When you’re investigating the death of the greatest kung fu fighter the world ever knew, you’d better be qualified.
The sudden and tragic death of legend Bruce Lee in 1973 left a massive void in the martial arts world. Not only had they lost the biggest star the sport had ever produced, but suddenly kung fu cinema was scrambling to replace the man who had made the genre popular in America. This led to an entire movement in the world of cheap exploitation pictures known as “Brucesploitation,” in which kung fu films tried to capitalize on Lee’s legacy posthumously by invoking his name in the title or casting an actor who resembled the late icon. Though a pretty sizable subgenre of exploitation, there aren’t a whole lot of Brucesploitation movies that are much good (of the ones I’ve seen, at least). Bucking that trend is 1975’s The Black Dragon’s Revenge, aka Revenge of the Black Dragon, aka The Death of Bruce Lee. Combining some pretty tasteless Brucesploitation with a kung fu movie and blaxploitation in the form of its star, seven-time national and world karate champion Ron Van Clief, aka “The Black Dragon,” The Black Dragon’s Revenge is a low-budget, poorly made Brucesploitation movie that’s totally worth seeking out.
Van Clief plays the Black Dragon, an American brought to Hong Kong and hired by a wealthy businessman to investigate the death of Bruce Lee (who is never officially called by his full name for fear of legal repercussions). He’s partnered up with Charles Bonet, aka “La Pantera” (The Panther), and the pair systematically take on gangs of bad guys with incredible martial arts fury.
The Black Dragon’s Revenge is, in almost every way, the textbook example of cheap kung fu exploitation movie. It is poorly shot. The audio is largely dubbed despite having been recorded in English. The dialogue is almost comically awful. The editing is clumsy, the violence graphic. If you’re a fan of these kinds of movies — and I am — none of that matters because it all carries a certain intangible charm. Van Clief, who got his nickname “The Black Dragon” from Bruce Lee himself, is incredibly stiff on camera. He cannot deliver a line convincingly and even looks stiff when he has to carry out simple blocking. None of that matters either, because once he starts fighting — and he gets to do a lot of fighting — his chops as a thespian are of no importance. Van Clief is the real deal: lightning fast and strong and charismatic when it comes to kicking butt. Bonet is equally thrilling as a fighter but less a compelling screen presence, so having him play sort of a “sidekick” role is probably the right call.
Though available on a number of different DVD releases (several of which are of questionable quality), The Black Dragon’s Revenge is being re-released as a “restored version” by The Film Detective (a Blu-ray is also available for the first time). This is never a movie that’s going to look or sound great; it didn’t back in 1975 when it was first released and has only been put through the ringer since then. Still, the DVD is more than passable. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image appears stretched a bit and is inconsistent when it comes to colors and print damage, but that’s all part of the aesthetic. There is a stereo audio track that’s thin and riddled with hisses and pops — again, all part of the bargain with this sort of thing. This isn’t a remastering that changes the way you’ll view the film, but it’s definitely watchable while being true to its cheap exploitation roots. The only extras included are the movie’s very amusing trailer and a brief compilation of the moments in which Bruce Lee’s name had to be physically scratched off the audio on the film.
There’s something so odd and tasteless about using Bruce Lee’s real-life tragic death as the jumping off point for a dopey action movie, and even more odd that the filmmakers position it as some sort of conspiracy to cover up a murder. But that’s also why a movie like The Black Dragon’s Revenge is so special, as it comes from a time when movies either didn’t know or didn’t care about crossing lines like that. If you can get on its wavelength, the stiffness is part of its charm. If you can’t…well, you can still appreciate the majesty that is Ron Van Clief doing martial arts. He’s like the original Black Dynamite.
A great example of what it is. Ron Van Clief rules.