SPECIAL FEATURE: DVD Review: Enter The Dragon

Film: Enter The Dragon
Release date: 15th October 2001
Certificate: 18
Running time: 98 mins
Director: Robert Clouse
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Ahna Capri, Kien Shih
Genre: Action/Crime/Drama/Martial Arts/Thriller
Studio: Warner Bros.
Format: DVD
Country: Hong Kong/USA

This is an English-Language release.

In late 1972, Bruce Lee abandoned work on his fourth Hong Kong action movie, and second as writer-director-star - his pet project, the planned philosophical opus Game Of Death. The reason - Hollywood had come calling, with a million dollar budget for an English-language, international co-production. Lee was convinced that this was going to be the break he craved - the moment he brought martial arts movies, and his combat philosophy, to the wider world for the first time. He was right - in August 1973, Enter The Dragon was released in America, and it would go on to make 200 times its budget in box office receipts, and cement Lee’s position as a cinematic and cultural icon as revered internationally as he was in Hong Kong. The tragedy was, he would never live to see his efforts be rewarded, as he would pass away the month before the film’s premiere.

Three very different men have three very different reasons for making their way to an elite martial arts tournament on the mysterious Han’s Island, which lies off the coast of China. Williams (Kelly) is an American karate expert, looking for the next challenge - and a good time while he’s at it; his old ’Nam buddy Roper (Saxon) is a struggling businessman whose gambling problems have got him in hot water with shady money-lenders. And then there is the man known only as Mr Lee, a Shaolin-trained secret operative hired by a British intelligence agency to go undercover as a competitor while he gathers evidence of a human trafficking ring by the owner of the island, Mr Han (Kien).

As Lee gets to work, the tournament gets underway. But after a nocturnal reconnaissance mission, Lee’s cover is almost blown - leading to the brutal murder of a wrongly accused competitor. With Han closing ranks to make sure his evil secrets never leave his island fortress, can Lee and the Americans escape with their lives?

The setting may be international, the leading man may be Chinese, and the action full of hitherto little-seen martial arts, but the genius of Enter The Dragon as a commercial endeavour is that, for western audiences, the movie feels quickly familiar and comfortable. Once the Shaolin-based prologue sequence (featuring a nifty dust-up between Bruce Lee and a young, pre-fame Sammo Hung) is out of the way, the story settles into a James Bond-like scenario, with Lee contacted by a posh, British intelligence supremo and charged with his mission to get the evidence against the corrupt, disgraced former Shaolin monk, Mr Han. While Han’s cover, his martial arts tournament, has lashings of the exotic and mystical about it, his real business - opium production and prostitution - is run out of an underground lair in which the likes of Blofeld or Dr No would feel very much at home.

The familiarity may ensure that western audiences are not alienated, and the technical aspects of the film are of a standard that said audiences would expect (with the exception of the sound dubbing, necessitated by the international cast, which is mildly - but very noticeably - out of sync), but the script by Michael Allin offers little in the way of surprise. The perspective of the film is broadly omniscient - Han’s guilt is established early on, his criminal operation known to those who would have him brought down (“We know everything,” says Mr Lee’s British contact Mr Braithwaite, “we can prove nothing”). As such, the main narrative objective is frustratingly simple - Mr Lee must get in and get out. The star may be working with a significantly bigger budget than he was used to in Hong Kong, but the step forward in script sophistication is minimal at best. Enter the Dragon is as pure an exploitation film as The Big Boss and Fist Of Fury.

With Mr Lee’s mission simple and straightforward, complicated only by an early subplot involving the death of his sister at the hands of Mr Han’s bodyguard Oharra (Bob Wall, veteran of Lee’s directorial debut, Way Of The Dragon), it is left to the other main characters to flesh out the story and perhaps hook the audience emotionally. Unlike Mr Lee, Williams and Roper don’t know what they have got themselves into, and as Mr Lee’s clandestine mission pulls them in, it is their vulnerability and narrative disposability that creates the highest levels of suspense in the early and middle sections of the film. Indeed, it is obvious - from the attention paid to Mr Roper, as well as the actor’s sharing of top billing - that John Saxon is intended almost as a ‘secret’ star of the movie in the event that international audiences were alienated by a Chinese leading man. While this may seem like a ludicrous notion in 2011, one must remember that the film was produced just a few short years after studio executives rejected Bruce Lee for the lead role in the television series Kung-Fu (which he had helped develop) for this very reason, preferring to cast Caucasian actor David Carradine and use make-up to make him look half-Chinese.

