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Enter the Dragon: a movie review

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Bruce Lee is a house hold name. Everyone knows him; the whooping, yelping, and shrieking Chinese martial artist. Thin, fast, and fierce. He was a force to be reckoned with in the martial arts community in the late 60s and early 70s, simply as a performer and combatant. His entry to the film world was more than welcomed since karate/kung fu had been inaccurately portrayed in most American films up until that point. (And later, the ninjas of the 80s… don’t get me started.) But the handsome, talented, charismatic Bruce Lee fused his art with the art of film to create the archetype “KUNG-FU” action film, which future films of all genres (karate films, action films, and thrillers, even comedies) would hearken back to for decades to come. The tragedy is that his biggest film would also be his last. He died the same year.

Lee: Teacher?
Shaolin Abbott: I see your talents have gone beyond the mere physical level. Your skills are now at the point of spiritual insight. I have several questions. What is the highest technique you hope to achieve ?
Lee: To have no technique.
Shaolin Abbott: Very good. What are your thoughts when facing an opponent ?
Lee: There is no opponent.
Shaolin Abbott: And why is that ?
Lee: Because the word “I” does not exist.
Shaolin Abbott: So, continue…
Lee: A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.

 

Like all films, it’s would be foolish to say that just because Bruce Lee starred in the film that it was good. That’s not true at all. Any well known star in Hollywood today has more than likely played their part in a poorly written or poorly directed film. Bruce Lee is no exception, having starred in several films taking place in different countries under several directors. However, most of his work was decent at worst. Enter the Dragon is one of the most prolific of his works. It is the “go to” title; the first film a buddy would probably recommend for the Bruce Lee new-comer.

The interesting thing about Enter the Dragon is its long-lasting success as a martial arts film, though the title hardly makes any sense when you think about it (but that’s neither here nor there). The truth is that much of the action comes in the last 20 minutes; and most of the movie is an underground/gang/espionage film that feels a bit more like a James Bond film than the kung fu most people think of when recalling wild, exploitative kung fu pictures that would come later in the 70s catering to ultra violence and geysers of blood. This film, unlike Sonny Chiba pictures, contains no shots of bones snapping – only the sound effects. And this only happens once or twice. There really is not that much gore.

It’s more about the story and the mystery of this island where a man named Han holds a fighting tournament every three years to recruit fighters to his personal protective entourage. The complication comes with the news that this “Han” was once part of Lee’s Shaolin temple, and has turned his back on the Philosophy and Spirituality which his teachers and community held so dear. Without fail, just to give Lee a solid reason to enter the tournament to help an undercover agent trying to bring Han’s illegal shit to an end, he is told by an elder the truth about how his sister died years ago – of course it was at the hands of Han’s gang. (She took her own life though. She’d rather die with her honor than be raped? I may have chosen differently, but that’s a cultural thing.) I suppose the elder didn’t tell Lee years ago because he was afraid Lee would have gone on some revenge trip, but it seems that with the first five minutes of the film having Lee spouting Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, Lee probably could have handled it. He is centered. He is one. There is no “I”. Blah, blah, blah.

“Don’t think… feel. It’s like a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of that heavenly glory.”

I don’t know what all that means, and I’m not going to make some pretentious guess like I know more than you, but I’m glad this kind of writing—while interesting and not yet typical and clichéd—was kept in the beginning of this film and not woven throughout. Having Bruce Lee rattle off some “Confucius” phrases would have gravely diminished his believability as a character.

That slight criticism aside (which some say is one of its strengths); the topic of the characters in this film is up next. They are damn good. For a movie that is not loaded with action and fighting, it does a very good job of keeping the plot engaging and the pace rolling by exploring all of the characters. And I mean “all” of the characters. Most films of the time (and especially the Enter the Dragon copy cats in the 70s) never spent any time with the secondary characters or the villains. Very little gets established, and then the film asks you to “just go with it. You get it.” But this film explores Lee, played by Bruce Lee; Williams, the black afro dude; and Roper, a white man with prominent brows with a classic handsomeness typical of the early 70s. He could have easily been a Bond. These two characters are accompanying Lee to the island and were Vietnam buddies. Williams, as a character, has not aged well and almost could come off as a racist interpretation of a black man in the 70s. Afro, sideburns, bell bottom pants, huge collar, smooth talking. At the time it probably wasn’t funny. In 2011, it is.

