Bruce Lee’s Secret | aka Story of the Dragon (1976) Review

"Bruce Lee's Secret" US DVD Cover

“Bruce Lee’s Secret” US DVD Cover

Director: Chan Wa
Producer: Jimmy Shaw, R.P. Shah
Cast: Bruce Li (aka Ho Chung Tao, James Ho), Carter Wong Ka-tat, Hwang Jang-lee, Robert Kerver, Roy Horan, Chin Chi-min, Ng Yin, Lin Hsiao-hu min, Su Chiang, Wong Chau-hung
Running Time: 90 min.

By Joseph Kuby

A nice slice of friendly Bruceploitation!

While this has been viewed as a biographical picture detailing Bruce Lee’s stay in the West, in actuality it’s really more of a spin-off of Bruce Lee’s classic The Way Of The Dragon than anything else; complete with Paul Wei Ping Ao resurrecting his portrayal as a wily & weaselly interpreter (though not quite as camp and effeminate this time round) betraying his Chinese culture for the capitalistic Westeners.

The Bruceploitation aspect of the film also comes in the form of James Ho mimicking Lee’s movements & mannerisms an hour into the movie (after he discovers Chieh Chun Dao – Mandarin for Jeet Kune Do), as well as accidentally being referred to in one scene as Bruce (his character’s name in this is Bob) whilst the villains refer to him as Mr. Lee.

One thing that contradicts popular opinion of this being a Bruce-Bio is that when we see Ho training in his room, we can see a poster (or artist’s portrait) of the famous flying kick Bruce Lee performed in The Big Boss, so we’re meant to assume that Bruce Lee is the idol of the main character in this film (people who’ve read Stephen Teo’s Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions will probably tie that in with what the author wrote about narcissism being a trait of Bruce Lee, even moreso that nationalism*).

Come to think of it, the film combines the essence of Bruce’s first three action movies (the workers who find themselves oppressed until the once-reluctant fighter steps in {Big Boss}, rival schools {Fist Of Fury} and Western criminals as oppressors {Way Of The Dragon}). The opening credit sequence resembles The Big Boss in its compilation of static imagery involving martial artistry.

The structure of this movie recalls Way Of The Dragon in that it involves a restaurant (though not as the main focus point), gangsters being cheesed off at how their plans are back-firing and the arrival of professional killers who are highly trained martial arts experts. There’s also a plot device that excuses the use of more contemporary weaponary (the big boss in this movie, Mr. Grace, stops his men from shooting Bob & his students due to not wanting to ruin their own school’s reputation).

Out of all the slight allusions made in some form or other to Lee’s legacy, I appreciated the following tongue-in-cheek exchange made between Bob and his opponent (also called Bob albeit caucasian and who’s referred to as The San Francisco Iron Fist Man) after the former Bob’s workers are oppressed at the shipping yard…

Gwailo Bob: Chinese Boxing?

Oriental Bob: No, Chinese Kung Fu!

There are priceless gems scattered throughout in terms of sheer verbalism, but here’s my all-time favourite…

Paul Wei Ping Ao: Do you know who I brought along with me today, well he’s the No. 1 teacher from Mr. Grace’s school…Mr. Charlie.

James Ho Chung Tao: I don’t care if he’s Charlie or Lassie…just get him out of here.

People buying this movie are more likely to watch it for the same reason I watched it: to entertain the notion of what would have happened had Bruce Lee clashed with Hwang Jang Lee. Hwang, like Bruce, had to slow himself (or the camera) down because he was that fast. He was also very powerful as can be be heard by listening to Roy Horan’s comments on the Hong Kong Legends Game Of Death 2 commentary. While Hwang is obviously the highlight of this particular film, his skill is wasted in comparison to the same year’s Secret Rivals where he was choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping to great effect.

Roy Horan makes an appearance in this movie (as Mr. Charlie) along with unusual occidental thespian/martial artist Robert Kerver. Carter Wong (as Chin Chu Leo) is in this movie too being his typical stern & stoic (basically one-note**) self.

…and of course we have the legendary James Ho Chung Tao playing the role of Bob – Chinese restaurant waiter turned martial arts teacher.

One of the directors credited for this movie is Chang Chee (I’m not sure if this is a misspelling of the Shaw Bros. veteran Chang Cheh a.k.a. Chang Che).

Most of the best fight scenes involve Asians going against each other as a lot of the fight scenes involving Westerners seem somewhat amatuerish; part of the reason why Bruce Lee’s fight scenes in Way Of The Dragon worked was that the protagonist was so skilled at martial arts that even the most sluggish of Westerners couldn’t bring him the quality of the fights. Whereas normally in martial arts movies, you need to fight someone who is your equal or even superior in order for you to look good. James, whilst being competent at martial arts, was never excellent as a martial artist like the way Bruce was so we have no choice but to notice the incompetence of the people he’s fighting (save for Hwang Jang Lee & Carter Wong and perhaps Roy Horan & Rob Kerver).

