A look back at 40 years of Enter the Dragon
1Looking back at Enter the Dragon is as much about looking back at a seminal moment in my childhood as it is about a seminal martial arts movie. A movie of such cultural significance that in 2004 it was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry.
Enter the Dragon defined martial arts movies for the western world, opening a doorway to Chinese cinema that had remained closed, to all but a few, for so long. It effortlessly bridged the gap between western and eastern cinema, while simultaneously propelling its star, Bruce Lee, to the highest echelons of worldwide fame. The fact that Bruce died only days before the film's release imbued it with a special ingredient; something intangible and ethereal, as though we were witnessing a man at the absolute pinnacle of what was possible for one man to achieve. So profound was his performance that his light was extinguished by the sheer effort of it. Obviously that all sounds rather grandiose and melodramatic, and perhaps it is, but very few could argue over that it isn't the case.
Enter the Dragon deserves, totally and absolutely, its place in history.
The impact of this movie is still felt today. One could argue that, were it not for Enter the Dragon, audiences around the world may not have craved for more Chinese superstars, such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, and the multitude of films that were produced in the same vein. Perhaps action stars of today, that show deadly precision and skill in the martial arts, would have been less physically capable or less desired. Perhaps the intricate choreography of fight scenes in modern western cinema would seem cumbersome and slow compared to today's feast of razor sharp martial arts exponents as displayed in films like The Bourne series, and even Batman.
Bruce Lee, with Enter the Dragon, introduced a physical language to the common man. Fighting was no longer about the scrabble of two drunken men clawing at each other in the garbled mess of a bar room brawl. Fighting was now a beautiful acrobatic dance between two highly skilled proponents, highly trained in their art and at the peak of physical perfection. A movie fight became something that could be savoured and experimented with. Countless stars, in this reviewer's opinion, owe much of their success to Bruce Lee. Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Segal, Jackie Chan and many others would not have existed, at least not in such as successful a guise, were it not for the grand master himself.
To many of us that grew up watching Bruce Lee movies, using them as a way to cement our ideals of manhood, honour and physical prowess, Enter the Dragon was more than just a movie. It was a high watermark for the ideals of a life well lived; a life of honour, strength and determination. It was hard not to be inspired by Bruce Lee, by his movies, his philosophies and his martial arts. It is for these reasons that it is difficult to suppress the temptation to overdo this review with overly sentimental recollections of childhood, what Bruce Lee meant to me growing up and what his loss meant to the world. So, how about we just go ahead and talk about the film? There is, of course, going to be a number of spoilers as I delve into this wonderful film.Don't look at the finger or you will miss all the heavenly glory.Enter the Dragon opens on a shot of the Shaolin temple, the subtle chords of Shifron's score plucking at the simple majesty of the structure. Surrounded by priests and onlookers, the temple's star pupil Lee faces off against a fearless, if slightly chubby looking, opponent that many of you may recognise: the Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung. Lee demonstrates his mastery of the martial arts in his complete dominance over his opponent. During the fight, two of the onlookers, one being Lee's father and the other a representative of a British Government intelligence department, asses Lee's skill.
After the fight, Lee walks with his Shaolin master, discussing the highest levels of the philosophy to which they have dedicated their lives. In many ways, Enter the Dragon was a vehicle for Bruce's philosophy on the martial arts. “What is the highest technique you hope you achieve?” “To have no technique.” This was key to Bruce's philosophy and to his way of the intercepting fist, or Jeet Kun Do.
The philosophy that sat at the core of this martial art was not to rigidly adhere to any one technique. To be like water. In one of Bruce's most famous interviews, a conversation with Pierre Burton in 1971, he talks of a speech he gave in the series Longstreet in which he played the martial arts trainer Li Tsung. In the show, and in the interview, Bruce conveyed his water principle of fluidity and adaption; “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle. You put water into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.”
After his meeting with the Shaolin master, Lee meets with the British operative, Mr. Braithwaite, who explains that there is a mission that they would like him to undertake. The criminal mastermind, known only as Mr. Han, controls an island fortress off the coast of Hong Kong where he runs a school of martial arts, but where he is suspected of dealing in the human trafficking of women. The group want Lee to infiltrate Han's island, under the guise of an entrant of Han's periodical martial arts tournament. Lee is to pose as a fighter, gain access to the island and discover what he can about Han's operation. They already have an agent inside, called Mei Ling, but they haven't heard from her and worry for her safety. There's a radio on the island, and, if you can get to it, help would be sent.
Still contemplating his potential involvement with the mission, Lee meets with his father. It is only now that the old man explains the true circumstances under which Lee's sister died many years before. The sister, Su Lin, and her father were on the mainland when they came across some of Han's men, brash and bullying the locals. Standing up to them was their only course of action, leaving Han's right hand man O'Hara with a facial scar to remember, and Su Lin running for her life.
What follows is a frantic chase, with Su Lin running and fighting, showing a physical capability rare for women in cinema at the time. She takes on a veritable army of Han's men, crushing them at every turn while trying to escape the maze of houses and narrow walkways. Ultimately turned away by suspicious or disproving locals, not willing to get involved, Su Lin finds herself surrounded in an abandoned warehouse. Unable to escape, she takes her life rather than suffer at the hands of these vile men.
