• Ron Van Clief Collection, The: The Death Of Bruce Lee/ Way Of The Black Dragon



    Released by: BCI Eclipse
    Released on: 12/26/2006
    Directors: Lu Chin-Ku/Billy Chan
    Cast: Ron Van Clief
    Year: 1975/1978
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    The Movies:

    New York born Ron Van Clief started his martial arts training at a young age and by the time that the kung fu movie craze had swept across the ocean to American shores, he was ready to capitalize on his hard work and expertise. His first film, The Black Dragon, made him a star and the success of that picture lead to more film deals, primarily in Hong Kong. The closest point of comparison for Van Clief is the better known Jim Kelly, star of Enter The Dragon and Blackbelt Jones, but Van Clief had a strange charisma and screen presence all his own that he milked for every cent it was worth throughout his odd career.

    BCI Eclipse, through their ongoing line of Kung Fu Theater double feature releases, presents two of Van Clief’s pictures on DVD for the first time: 1975’s The Death Of Bruce Lee (also known as Black Dragon’s Revenge) and 1978’s The Way Of The Black Dragon (the third and final film in the series). Unfortunately the first film in the series has not been included.

    THE DEATH OF BRUCE LEE (a.k.a. BLACK DRAGON’s REVENGE) – 1975

    Made a year after the first Black Dragon movie, this second film in the series finds our titular hero (played by Ron Van Clief) investigating the mysterious circumstances behind, as you could probably guess, the death of Bruce Lee. A rich businessman named Jim Yen who held Lee in high regard is paying him quite handsomly to take the case and he heads off to Hong Kong to complete the job. Once he’s there, he teams up with his old war buddy, Jimmy Woodcock and after some preliminary amateur detective work (they go to Lee’s house but no one will let them in so they just go away), it starts to look like a gang of corrupt Hong Kong movie big-wigs played a part in Lee’s death.

    The more involved in the case the Black Dragon gets, the more dangerous his situation becomes until he finds himself involved with a group of five of Lee’s students who are also working hard on cracking the case and along the way, Ron Van Clief fights every body (which is pretty much the entire point of the film anyway).

    Obviously made fast and cheap to cash in on Lee’s death and Van Clief’s rising star, The Death Of Bruce Lee is a pretty bad movie. The premise isn’t too far removed from other, more entertaining Brucesploitation pictures that use Lee’s death as a launching pad for the various ridiculous stories that this sub-genre dealt in, and the supporting cast brings little to the picture (though it’s cool to see Phillip Ko show up and Charles Bonet is just odd enough that he manages to entertain in spite of himself) Van Clief does well in the fight scenes, moving quickly and fluidly and making all manner of strange noises as he beats on his opponents – this does make the movie worth a look if you’re in the mood for goofy martial arts highjinks but don’t take any of it seriously or your brain will explode.

    THE WAY OF THE BLACK DRAGON - 1978

    Van Clief reprises his role as Interpol super agent, The Black Dragon, to take on a heroin smuggling ring operating out of Hong Kong. The bastards behind this racket force women to smuggle bags of smack in condoms which they stash in their nether regions so that they can get them through customs undetected. When one woman panics after a run in with the law, she tosses the dope in an airport toilet and makes a break for it. Unfortunately for her, the bad guys (lead by Carter Wong) have fingered her and they send some of their thugs to kidnap her.

    The Black Dragon cruises around in his red car and yaps to various agents and informants until he puts the pieces of the puzzle together. From there, he bursts into action to save the girl and put a stop to the drug smugglers once and for all.

    Directed by Billy Chan, The Way Of The Black Dragon has one serious problem – Ron Van Clief is barely in it and he doesn’t show up until forty minutes into the film. It feels more like this was shot as a separate picture and that Van Clief was just edited into certain parts of it as an after thought to cash in on the success of the first two movies in the series. That being said, the first half of the film does have enough exploitative trash to keep b-movie fans entertained, but it’s hard to think of this one as a Van Clief picture when Van Clief isn’t on screen. Regardless, Carter Wong is enjoyable as the bad guy and there are enough diabolical bad guys here, perpetually laughing and smoking in the way that only diabolical bad guys can, to keep things moving even if it is in a rather odd direction. The scene where the ladies are searched by the customs officers is trashy enough to stand out (are they really all having their periods at the same time?) and there’s enough mysoginist manhandling and bitch slapping here to endear it to the ladies time and again (that was sarcasm).

