It would be cool if Ron Van Clief was to Lee Van Clief as Bruce Li was to Bruce Lee, but actually he’s just another martial artist who capitalized on the success of ENTER THE DRAGON by starring in a bunch of low budget non-period-piece kung fu movies. The unique thing is that Van Clief wasn’t a Bruce Lee clone, he was more following in the footsteps of Jim Kelly.
(Now where’s the guy who got a bunch of movies ’cause he looked like John Saxon?)
Like Bruce Lee’s greatest victim, Chuck Norris, Van Clief had made his name in competitive martial arts and ran many schools before finding his way into movies. The year after ENTER THE DRAGON he starred in his first movie, and it was called BLACK DRAGON. It’s a nice idea because even if we still had the original Dragon we still might enjoy experiencing a Black Dragon. So he doesn’t so much have to pass as a worthy replacement. It’s a different thing.
I bring up Lee because although this sequel is sometimes called BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE, as you can see by the title I used it’s one of these Bruceploitation movies that tied Lee’s death into fictional kung fu movie shit. Van Clief (playing himself) is hired by a Chinese millionaire in San Francisco to investigate Lee’s death. The guy claims to be a family friend. Ron flies to Hong Kong and meets up with his old buddy from ‘Nam (Charles Bonet), who I thought might be the world’s first white Bruce Lee clone, until my research found that he’s actually Puerto Rican and known as “The Latin Panther.”
He combs his hair down over his ears like Bruce, dances around like him, mimics his hand movements, poses and even his trademark cat-like battle cries. He was also a real martial artist, but IMDB reveals that he’s also the guy who co-starred in one of my favorite underrated horror movies, DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE.
So the Black Dragon and the Latin Panther go around asking questions about the Dragon. They find a woman who is a close friend of Bruce Lee, I thought she was probly supposed to be Betty Ting Pei, the actress who was with him when he died, but I think they called her something else. Whoever she is she won’t tell them anything. Meanwhile there’s another group of fighters tasked by their master with finding out how Lee died, and they at first clash with Ron and his friend. Also there’s an evil bald-with-long-mustache master trying to stop people from knowing the truth or something.
Several theories are floated: drug overdose. “Oversex.” Delayed death after receiving “The Iron Fist.” They disprove that last one by beating up the chump who claims he did it. One convoluted theory that’s stated in the movie is that drug dealers killed him so that people would think he used drugs and that that was how he got his physique and then they’d want to use them too. This may or may not be the motivation for the bad guys to try to kill Black Dragon. I have no idea, honestly.
It’s a shoddily made movie with sloppy, can’t-afford-a-second-take camera work (made worse by a ridiculously bad pan-and-scan transfer) and lots of slow, awkwardly worded, dubbed English dialogue. This DVD also comes from a print that was edited so that every time they refer to “Bruce Lee” (which is many, many times) it just becomes “Bruce.” That way there’s no worry about lawsuits and also it’s more universal because people can imagine they’re talking about other Bruces such as Bruce Willis, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Hornsby, Bruce Wayne or Bruce Vilanch.
Typical of Bruceploitation the fights are plentiful but lacking in imagination. They are legit martial artists but the movie reminds you why Bruce stood out because other people of that era don’t put the same care into the choreography, staging and editing of the fights. They mostly take place in non-descript places like streets and backyards, and they don’t have the strong story context of the fights in the Bruce Lee movies, where most of these scenes are not only great fights but also escalations of the conflicts in the story. They’re not just inserted to fulfill a quota, they’re genuine storytelling highlights.
There’s nothing in here anywhere near the excitement you typically get over and over again in a Bruce Lee or a Shaw Brothers movie or BLACKBELT JONES, but there are some amusing moments. One of the main villains is a woman who can’t even fight, she just throws snakes on people. Usually they bite her victims on the arm (the bite marks can even be mistaken for needle marks) but in one case she just throws it on a guy’s neck and it chokes him. When the Black Dragon takes on the villains he calls the main guy a “jive turkey” but the snake lady pisses him off more, he calls her “Fucking bitch!”
The best fight is definitely the final one-on-one duel on the beach. Ron has two sais casually tucked into the back of his waistband. That can’t be that comfortable. At one point the bad guy picks up a rock about the size of a grapefruit and throws it at Ron. Ron catches it and twists it in half with his bare hands. I think this is foreshadowing of twisting the guy’s head backwards a little later in the scene. I gotta respect it but I kinda wish he twisted the top of the guy’s skull off so it would match what he did with the rock.