Though to be fair, this was made early on in James’ career before he developed his technique in Bruce Lee: The Man The Myth and before he perfected it in Chinese Stuntman. As it stands, Goodbye Bruce Lee: His Last Game Of Death looks like Bruce’s original vision for Game Of Death in comparison to this clunker.

Save for the caucasians that James encounters the first few times, in the final reels the majority of people he encounters look like people in their late teens and they don’t give any type of formidable presence, their technique is lacking so as opponents, they leave a lot to be desired (even when they’re armed with long metal batons against James’ nunchaku). I suppose the caucasians in general react badly to techniques (during the restaurant fight scene during the first ten minutes, a black guy reacts to a hit by swinging around with his arms strecthed out as if he was the Russian character Zangief from the Street Fighter computer games); not only that but on some occasions you can see them smiling!

As a matter of fact, unless you’re a hardcore martial arts movie fan or have seen (and were impressed with) James’ performances in Chinese Stuntman and Bruce Lee: The Man, the Myth then you might (or rather must) be advised to stay clear of this (though, quite frankly, he’s done worse).

But there are things which make this worth watching, notably the fight between Carter Wong & James Ho (which parallels, in context if not in content, the challenge match between Wong Jak-Man and Bruce Lee), the bout betweem Carter Wong & Hwang Jang Lee, the two encounters between Hwang & James and the very final duels which shows James coming up against whip-wielding horsemen and the “big boss” himself who manages to have a few multiple kicks up his (trouser) sleeve.

Like many of the Bruceploitation movies, there’s ample amount of unintentional humour, mostly thanks to the dubbing (for instance Robert Kerver sounds like the main kid in that Larry Clark film Kids) and with questionable directorial choices in the form of a black guy who is seen (twice) with a comb in his afro and the peculiar decision to have actors play multiple roles (check out Roy doing double-duty as a hispanic complete with odd tan, cheesy wig & quaint attire) or roles that go beyond their ethnicity (like Sammo Hung’s Enter The Fat Dragon, we see a Chinese guy made up to look black though it’s perhaps not as insulting as Sammo Hung’s Don’t Give A Damn***). The humour also comes from the amateurish acting too, every time Mr. Grace’s cronies get told off, they lower their heads like children practically every time!

I think this film may have been made back-to-back with Dragon Lives (or at least made by the same people) as not only do we have the same guy that plays Bob’s teacher but we have the same stoner that Jeff was referring to in his review for Dragon Lives. In this movie, the stoner (or the hippie with the long hair & moustache) can be seen in the opening restaurant scene and as one of Bob’s students. On the topic of stoners, during one of the many classes that Bob holds, there’s a woman who can be seen who looks like she played one of those drugged-up human guinea pigs in Enter The Dragon!

Bruce Lee’s Secret isn’t completely incompetent, there were quite a few scenes that I thought were well-directed. One scene depicts Bob and his friend working at this new place with Bob doing cool tricks with the bowls & glasses before getting sacked by their boss just by the sheer presence of Rob Kerver & his lackeys (the way it was done with editing, music and no dialogue was pretty effective) and I liked one directorial touch which shows Mr. Grace means business in this groovy shot where we see his office, almost pitch black, except there’s a light behind his desk which is making the retro-looking wall behind him look shiny – creating a silhouette where the only other thing you see is the smoke coming from his cigar, quite artsy!

All in all, harmless fun that’s above average if not completely good!

* Interesting point to make given that just like Way Of The Dragon (described in said book as Lee’s most narcissitic film), there is emphasis on Bob’s antagonism towards the view of Chinese being submissively subservient as held by the evil Westerners, plus there’s also a scene where Bob is working out in front of a mirror (Stephen Teo cited a similar scene in Way Of The Dragon as a classical illustration of Lee’s cinematic narcissism) along with a couple of scenes of Bob working out (naked to the waist) without a mirror (a scene in Way Of The Dragon which Stephen also noted as a narcissistic scene).

** I remember when Bey Logan called Leung Kar Yan one-note in his HKL commentary for The Odd Couple, but Leung had more talent & versatility than Carter ever did.

*** Bobby Samuels was persistent in his refusal for Sammo to go ahead with the ‘blackface’ gags in Don’t Give A Damn but Sammo claimed he was forced to do these scenes due to “Taiwanese investors”.

Joseph Kuby’s Rating: 6.5/10

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One Response to Bruce Lee’s Secret | aka Story of the Dragon (1976) Review

  1. T. J. Gushiniere says:

    Believe it or not, I saw this one at the movies. During the late 70’s as the kung fu craze was dying down. A ton of bad Bruceploitation films were shown starring Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Dragon Lee, Bronson Lee, etc. This one was bad, but hilarious, and qualifies to me in the so bad its good category. One of my favorite Bruce Li films that I view as a comedy. Thourough review, and good rating.

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