    When Ron and Carter eventually square off (it was inevitible and you KNEW it was coming!) the results are decent enough. Both of these men have got some great moves and they know how to fight on camera. Van Clief handles the action scenes well, moving quickly and dramatically and taking on each and every opponent with style – too bad his acting isn’t as good as his fighting, he’s so wooden he makes Chuck Norris look emotive. Go into this one with really low expectations and you might come out amused and entertained, though it’s unlikely you’ll be particuarly impressed by much of it.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Both of these films were shot widescreen though unfortunately they’re both presented here in rather disappointing pan and scan fullframe transfers. The opening credits of The Way Of The Black Dragon are stretched for some reason and the rest of the movie and the whole of The Death Of Bruce Lee are hurt by the fact that much of the action takes place off screen. The packaging does acknowledge that these aren’t going to look so hot so buyers are at least provided with that caveat, but it’s a shame that these are the only elements that BCI had to work with. The flat colors and mild print damage aren’t that distracting, neither is the softness, but the fullframe presentation renders many of the compositions null and void and at times it’s actually a little difficult to figure out just what is going on in the movies, especially during the fight scenes when half the time Van Clief’s opponents are off screen.

    Both films in the set are presented in English language Dolby Digital Mono dubbed tracks, and no alternate language dubs or subtitle options are provided. The audio quality is slightly improved over the video quality but it’s still far from perfect. Dialogue is always understandable though there’s some fluctuations here and there with the levels. Some background hiss is present on a fairly constant basis and the odd pop can be heard here and there. Serviceable, considering the elements that were supposedly available, but far from ideal.

    Amazingly enough, both of the two discs in this set contain some pretty substantial extra features, starting with commentary tracks for each moviefeaturing Ron Van Clief and moderator George Tan. While these discussions aren’t always specific to the movies that are being covered, they are at least always interesting as Van Clief talks about not only his career in the film industry but as a professional martial artist as well. Highlights include Van Clief covering how and why he decided to compete against Royce Gracie in the UFC just weeks away from his fifty-second birthday against a man roughly half his age and how he feels about being beaten in that match. He also talks about what it was like working with various Hong Kong film producers and directors. He covers his relationship with Bruce Lee, what it was like running his own martial arts school, and how fan reception to the Black Dragon films during their heyday made him feel ‘like a rock star’ particulary when they played in Detroit, on 42nd Street and on ‘The Loop’ in Chicago. Van Clief and Tan tend to talk over one another once in a while and Ron has a tendency to acknowledge each one of George’s points by saying ‘yeah, I know’ and ‘uh huh’ every couple of seconds, but aside from that these are both worth listening to as Van Clief has got some great stories to tell.

    Ron Van Clief has also supplied some interesting behind the scenes footage for each of the features in this collection that he shot on an 8mm camera while they were in production (roughly eleven minutes for Way Of The Black Dragon and twenty-one minutes for The Death Of Bruce Lee). This material was shot without sound so Van Clief provides optional commentary for both segments where he explains what is going on and who we’re seeing, with Tan once again moderating the talk and prompting him with questions. These probably aren’t going to be something you’ll go back to over and over again but it is really cool to see this material and to hear Van Clief reminisce about his time on the sets of these two productions.

    Rounding out the extra features for this set are a trailer and television spot for The Death Of Bruce Lee (in widescreen, which just makes the fullframe transfers all the more painful) and a still gallery for each movie. Animated menus and chapter stops are provided on both discs.

    The Final Word:

    While the presentation of the two movies in this collection leaves something to be desired, BCI has gone above and beyond by recording commentaries with Ron Van Clief and digging up some other interesting extras to accomdate the features as well. Neither film is a classic but they’re both a lot of fun and The Ron Van Clief Collection: The Way Of The Black Dragon/The Death Of Bruce Lee packs a substantial amount of bang for the buck despite the fullframe transfers.