Getting back on point, we follow these characters as they land on the island, have a party, have sex with women, and begin sparing. With very little action, I’m surprised at how intriguing and visual this second act of the movie is and how much you can enjoy the characters. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the other Bruce Lee films. Partly due to good casting choices, these actors gave real personalities to their roles and seemed to enjoy shooting the film.

Enter the Dragon (click for rotten tomatoes rating) is a “must watch” for martial arts fans because though the genre did not begin with this film, this movie solidified the decades of hommage to come: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fight Club, James Bond, Kung Fu Hustle, Kill Bill, and countless other action/adventure/martial arts films have made references (or borrowed lines/character traits) from Bruce Lee’s iconic movies. Don’t forget about Lu Kang from the Mortal Kombat videogame franchise. I mean, yeah, that is a direct character lift in almost every way.

The first act shows the audience some interesting flashbacks, cross-faded through wavy film transitions that really show what decade this film was made in. That’s not bad; just an observation. Actually I really enjoyed these sections of back story because they are informative and welcomed. They may not be completely necessary, but they are not superfluous either. They add to the characters and don’t take up too much of the film’s run time, so I say leave them in and pay attention. Emotional investment and believability are not in all films of this genre, so enjoy it in this one.

The film did have its weak elements and some unintentional funny moments. I’ll leave the individual viewer to judge whether these take away from the movie or add to it. It’s all about taste.

The first thing is the ADR. The dialogue replaced after the film is shot, usually in a sound studio. It’s very bad, particularly in the beginning of the film as all the philosophy is begin discussed between Lee and his elder. Once the action kicks in at an hour and 20 minutes, some of the funniest moments pop up. The stomping neck break Lee performs is a medium shot from his hips and up at 1 hour, 21 minutes and 36 seconds. It is slow motion and priceless. His high-pitched howl is mighty. This began one of Bruce Lee’s iconic moves, soon to become a stereotype. Again at 1 hour, 23 minutes and 2 seconds, he swings his chucks around like Michelangelo from the original TMNT movie of the early 90s (in April O’Neil’s apartment before the floor collapses). At 1 hour, 29 minutes and 4 seconds, Lee is kicking a guy three times in the face before he drops out of frame. Once he does, and the line of men behind him watch in a serious awe, there is one extra, probably about 19 years old, that is smiling like a doofus, probably unsure of how he ended up on the set of a film where his idol was kicking someone’s teeth in. The juxtaposition of the serious faces with his goofy-ass gaping mouth made me laugh, rewind, and watch a second time!

Finally, there’s the dummy kick. At 1hour, 24 minutes and 32 seconds, Lee lands an earth-shattering round house kick to the side of the villain Han’s head. The kick initially rises off the ground from a medium wide shot, from the side (profile) and it’s a two-shot of both fighters. There’s a sudden medium-close cut from over Han’s shoulder, which is clearly a dummy replacement, and the kick lands, launching this dummy in just two frames completely out of view. The dummy, or Han, would have his neck snapped after such a blow. Guess they forgot to add weight to the mannequin, because Han seemingly weighs 20 lbs!

The mirror sequence at the end was superbly disorienting. Very well done, though perhaps a minute too long. Over all, Enter the Dragon was film about a plot first and the martial arts second. That is something to be respected. These actors had to be able to act to a moderate degree, not just fight. Most films would do the opposite. His iconic whoops and “yaws!” were unlike anything heard at the time, and when people do these impressions today—you know it’s goddamn-Bruce-mother-fucking-Lee!

This epic, undercover, action film is more than the sum of its parts. It has that international feel of a Bond film while being its own entity; melding and meshing beautiful sets, locations, costuming, caves, nudity, blood, and underground tunnels with scaffolding and radio centers. What more could you ask for? I’m glad they seemed to have a comfortable budget and avoided B-movie stigma.

Even then, Enter the Dragon does have its slow parts and is not for all audiences today. People and critics, especially over at rotten tomatoes, get a little to wound up about how awesome this is and gives them too much praise in my opinion. This film is not a 9/10. They are getting their pleasure of Bruce Lee and this specific film’s global popularity confused with actual quality. While greatly respected for what it would begin in the film industry (setting paths for films stars Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Tony Ja) as a 38-year-old film, the grade must come at 7.5/10. I enjoy it more than this, but this is the fair rating. Though I love the hyper-reality of massive punch-and-kick sound effects, perhaps with better dialogue quality and more action, this respected classic would be an eight. Even then—it must be owned by fanatics of the fighting/action genre.

MH

IMDB site for this movie HERE.

BuyDVD  movie on Amazon HERE.

On Netflix.

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