Thursday, September 17, 2015

Film Friday: Enter The Dragon (1973)

In the 1970’s, martial arts became all the rage. There was one reason for this: Bruce Lee. Something about Lee was intensely compelling and audiences just could not get enough. When he died at the peak of his popularity, he became immortal. His peak came with Enter the Dragon, though without Lee, Enter the Dragon really isn’t a very good movie.


Enter the Dragon opens by introducing us to Bruce Lee. Lee is a Shaolin monk, of sorts, in Hong Kong. His order uses philosophy to give them greater martial arts ability, and he is the best fighter among them.
Lee is asked by British Intelligence to attend a martial arts tournament being given by Han, a drug dealer who owns his own island near Hong Kong. Han has invited the top fighters in the world to come compete and the British want Lee to join them and investigate Han’s island for missing girls. Han addicts them to heroin and then uses them as prostitutes. Lee agrees. He then learns that Han’s henchman, O’Hara, killed Lee’s sister.
Lee’s competition appears to be mainly Roper (John Saxon), an American businessman and compulsive gambler who has blown his fortune gambling and must flee the mob, Williams (Jim Kelly) a black radical who impliedly fights for the poor, and an assortment of others.

After a series of vignettes showing the fighters arriving, we are treated to one of Han’s parties. The fighters are offered food and women. Later that night, Lee begins his investigation. In the meantime, Han kills Kelly because he believes Kelly is spying on him and he offers Saxon a chance to join him. This all leads to a series of showdowns in which Saxon changes sides and helps Lee while Lee is in the fight of his life against Han and his private army.
What Made This Film Special

The Hong Kong film industry has turned out a bazillion martial arts films but few of them have ever reached any level of popularity with general audiences. Enter the Dragon is the notable exception. Enter the Dragon has become a classic. And make no mistake, it is Lee who gives Enter the Dragon its reach with general audiences and its staying power generation after generation.

Indeed, let us be honest: Enter the Dragon is a poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed mess that would be utter crap if given to another actor other than Lee. The lines are laughable. The dialog is primitive. The martial arts moments are ridiculous; they are the equivalent of wire fighting today. The acting is stiff on the one hand and Captain Kirk over-the-top on the other.
Through all of this, though, three things stand out which elevate this film. The first is Jim Kelly who is just badass. Kelly is three parts cool and one part ass-kicking machine. His tough guy appeal is the appeal of manufactured heroes like Jason Statham and Vin Diesel, only he does it without stylized close-ups, without faked whispered dialog, and without elaborate too-perfect one-liners. He is a man you don’t mess with, not a man who calls a stunt double.
Then you have John Saxon. Saxon is hard to believe as being a genuinely good martial artist, but that’s not really his role. His role is the corrupted fighter who redeems himself by finding his moral center again and then dies a martyr of sorts. Saxon is believable in this because it feels like the actor in a nutshell. Saxon is a wannabe action hero who just never felt right as a hero, and that works to his advantage here.

But Kelly and Saxon alone are not enough to elevate this to more than a B movie. That takes Lee. Lee is the reason you watch this film. He is the man who makes it real and makes it interesting. Indeed, stick any other actor in Lee’s role and this film collapses.
What Lee brings is believability first and foremost. Lee makes us believe that the fighting monks of his order are real. How? By believing his own fortune cookie lines (“don’t look at the finger or you will miss all that Heavenly glory”) are genuine philosophy and selling that philosophy as the key to a higher level of martial arts. Indeed, this film feels like you are getting a look into the actual training methods Lee used to make himself such an incredible martial artist.

He brings personality too. Lee does martial arts tricks with such cool that we believe he can do the impossible. He’s funny too. His humor is subtle, but genuine. It’s also very much “common man” humor like when he asks why someone doesn’t just get a gun and shoot Han. This makes him very relatable.
Lee also presents himself as the guy we all want to be. He knows he can’t rely on the government, so he doesn’t: “If I get in trouble, you make a phone call.” He’s moral too. He fights for the people who need help. He’s not cruel either; there isn’t a moment in this film where you think Lee will regret what he did. He takes down bullies, like the New Zealander. He’s clever, as seen in how he takes the New Zealander down.

All of this makes Lee out as a superior being with superior skills, but at the same time someone who strikes us as very much us. In effect, Lee is the person we want to be. That is why we relate to him. And when he tells us this is all real, we believe him in a way we would never believe another actor.

And that is the reason this film is remembered.


ScottDS said...

I must confess that kung-fu films are the one genre of which I am the least knowledgeable, even more so than westerns! What I'm trying to say is, I haven't seen this yet. (YesIknowshutup!)

I have, however, seen the Fistful of Yen segment from Kentucky Fried Movie, which is a parody (to the point where they almost got into legal trouble)... so for now I have that going for me.

"This is not a chawade... we need to-to concentwation." :-D

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I've seen a lot. It's very much a niche field with only a few names ever entering the zone of knowledge of the rest of the public: John Woo, Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Westerners like Chuck Norris who've kind of blurred it with Americanized action films seem to do better with audiences outside of Asia, though Jackie Chan is a huge star worldwide.

All told, most kung-fu/Hong Kong action films are pretty bad. But some are quite entertaining. This is pretty easily the best of the lot.

I enjoyed that part of Kentucky Friend Movie very much. :)

djskit said...

Enter the Dragon is unique is that is was not 100% a product of Hong Kong, but was produced by Warner Bros and directed by Robert Clouse.

The picture with this article reminds me: a review of The Lady from Shanghai would be most appreciated.

Jason said...

It's interesting how influential this movie has become even if it isn't necessarily a top-drawer classic. It seems tons of movies have been made since that feature a martial arts tournament on some distant island (The first Mortal Kombat movie borrowed some of its key elements from Enter the Dragon, obviously) or otherwise feature a plot that revolve around intrigue in a secret martial arts tournament.

