Originally published in Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2014.
The craziest teamup movie of all time was 100% unlicensed, unauthorised and uncontrollable.
Team-up movies are all too frequently careful, calculated products. Marvel has the Avengers; DC and Warner Brothers have their upcoming Justice League; and Lionsgate has The Expendables. Even back in the day, Universal threw Abbott and Costello in with their familiar versions of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and Dracula. It’s a strategy predicated on the notion that if audiences love those characters separately, they’ll love them even more together, and it often pays off.
But for gleeful, ridiculous alternatives, we turn to the wonderful world of exploitation.
Third World movies have a long, proud tradition of low-budget, unauthorised knockoffs of popular, copyrighted characters. Star Wars, The Exorcist, E.T., Jaws, Rambo, the James Bond series and even Saturday Night Fever have generated batshit insane facsimiles from well outside Hollywood’s legal reach: largely Turkey, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. It’s a tradition that continues to this day.
If you’re disregarding copyright anyway, the next logical step is to mash those appropriated icons together. Turkish actioner 3 Dev Adam teamed Captain America with luchador legend Santo to fight the villainous Spider-Man, and The Expendables was predated by 28 years in Kill Squad’s all-American action substitutes. But cinema has never assembled a list of pop culture titans as comprehensive as the one in 1977 Hong Kong martial-arts comedy The Dragon Lives Again.
Part of the bountiful Brucesploitation subgenre birthed the moment Bruce Lee drew his final breath, The Dragon Lives Again isn’t content to simply imitate extant Lee titles. It takes the unusual step of starting at the moment of Lee’s death, following both his descent into the Underworld and his fight to escape it.
“Bruce” Leung Siu-lung isn’t the most convincing Bruce Lee-alike in the business. Visually, he’s the halfway point of Bruce Lee Animorphing into his Enter the Dragon opponent Bolo Yeung (who appeared in several Brucesploitation films himself), though he doesn’t quite have the martial arts prowess of either. But the creators of The Dragon Lives Again went for a quantity over quality approach, matching up fake Bruce Lee against fake Everybody Else.
From its opening titles sequence, featuring fake Bruce Lee fighting fake James Bond, it’s clear The Dragon Lives Again cares not for intellectual property law – only the law of badassery. Soon Zatoichi enters the fray, followed by Dracula and Clint Eastwood. By the time the film reaches its triumphant “The End” credit, we also meet fake Caine, fake The Godfather, fake The Exorcist, fake Popeye, and fake Emmanuelle (!). Everyone refers to each other by their full name or title, so we don’t forget who’s who. The Exorcist is just The Exorcist, and so on.
The imitation even extends to music. Fake Ennio Morricone, fake Lalo Schifrin, fake Sammy Lerner and fake Monty Norman all appear on the soundtrack, often chopping harshly between themes depending on which character is onscreen.
The Dragon Lives Again’s story is actually somewhat clever, a comfortable bedfellow to the most out-there comic-book teamups. After death, these iconic characters are dismayed their influence in pop-culture purgatory is less than that on Earth, so they stage a coup against the King of the Underworld. It’s up to fake Bruce Lee to stop them and maybe earn his freedom in the process. Who’s a hero and who’s a villain in this scenario is somewhat arbitrary, given that most of the characters started out as good guys. The villains score the bulk of the A-listers, though, with only best friends Popeye and Caine coming to Bruce Lee’s aid. The film delights in its mismatched characters – its best sequences have them just chilling and shooting the breeze.
It’s also an crazy martial arts comedy with side orders of sex and the supernatural. A skeleton walks out of a doctor’s office thanking him for the help. Kung-fu mummies play ring-around-the-rosey in combat. At one point European sex symbol Emmanuelle has boisterous sex with the aging King, attempting to induce a heart attack. You’re never stuck for entertainment with The Dragon Lives Again.
Like other titles of its ilk, this film could only have been made in an isolated industry far from Hollywood, a Wild East of entertainment and insanity. The Dragon Lives Again occupies a curious nexus between ripoff, homage and fan film. Legally speaking it’s pretty indefensible, but like the best exploitation films, there’s a charming naiveté to it. It feels innocent, like a kid playing with action figures. To not have James Bond and Dracula join forces would a waste of a good toy. No toy goes to waste in The Dragon Lives Again.