Return of the Tiger (1977)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-06-09
If Bruce Lee had lived to make another twenty or thirty movies there would have been no Bruce Li, Bruce Lai or Bruce Le and Ho Chung Tao would have had a very different career. He was a decent actor and an excellent martial arts practitioner, good looking, super fit and seemed at ease in front of the camera. It would have been interesting to see how he might have developed if he wasn’t stuck with trying to do the impossible, replace the irreplaceable. Those who tried to become the “new” Bruce Lee, of course, were doomed to failure. The more they tried to imitate specific stances, facial expressions, sounds and moves the worse they looked, since what was missing was that indefinable quality that is variously called charisma, star quality, sex appeal or even pizzaz. One takes on an iconic role and relationship to the audience at one’s peril and while Bruce Li was definitely not Bruce Lee, he wasn’t in the same monstrous category as some. The most egregious example I can think of is David Soul as Rick Blaine—Humphrey Bogart’s role-- in the 1980s television series “Casablanca”.

Which isn’t to say that “Return of the Tiger” is necessarily a poor movie—it isn’t a very good movie but it has its entertaining moments, many of which feature Angela Mao, a wonderful performer who had screen presence, athletic ability and good looks to burn. The movie begins with Angela Mao invading an all male group of athletes who seem to be a combination of gymnasts and martial artist and easily beating them up.The equipment--trampoline, parallel bars, etc. make good props for ducking under or jumping over while delivering punches and kicks, something she does quite well.

Bruce and Angela are working to uncover a drug kingpin and to shut down his operation but they don’t know exactly who is who so Bruce goes to work for each of them in their attacks on the other. At first they are looking for the “Big Westerner”—and Paul Smith is a very big westerner—letting him know they are on to his game. We discover that Li is working for Smith against his Chinese gangster rival but acting as Smith is his target. Chang Yi is very good as the consigliore for Smith, keeping things in line and making sure his boss has information from the street. Hsieh Hsing is the very practical and very deadly killer for hire who works for Smith’s rivals. All the bad guys double and triple cross each other—which they had been planning to do from the start—and all but one of them is killed or crippled in the last few scenes, leaving Angela Mao to mop things up while Bruce Li faces off against Paul Smith who has turned out to be as strong and unstoppable as King Kong—and with almost as much body hair. He is disposed of in a particularly uncreative and unsatisfying manner—probably an idea that looked great on paper but was a lot more difficult to make look credible on film.

The rival gangs are extremely tough. One sparring session of Smith’s gang is a survival of the fittest session with combatants knocked out or badly injured. When one fighter is trading blows with two others and is being beaten by them he pulls out his throwing knives—and this is during practice. A bit strange but an effective way to show how vicious the gangs will be. There is a strange confrontation at the docks--Bertolt Brecht crossed with The Keystone Cops. Bruce Li is surrounded and about to be attacked by one gang when a huge crane holding a container aloft begins moving. The container is lowered to the ground and thugs from the rival gang run out of it, surrounding the hoodlums who are surrounding Li. The leader of the hoodlums who have Li cornered tells them "Let's get out here" and as they do the men who were in the container run back into it. The crane then slowly lifts the container back for a real "what was that all about" moment.

The version we watched was very heavily and inexpertly cut--most likely to fit a two hour time slot with room for commercials in some version of "Kung Fu Theater". For example in one scene Bruce Li gets into a car wearing a sport coat and slacks but in the next scene he is wearing a blue track suit, cut and striped in the same manner as the Bruce Lee original.

Not as bad as it could have been and made watchable by Angela Mao
Reviewer Score: 5