This was undoubtedly the most haunting scene in the movie. Lee's sister is fighting for her life. Right from the opening encounter, the camera work is such that it makes her feel boxed in and confined. There is no way out. She tries to escape, aided by her uncle's attack on O'Hara, but there are men at every turn attacking her. She fights fiercely, taking dozens of men down, doing whatever she can to get away. The choreography is sublime, giving her a real sense of power but you always feel a sense of fear for her. The environment is something of a shanty town, and resembles a rabbit warren; full of twists and turns and you get a real sense of how lost and alone she is. Finally, she makes it into the warehouse and tries to block the entrances. The men break the windows and make their way in. Every exit she attempts in thwarted. There is nothing to do and no where to go. She is beaten, and bloodied and you can see, in what is such a beautiful and understated performance, the sheer will of this woman. On her face is etched everything you need to know. She is strong, and powerful, but she has fought as hard as she can and now she is cornered. She knows what is at stake here. She knows exactly what will happen if she loses her fight; they will take her and use her up and then kill her. In her last act of defiance, she picks up a shard of glass from the windows they smashed to get to her. The composer Lalo Schifrin outdoes himself in this instant and creates musical accompaniment that is so stark and haunting that it stays with you long after the scene is over.
She takes her own life in what was, for me, one of the transformative scenes in the cinema of my childhood.
Here, we are left with the simple but powerful premise. Han, the criminal giant has brought dishonour to the Shaolin temle, and to Lee's family. He has brought death and destruction not only to Hong Kong but, in a more intimate and personal sense, to our protagonist Lee. Lee's Path is clear. He must attend the tournament and take Han down, no matter what.
With the premise is established, the opening sequence shows the movie's three heroes Lee, Roper and Williams travelling into Hong Kong, each of them reflecting on what lead them there. For Lee, it's the death of his sister at the hands of Han's men.
For Roper, the playboy gambler played by the brilliant and stoic John Saxon, the gambling debts have piled up, along with the death threats from the men to whom he owes money. For him, the potential prize money and gambling opportunities of Han's tournament are too good to pass up, along with the added benefit of being thousands of miles away from the men who would rather like to kill him.
For Williams, the super cool badass played by the late, great Jim Kelly, the tournament offers the chance to show off his unique fighting style, in which he has supreme confidence, and a chance to evade the police after assaulting them after a racially motivated attack on his way to the airport.
Special mention has to be made here regarding Jim Kelly, following his recent passing. Michael Jai White has made mention of his impact for the afro-american audience. As a white (english) kid, I didn't know anything about the struggles of black people in America. All I saw was a strong, confident man who was a role model, a badass martial artist who was effortlessly cool. His martial arts style was unorthodox but powerful. His way with the ladies was unmatched and his scene with Han's office, moments before Williams' demise is one of the stand out scenes in the entire movie. He crams a ton of killer lines into just a few minutes, and delivers them truly as if his life depends on it.
Now water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.The boat trip to he Island cements the relationship between Roper and Williams, who turn out to be old army buddies, and their respect for Lee. The way he deals with the ship's bully fascinates Roper and Williams and sets the stage for the trio's bond later in the film.
On arriving at the island, we are briefly introduced to one of the movie's greatest villains, Bolo, played by the incredible Bolo Yeung. His enormous physique, couple with a face that could make Dwayne Johnson wet his bed, makes for an instantly classic villain.
The tournament's fighters are treated to a night of lavish entertainment provided by their host. Although suitably impressed with the plethora of entertainment on offer, we soon learn that the island's frivolities are mere distractions, designed to keep the fighters from exploring the island at night, and perhaps uncovering their secrets.
It is here that Lee recognises the agent who must be Mei Ling. Later that night, when presented with a choice of ladies as, well, entertainment, Lee turns down the women on offer in exchange for meeting her. When Mei Ling arrives in Lee's room later that night, she confesses to Lee that many of the Island's women disappear, and that she fears she will be next.
The following morning, while Lee works out, he is interrupted by O'Hara. He still carries the scar given to him by Lee's father, but rather than a generic facial scar to make him look tough, this vicious mark carries with it a constant reminder of the acts of that terrible day that scarred Lee's life, and that of his family. Needless to say, their first meeting is intense.
The tournament begins, with Williams showing his uniquely effective fighting style, followed by Roper's uniquely effective hustling skills.
That night, while the rest of the fighters relax with their female companions, Lee takes his first foray into the Islands inner workings. He dances around Han's guards, making a mockery of them, taking a number of them out with ease. He discovers a hidden underground facility before being discovered and having to escape.