Ron dresses with cool ’70s style – big sideburns, sunglasses, tight t-shirts, bellbottoms – and reps his Chinese Goju fighting system by wearing its logo. His system unifies Japanese and Chinese styles so the logo looks like a samurai crest, but since he’s the Black Dragon it’s red black and green like the Pan-African flag.
One way it’s different from blaxploitation is that racism is never a factor. Other than a weird moment mentioned below they don’t really talk about race. He’s the god damn Black Dragon, he’s clearly better than everybody. So if there’s tension with him racial bigotry doesn’t even get a chance to come into it. They don’t even do much of the thing where they belittle him for being an outsider or an American. His reputation proceeds him.
I think he’s supposed to have the same type of swagger as Jim Kelly. His best achievement in this department is when he enters the Latin Panther’s space and challenges him (we don’t know yet that they’re friends). Without taking his eyes off his opponent he pulls the bow tie off his neck with one hand and tosses it aside.
Also there’s the part where he’s talking to a Chinese lady who’s wearing dark makeup for a performance. Looking at his skin she asks “This makeup?” and he says “No baby, it’s the real shit.”
But Van Clief doesn’t seem as genuinely cocky as Kelly. He seems more modest and down to earth, even if he signs his letters “Yours truly, Ron Van Clief, the Black Dragon.” That makes it funny when everybody talks about him like he’s the Batman. “That must be the famous Black Dragon from America,” says the master the first time he sees him.
He gets a Just How Badass Is He?:
“He is a mythical man. His martial art is great. Top man from the West. And of course four times world champion. He’s the head instructor of 20 Black Dragon schools. An honorable young master.”
That might also be his bio, straight from the press kit. I love movies where martial artists just play themselves, like Tiger Chen did in MAN OF TAI CHI. Yes, this is the type of adventure that Ron Van Clief goes on. I had to look it up, and apparently Van Clief really did know Bruce Lee, and says he got the nickname from him. So it’s kind of weird that he’d be willing to do a fictionalized movie of his friend’s death not that long after it happened. And did it bother him that one of the posters had a drawing of Bruce Lee’s face inside his coffin, with the words “BRUCE LEE DEAD” underneath? Was that necessary?
But I guess questionable taste keeps the world interesting.
This is my first Ron Van Clief movie. My first impression of him was when I watched the early UFC videos. Recognizing his name as somebody who’s in movies I was excited to see him show up to compete in 1994’s UFC 4. Even if he wasn’t an action movie guy I would’ve had to root for him for fighting at the age of 51, which is still the oldest anyone has fought in the UFC. Even old man Randy Couture was 47 when he retired.
So there’s The Black Dragon at 51 and with a broken ankle, and he has to fight young Royce Gracie, the winner of UFCs 1 and 2 who forced all martial artists to realize they’d have to figure out how to deal with grappling and specifically Brazilian jiujitsu submission holds. Of course Ron ended up tapping out, but at least he lasted four minutes with Gracie (who went on to win that tournament too).
In ’94 and ’95 Van Clief was the commissioner of the UFC. Unfortunately according to this article he started two of the things that I’m not a fan of: “the bad guys like Tank Abbott” (an at the time unbeatable pit fighter who acted like a loud-mouthed wrestling heel instead of an honorable warrior or sportsman like everybody before him) and the concept of the “Superfight” (just choosing two guys to fight each other instead of doing the amazing tournaments they used to do). But also he stood up to Senator John McCain, who was trying to shut down the sport as “human cockfighting.” And I mean it’s a fair point, I’m sure many roosters did lose their jobs to humans, but isn’t that something for the animal senate to worry about?
One way that Van Clief has had an impact on black martial artists specifically is through THE LAST DRAGON. He was the fight choreographer and was also teacher to Taimak (the guy that played Bruce Leroy) and other fighters in the movie.
You know what man, this is a crappy movie, but it’s so much more fun than BRUCE LEE FIGHTS BACK FROM THE GRAVE, which was not in any way about Bruce Lee fighting back from the grave, or from any other location. Van Clief is a good martial artist and it’s a nice novelty to have a little blaxploitation bluster in a cheapie kung fu movie, even if it can’t compete with BLACK BELT JONES in any aspect. I’ll give some of his other movies a shot some time.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.