There is almost no way to describe what happens in the public domain martial arts cheapie The Dragon Lives Again without overselling its low-key charm. Part of the 1970s wave of “Brucesploitation” pictures that capitalized on the untimely death of rising action star Bruce Lee by casting less talented knockoff performers like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, and Bruce Leong in his place, this is the kind of dime-a-dozen schlock that really has to swing for the fences in its basic premise if it’s going to stand out in any way. The filmmakers may have gotten a little overzealous in that effort here, making a deeply, deeply strange film by any standard while merely attempting to stand out among their Brucesplotiation peers. In The Dragon Lives Again, “Bruce Lee” teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist, “Clint Eastwood,” and a Party City-costumed skeleton army in Hell. I’m not exaggerating. If anything, I’m holding back other post-modern, copyright-infringing character inclusions (like soft-core porno icon Emmanuelle) in an attempt to simplify the concept. I also hesitate to hook anyone into watching the film based on that synopsis alone, since it promises a surrealist action spectacle that The Dragon Lives Again is not interested in delivering. There are certainly bursts of exciting fight choreography to be found here or there, but for the most part this is a weirdly low-energy hangout film where Bruce Lee chills in Hell with his newfound friends & enemies from pop culture royalty of past & present. The premise does little to prepare you for how lackadaisical the tone & pacing can be.
You may find the idea of a film “dedicated to the millions who love Bruce Lee” that opens with the beloved, deceased actor (played here by Bruce Leong) waking up in Hell a little distasteful. Would it help if I told you that most of the film’s commentary on Lee’s real-life persona revolves around his reputation as a lady-killer and, frankly, a slut? Or that he’s eventually successful in his war against The Emperor of the Underworld’s gang of pop culture misfits and earns his life back on Earth through his combat skills (a chance obviously never afforded to Lee in the “real“ afterlife)? Probably not. It’s as if The Dagon Lives Again’s major contribution to the “Brucesploitation” genre was to really lean into the ”exploitation” half of the portmanteau. This an R-rated picture with lengthy, nudity-filled trips the Emperor’s royal bathhouses. “Bruce” spends a lot of his screen time (when he’s not hanging out with Popeye or teaching gambling addicts how to shed their vice) either seducing women or turning down their offers to seduce him. When he arrives in Hell as a fresh corpse in the opening scene his nunchucks are mistaken by the Emperor’s harem as a bulging erection. The movie makes sure to pack the screen with just enough horned-up sleaze to fill the time between its occasional sequences of “Bruce” beating up famous pop culture characters & their nameless ghoul-goons in bursts of chaotic martial arts spectacle. And just in case you forget that the figure you’re watching onscreen is “Bruce Lee” himself, he goads his opponents with self-referential taunts like “Now enter the dragon!” before punctuating the joke with a punch to drive it home. The film is almost as sleazy as it is silly – no small feat considering its premise.
A lot of what helps The Dagon Lives Again go down smoothly despite its low-energy hangout vibe and weakness for exploitative sleaze is its self-awareness in just how silly it’s being from scene to scene. Of course, the film could not afford to animate Popeye the Sailor Man à la Roger Rabbit nor to hire the real-life Clint Eastwood to appear onscreen next to its knockoff Bruce Lee, so it only puts in the bare minimum effort for the audience to recognize those pop culture figures through their Spirit Halloween Store costuming. It directly acknowledges that visual discrepancy, though, with Bruce Lee’s unconvincing appearance as Bruce Leong being explained in a throwaway line about how when you die your face & body change in the afterlife. More importantly, the movie deploys classic Looney Tunes gags (like opponents being tickled mid-battle or a pistol firing a red flag instead of a bullet), joke needle drops for the Carl Douglas disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting,” and a credits-length spoof of the James Bond series’ iconic intros just to signal that nothing in the film should be taken too seriously (least of all Bruce Lee’s legacy). It’s almost less of a genuine artifact of Brucesploitation than it is a ZAZ-style spoof of the genre – just with a significantly less zany energy level. Besides, even if you did have a chip on your shoulder about the film’s careless handling of Bruce Lee’s legacy, you’ve already won the battle. Because of the film’s shaky-at-best rights issues, it’s currently only available in hideous, crudely cropped public domain transfers that frequently cut entire characters out of the frame while they’re talking. It’s already been banished to the hellish dregs of YouTube & PutoTV where only weirdos who are awake at 3am will stumble into it, perplexed– the only delirious, low-stakes state where this movie stands a chance to fully satisfy its audience anyway.