The guards are duly punished, dispatched with unrivalled brutality by Bolo in a display of his strength and viciousness so graphic that much of it was cut from the original release. In particular, a moment where he grabs up one of the guards like a ragdoll and proceeds to fold him in half.Boards don't hit back.Then comes one of the many highlights of the film. It's is finally Lee's turn to fight in the tournament and his first opponent is...O'Hara. What follows is an unparalleled display of martial arts skill, with a speed and precision never before seen on film. Lee picks O'Hara apart and in a final moment of treachery on O'Hara's part, is forced to take him out for good.I'll be too busy looking good.Williams is then summoned to Han's office, where he is accused of attacking the guards the previous night. It turns out that, while simply taking a breath of fresh air in the night he was technically the only fighter known to be outside his room. After being accused, Williams decides his time on the island has come to an end. Han has other plans and, after Williams takes out his men, Han shows his true capabilities. Seeming to posses supernatural strength, Mr Han takes Williams apart, beating him with what turns out to be a metal replacement hand which he lost in a firearms accident years before.
Having dispatched Williams, Han then reveals his operation to Roper, hoping to bring him on board with his team to help him expand into America. Han reveals exactly how serious he is when he shows Roper the hanging body of his old buddy Williams. The expression on Saxon's face as he reacts to the reveal of William's lifeless body is absolutely perfect, expressing in just a moment exactly what an impact this has on Roper.When my opponent contracts, I expand. When he expands I contract.Lee's next foray into the hidden underground facility is where we see, and I really do not exaggerate here, probably the best martial arts scene in all of cinema. After discovering the radio and sending his message out for help, Lee triggers the alarm and is met by an army of Han's guards. He dispatches them with brutal efficiency, showing off his supernatural awareness of his enemies, his absolute control and his prowess with a varied selection of classic Chinese weapons. Lee senses his enemies attacks, often countering them while they remain out of the frame. The camera crash zooms on his face, showing the intensity and absolute concentration while he clings to the hair of a rather young Jackie Chan. Each blow delivered dispatches another enemy as he ploughs through them. In one stand out moment, Lee shows his skill with the nunchucks, a scene that was cut from the original release in some countries due to the weapon itself being banned. Each time a door opens, more guards spill out and all you can think is “please don't let this scene end.”
But alas, as with all things, it of course comes to a conclusion. Lee is finally trapped in an inescapable room where Han congratulates him on his performance.
Dragged before all of the fighters and Han's men, Lee is offered up to Roper as a final test for the American. Roper declines the offer and sides with our hero, stepping in to take on Bolo one-on-one. Now I have to say, I was always a little disappointed not to see Lee tangle with Bolo, but Roper's moment in the sun is eminently enjoyable nonetheless.
Once Bolo falls, everything kicks off. Mei Ling has released men whom Han has been holding captive in his secret lair, and they surge into the tournament area, laying into Han's men and creating a backdrop for our heroes to go about finishing the job. Fists fly, kicks soar and bodies are flung in one of the most chaotic and memorable fight scenes ever filmed.
Han exchanges his metal hand for a nasty, hairy, clawed appendage which he uses to rearrange a number of faces before adding the signature bloody claw marks to Lee's body.
Lee chases Han and the two battle it out, engaging in a thoroughly engaging and fulfilling fight scene, not least when Lee delivers a kick so vicious that it seems to kick his opponent out of frame like a toy.
Obviously outmatched, Han moves into a secret hall of mirrors, where he uses their reflections to dazzle and disorient our hero, adding several more scars to his already bloodied body.
It is now that Lee remembers the words of his master, and shatters Han's illusions by taking out his mirrors and then, finally, Han himself.
The curtain falls as Braithwaite's helicopters arrive on the island, there to pick up the pieces left in the aftermath of Lee's awesomeness.
Enter the Dragon is a movie with unexpected depth. On the surface, its a martial arts romp in which we see one of the greatest proponents of any martial art, at the peak of physical perfection, engaging in some of the most memorably choreographed fight scenes in the history of cinema. However, when you look under the surface, you discover a movie about honour; about Lee's quest to restore the honour of his family and the Shaolin temple, both of which were defiled by a man who betrayed his own principles for power and greed. You see Roper, a gambler and a rogue but one who will not cross a line, a man who has honour of a different nature but one who will stand by what he believes in, even when that is the harder path. And, of course, Williams, a man who has embraced the purity of the art of combat and who lives with it at the core of his being. When his honour is questioned, its ass kicking time.
Enter the Dragon is also a movie of a million great one liners, delivered with impeccable timing and sincerity by Kelly, Saxon and Lee, and enough style and charisma to fill ten movies.
The score, by the legendary Lalo Shifrin, simply oozes cool and blends the classical Chinese score with a hip, 70s vibe.
Ultimately, Enter the Dragon is the iconic action movie. It has the powerful heroes, whom we all, as men at least, aspire to be. It has the righteous quest, the archetypal bad guys, the exotic location and, best of all, it has the legend himself; Bruce Lee.
If you haven't seen this movie before, there's never been a better time to see it. This 40th anniversary edition is stuffed full of special features and well worth the purchase. Do yourself a favour and buy it immediately. If you have seen it, well, let's be honest, you can never see Enter the Dragon too many time. So put on your tight fitting black sweatsuit, rest your nunchucks behind your neck and one more time, enter the Dragon.
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