And of course, Bruce Lee has spawned his own brand of knock-offs, literally. For a while after Bruce Lee's death, we had several Asian martial arts stars who actually took on the name Bruce!

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, This was definitely part of Lee's effort to become a bigger international star and you are correct about Warner Brothers and the director. It was also, apparently, directed by Lee himself.

The Lady from Shanghai? I'll see what I can do. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I think this movie really is the pinnacle of the genre and, because of that, it has been copied mercilessly. You see elements of this in dozens of martial arts films. Even in Western martial arts action films, like those starring a guy like Van Damme or Chuck Norris, they still steal elements from this film.

And you're right about Lee. He has become a sort of Holy Grail. The idea is to find a way to copy Lee. So far, no one has come close, but they keep trying. In fact, I would argue that the closest anyone has come is Jackie Chan and he's done it more as a clown than a straight up fighter. What's more, despite being a huge international star, Chan still doesn't come anywhere near approaching the love for Lee.

Ironically, I think part of that is the fact that Lee died... like Elvis. But Lee really was amazingly compelling. There are few actors anywhere who have what he had... if any.

Outlaw13 said...

This movie led eventually to movies like "Kung Fu Hustle" which was awesome. I totally agree about the Kentucky Fried Movie version as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, So true. :)

Anonymous said...

Andrew, this was a great review. You summed this up very well. Kelly and Saxon were the pillars that lent support to it, but without Lee this wouldn't even be remembered. Bruce Lee truly was lightning in a bottle. He had incredible charisma but he was also likeable and funny. And while he was a universe away from the rest of us in athleticism and ass kicking ability he came off as approachable. As per the discussion we all had on The Sting, Lee was just "cool." I can't specifically define it, but he really had it. As one guy on Amazon said about Big Jake, "not a great film, but a great movie."
As far as Kentucky Fried Movie goes, I'm a little worried about you guys. The only thing I remember from that is Uschi Digaard in the shower. ;)

ScottDS said...

Gypsy -

I see someone's a fan of the work of Samuel L. Bronkowitz. :-)

BTW, the audio commentary on the KFM DVD is one of the funniest things I've ever heard. You've got producer Robert K. Weiss (The Blues Brothers, The Naked Gun Trilogy) along with John Landis, Jim Abrahams, and the Zucker Brothers in one room for 90 minutes... or as Landis says at one point, "Five old Jews sitting on a couch."

Anonymous said...

Scott - Thanks for that! I haven't thought about KFM in years until this discussion, With that line up I might have to go over to Amazon and buy it just for the commentary. And by the way, I've only watched Network once, so I can't really discuss it with authority. That's why I didn't comment on your review last week. But because of it I discovered The Federalist.

ScottDS said...

Gypsy -

No worries. It's definitely worth watching again! And glad to recommend a sane conservative website. It says something that even I, a mushy moderate, can appreciate it, even if I don't always agree with them. :-)

shawn said...

The movie that I saw repeatedly as a child growing up in the 70s that I think epitomizes 70s Kung-Fu: "Master of the Flying Guillotine".

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks GypsyTyger!

Bruce Lee really is lightening in a bottle. He is his own mix of some many compelling things all in just the right proportions. And most importantly, you believe it's all real. That's why I think he can't be cloned by Hollywood, despite decades of trying. You just can't create a person like you can a character. And even if you could, you can't make them feel genuine.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, I liked that one. I remember they used to have Saturday afternoon King Fu on the independent channel where I lived when I was a kid. I love the soundtracks, how the voices never matched up and how all the hits sounded like a typewriter. LOL!

Unknown said...

Andrew......Great write-up on one of my favorite movies ever. I used to watch it frame by frame with my martial arts buddies. Bruce Lee was the reason I got into 'martial arts' in 1973 as a teenager. His battle with the guards was extraordinary!

You're right that Lee brought this oriental skill to America. While there were others before him, none really had the charisma and power of Lee. His own life story was pretty amazing too. If you've seen "Ip Man" you'll see where he got his common sense and touch of the common man.

Unknown to many, he developed his own style of martial art that is still being taught today --- Jeet Kun Do. Basically, his style boils down to "whatever works!"

It's great to read a review of one of, if not the most influential movie of my life. I agree with your artistic view of it and what makes it memorable.


AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Bob. I love this film. And I agree completely about Lee. His charisma essentially brought martial arts films (and a mini-martial arts revolution) to the general public in America. I didn't know he'd invented his own style. That's pretty funny, and it fits with his personality. LOL!

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, it's funny that you should mention Chan as a Lee imitator- as he's in this movie!

Chan most prominently plays one of Han's thugs. The easiest place to spot him is during the flashback sequence with Lee's sister. He's the guy with O'Hara wearing the light blue outfit.
Later in the film, he's one of the stuntmen who fights with Lee in the office. During the shooting, Lee actually hit Chan with one of the fighting sticks. Now, keep in mind, Chan has said that while learning martial as a kid, his master taught how to kick a man into submission while doing so with two broken legs. Tough dojo. In the years after doing 'Dragon,' Chan has said that the hardest he was ever hit in his life was that scene with Lee. That's saying a lot about Lee! (The fact that Lee also immediately apologized to Chan on set and later promised to hire him in future movies- Lee realized Chan had great potential- also says a lot.)

FYI: Lee's sparring partner in the movie's opening scene is Sammo Hung- another big name in martial arts films.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I love Chan, but only as he got older and stopped trying to be so serious. Chan has become a MASSIVE star worldwide, but it's funny to me how much he still lives in the shadow of Lee.

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