Of course, there is little chance of an audience not being in awe of Bruce Lee’s screen presence, even in what is unquestionably the blandest role ever scripted for him. Mr Lee is a straight-faced, straightforward heroic character who sets about his mission with an unwavering sense of duty, even despite his obvious disdain for his British employer. While his desire to avenge his sister’s death, as well as his loyalty to the Shaolin Temple that Han has offended (it is unclear if Mr Lee is a monk, former monk, or simply some kind of ward of the Temple Abbot), adds some extra weight to his objective, this protagonist lacks the intense, vengeful drive of Fist Of Fury’s Chen Zhen, or the pushed-too-far-wrath of The Big Boss’s Cheng Chao-an. But if the script serves up no real reason for the audience to invest in Mr Lee’s mission, the actor’s grace and physicality provide ample vicarious pleasure as compensation.

Knowing that this could be his big break into Hollywood, Lee goes all out to ensure that international audiences are left in no doubt that they are seeing an action hero unlike any that has graced their screen before. Bearing not a shred of resemblance to the personas of western counterparts such as Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen or Sean Connery, Lee puts his physicality and grace front and centre. However extravagant the fight scenes get, there is a simple, undeniable conviction to Bruce Lee when he fights on-screen. So compelling a presence is he, audiences - of all ages - genuinely believed that he was the ‘real deal’, as dynamic and exciting off-screen as he was on it. Here, arguably, is the core to Lee’s initial and enduring appeal - the audience’s faith that he was more than a movie hero, or - to borrow a Hong Kong phrase - a “Paper Tiger”. He was one-hundred-percent for real.

The fight sequences are the most elaborate Lee ever filmed, each one more stirring and spectacular than the last, as the star forges a clear international identity. Lee’s fight against dozens of nameless henchman in an underground cave showcases the full range of his martial arts skill - empty-handed fighting, followed by a variety of weapons, including his signature nunchuku, in a sequence that remains every bit as breathtaking thirty-eight years later. The beginning of the climax, that begins with a two-against-twenty set-up that quickly becomes a martial arts riot, is the appetiser to the film’s main course - a genuine coup de cinema that pits Mr Lee against Han in a hall of mirrors. A genuinely stunning sequence from a visual perspective - and clearly an immense challenge for all departments - this fight also shows Lee’s innate skill, not just as a choreographer of technique, but with pacing the action. Here, at last, in the film’s legendary final reel is the kind of suspense lacking in the preceding hour, with Lee the action director using the imaginative setting to full effect.

Of course, Lee as a martial artist and martial arts filmmaker was concerned with much more than simply giving the audience a good time. An intensely passionate and philosophical man, he wanted to introduce martial arts to the wider world, to popularise what he believed was the true essence of combat and physical expression. A consistent theme of his work in Hong Kong film, the original release-print of Enter The Dragon suppressed this element to a handful of references. Some are beautifully simple and clear, such as Mr Lee’s withering response to a show of strength from Oharra (“Boards…don’t hit back”), while some are almost ambiguous and obscure, such as the reference to “heavenly glory” in the famous “kick me” scene. Due to his passing, we will never know how Lee would have reacted to the final cut of Enter The Dragon, but later re-issues of the film have now reinstated a key philosophical exposition scene that one imagines is much more in line with the actor’s vision for his international coming out party. After his bout with Sammo Hung, Mr Lee is summoned to his Abbot’s side for an assessment of his victory, during which the two relay philosophies of approach to combat, a discussion which will pay off during the Hall of Mirrors sequence. Though the hour-plus of running time between set-up and pay-off renders the recalling of the initial dialogue somewhat convenient, even jarring in the midst of a climax to a martial arts espionage thriller, it nevertheless feels appropriate that Lee’s philosophies survive and endure.

Enter The Dragon is rightly considered a classic, and remains the cornerstone of western martial arts movies. Viewed objectively in the fourth decade since its release, it is easy to note that its esteem is somewhat higher than the simple script and efficient, but indistinct, direction from Robert Clouse actually warrant. But, as he did in his Hong Kong films, Bruce Lee does not simply ‘slum it’ in an ordinary movie - rather, he lifts the ordinary movie closer to the level on which he works. A genuine cultural phenomenon in 1973, it remains American cinema’s most successful fusion of east and west - Hong Kong action with a Hollywood sheen. And if the film is perhaps something of a ‘camp classic’ today, the sincerity and passion which Bruce Lee brought to his every endeavour makes it an exhilarating one as well.

A simple but magnificently effective martial arts actioner that deservedly broke down the barriers in the west. It is also quite possibly the most appropriate title in film history. However, it is one of action cinema’s greatest tragedies that the Dragon had already made his exit. JN

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