did a test reel as the lead character that Bruce wanted to play in Kung Fu (the reel was directed by Jerry London).
Having Kelly’s Williams character fight Bolo would’ve made for a more convincing fight, but it would’ve been better for Lee to fight Bolo being that it is Williams who would’ve been wanting vengeance against Han for the death of Roper. One of the questions that has been asked concerns Bolo being fought by Roper instead of Lee. If Lee fought Bolo, Roper would have to fight Han because of Warner Brothers wanting to appease the prominently Caucasian audiences. Roper had to fight one of the two guys.
A decision was made to not have him fight Han (a choice that made Saxon realize that he wasn’t the star as fibbed by Weintraub) because the quality of the martial arts action would’ve dipped considerably. Muse on this for a momentous moment: a young musclebound man takes on a toned 32-year-old before a middle-aged everyman takes on an old guy. This harks back to a cardinal rule in martial arts cinema – the best fight has to be the final one. Look at The Matrix, Neo’s fights with Agent Smith are not up to the quality that was set forth when Morpheus had challenged Neo. As for ETD, the best one-on-one fight is the first one (a short challenge match featuring Sammo Hung).
It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that one can say that Kam Kong would’ve been more imposing as a villain than Shih Kien (a.k.a. Shek Kin). I first saw Kam in Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, which sees Jackie lampoon Bruce’s nunchaku gimmick. For a guy who was reluctant to be mimicking Bruce, Jackie certainly had no qualms about later parodying the nunchaku by using a corded mallet in Drunken Master. I’m one of the few people who believe that Bruce would still have imitators even if he was alive. Look at Fist of Unicorn, for instance. There would’ve been many producers wanting to climb to the top of the heap by confusing U.S. audiences.
The Triads, who like to exert their presence, would’ve caught on to the idea of finding a clone to put the heat on Bruce. Speaking of whom, if he completed GOD, there would still have been rip-offs because there is only so many styles that you can put into a pagoda. This may have forced Bruce to be a James Bond imitator, because there is only so much that you can do within the martial arts genre. This lends credence to when Bey Logan claimed that Bruce, had he lived, may have starred in Total Recall (which only grossed H.K.$ 16,720,392 with Arnold Schwarzenegger). Andrew G. Vajna was one of Bruce’s acquaintances and formed the company that produced it.
Roman would’ve been interested in directing GOD because of his interest in doppelgängers. In The Tenant (1976), Roman plays a man who lives vicariously through a woman. There is a scene where his character sees a girl wearing a mask which is a replica of his face. This makes me think even more that Ray Chow should’ve got make-up artists to make a cast of Bruce’s face by using his corpse. Such an effort would’ve resulted in the shenanigans that happened when a latex mask of Crispin Glover was placed on Jeffrey Weissman for Back to the Future Part II.
Seeing how long that it took for Bruce to be sent to the hospital, this absurd idea makes sense; especially when you look at the scene where Steiner (the villainous character played by Hugh O’Brian) uses his cane in the graveyard to prove that Billy Lo faked his death. This got me thinking of how surprising that it is about there not being a H.K. remake of Mannequin, since it was common to remake U.S. movies that weren’t all that big at the H.K. box office. For example, Back to the Future Part III was remade as God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai despite Michael J. Fox’s movie only grossing H.K.$ 14,927,183.
Other telling aspects besides The Tenant pertain to Roman’s potential involvement in GOD had Bruce got him to direct ETD. In 2013, he had cast a doppelgänger (the younger Mathieu Amalric) for Venus in Fur. If it wasn’t for sexually breaking the law, Roman would’ve directed Sliver – an exercise in symmetry. The movie only grossed 10,879,419 in H.K. currency. Like Bruce, Roman never got to finish one of his dream projects – The Double.
Acting in this movie would’ve better prepared John Travolta’s dual acting for John Woo’s Face/Off, which grossed H.K.$ 30,053,535. Like Roman being the first French director to win best director at the Academy Awards, Bruce would’ve been the first Asian director. Tom Bleecker believes this. He also believes that Bruce would’ve been as big as or bigger than Woo. Since Bruce expressed a desire to move beyond acting in martial arts movies, it’s only natural to presume that this would include directing outside the genre.
Perhaps Quentin Tarantino would’ve hired Bruce to choreograph the Kung Fu fights in Kill Bill (since Yuen Woo-Ping was hired for financial reasons). Like Roman, Bruce would’ve been hired more as an actor for other people’s movies such as The Karate Kid and maybe Highlander (with a revised screenplay for those who always wanted to see him teach with a sword in any era). It’s possible that we may have heard him in Kung Fu Panda instead of Jackie, although this means that Jackie would still have been in the remake of The Karate Kid.
Another irony is that No Retreat, No Surrender (the Seasonal cash-in about Bruce’s ghost featuring the doppelgänger from GOD) would never have happened because the fights in The Karate Kid would’ve been too surprising to surpass. Corey would’ve been forced to research espionage in order to materialize the studio head’s idea of what was going to be Seasonal’s first English language film – a thriller about the C.I.A. that could’ve seen Jean-Claude Van Damme in a better role.
Taking into account that Van Damme, Jackie and Jet Li have done twin movies, there is something interesting about whether Bruce would’ve been swayed into doing something similar. Perhaps the title would’ve been Yin and Yang. Maybe he would’ve been the star of Duplicity – a Michael Keaton movie which is better than The Clones of Bruce Lee. Speaking of which, I’m astounded that there was never an imitator named Bruno.
After noting the connection between Sidekicks (about a Chuck Norris fan) and Looking for Jackie, maybe Bruce would’ve done something vaguely similar to No Retreat, No Surrender. It would’ve been a perfect way for himself to satirize the imitators. After all, Ron Van Clief claimed that Bruce was the prototype whereas others that followed were the imitation. Given that Bruce was more literate than people have given credit for, it would’ve been easy for him to suggest that the title would be Dopey Doppelganger.
There has never been an attempt to create a H.K. equivalent to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. The closest to this happening is The Twin Dragons, but an epic period film would allow for a more faithful rendition. Maybe an idea was proposed but rejected. For example, Bey Logan’s Canton Moon was rejected by every major U.S. studio despite being a Kung Fu take on Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. It would’ve been funded had it also been a remake of The Prince and the Pauper.
As it turns out, the Chinese equivalent to the latter is a novel by Louis Cha (a.k.a. Jin Yong). The English title is Way of the Heroes. The story would definitely have appealed to Bruce because one of the twins is a mischievous brawler whose obsession with pretty girls nets him half a dozen wives. Had Bruce regained his muscles, he would’ve been eager to do sex scenes so as to advertise himself to future lovers if not future wives. When Bruce was younger, he loved reading Cha’s novels.
I wonder what he would have made of the Shaw Brothers adaptation which is known in English as Ode to Gallantry. The S.B. TV division produced an adaptative series titled Hap Hak Hang. It starred Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. I like to think that Bruce would’ve co-starred in the clone-oriented 1976 sequel to Westworld. The biggest problem with Futureworld is that it didn’t have an iconic character to live up to what was established with Yul Brynner. Instead of playing a character named Lee, Bruce could’ve played a businessman named Bryce (a reference to the price is right).
If this happened, there would’ve been a TV reboot with Donnie Yen playing his character. Currently, Donnie is the de facto Bruce with his roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Donnie was touted as the Bruce of the nineties when Legend of the Wolf (which was almost released straight to VCD in H.K.) was released in the U.K. as The New Big Boss. This was self-inflicted since he starred in a Fist of Fury remake which was a TV series.