Review by Dr. Felix Chen
If you were going to create the martial arts flick for all of eternity, you would enlist the world’s number one martial artist star and stage unforgettable fight scenes showcasing the unparalleled prowess of said box office draw. Well, that movie’s been made already: Enter the Dragon. It is, simply, the ultimate martial arts film of all time. It introduced to new audiences, and improved upon in a big way, the formerly fringe kung-fu movies from the Far East to help bring this genre into the mainstream. Although Enter the Dragon was released way back in 1973, no martial arts film has yet surpassed it in terms of reverence, influence, and just plain old martial arts badassness.
Employing Western moviemaking techniques and values under the auspices of Warner Brothers, Enter the Dragon not only featured megastar Bruce Lee but also Americans John Saxon and Jim Kelly. John Saxon was not only a bona fide actor but also sported serious martial arts training. Jim Kelly was an experienced black belt martial artist who in his spare time taught his unorthodox brand of karate. His role in Enter the Dragon was something of a coming out party for him. The martial arts training of this supporting duo lent credence, not to mention acting chops, to Enter the Dragon. Rounding out the main cast were Lee’s good friend Shih Kien as the villainous Han, Yang Sze as Han’s intimidating sidekick and enforcer, and martial artist Bob Wall as Han’s bodyguard.
Bruce Lee plays Lee, a martial artist who’s been asked to infiltrate the martial arts tournament run by Han on his private island. I suspect naming the protagonist after its own star was a testament to Lee’s popularity, how his aura transcended even the make believe. It was almost an admission that even in your own imagination no one was bigger than Bruce Lee. I pity the fool director who would cast Bruce Lee as, say, dojo owner Frank Jones and then try to sell that farce to a seasoned audience. No, Bruce Lee was the man, larger than life.
Han’s tournament is actually a front for his drug operation, and Lee’s mission is to stop it. Naturally, the setting of a martial arts tournament makes for some fantastic combat scenes involving not only Bruce Lee but also Kelly and Saxon. Although the latter two are no slouches, the scenes with Bruce Lee are especially the ones you don’t want to miss and the reason Enter the Dragon is held in such high regard. Even though the fights are of course scripted and planned, Lee’s physical skills are in evidence. For example, it’s often been said the camera speed had to be deliberately altered just to catch his movements. Although I’ve always chalked up this story to overhyped fanboying, I’ve seen enough reputable sources state this, and Lee was a training fanatic and very fast indeed. In the hands of regular folk, the roundhouse kicks, jabs, and punches would have looked pedestrian. But Lee’s physical gifts add that element of invincibility to his character; watching him in action, you become absolutely convinced of his butt kicking prowess. As a result, Lee’s presence elevates the quality of the fights and adds many crowd pleasing moments.
In the opening scene Lee jumps over a row of monks and also does a reverse flip in his opening spar with a young Sammo Hung. In another scene he does a backflip in taking out Bob Wall’s character, O’Hara. At least one book on the movie declares that Lee performed these stunts himself, whereas another book says it was a stuntman. I’m inclined to believe that those moves were not done by Lee but rather a stuntman, since the camera always cut away as soon as the flips were executed. This, however, takes nothing away from Lee’s formidable skills. He has been called the father of modern MMA, and fellow martial artists and champions have praised his skills. A gymnast, however, he wasn’t.
Kobudo : Nunchaku
The underground cave scenes aren’t the final fight sequences, but in my opinion they’re the best ones in the movie. Not only do we get to see Lee dazzle with all his kicks and moves, we also are treated to his kobudo skills, particularly with the nunchaku, his signature weapon. When you see images of Lee grasping the nunchaku horizontally between his hands, that’s the iconic pose he struck in the underground cave sequence right before whipping the weapon all around his body and then taking out his unfortunate opponent with it. A young Jackie Chan even makes an appearance as one of Han’s soldiers whose neck is broken by Lee. Incidentally, during filming Lee accidentally hit Chan a bit hard with a prop. After the cameras stopped, an apologetic Lee immediately came over to check on Chan. Having a man-crush on Lee, Chan overplayed the injury to solicit more sympathy from his idol. But once the cameras roll, Bruce Lee is back in business, taking down a few dozen more of Han’s guards. But even though you know in real life that isn’t happening, Bruce Lee’s speed, cut physique, and boss attitude have you believing he could do it.
Behind the Scenes
Because I’m interested in behind the scene facts, as I’m sure others are as well, I’ll mention on the set it wasn’t all smooth sailing. For the scenes involving women of the night, the producers cast actual local prostitutes, because apparently at the time playing a prostitute was a bit taboo in Hong Kong. That led to some resentment about pay levels for these real life extras versus the regular extras. And the “lost, drunken men” who were imprisoned in Han’s underground cave were said to have included a few real life drunkards recruited from the local populace. Also, Bruce Lee was challenged by some of the extras who doubted his skills. After initially brushing those aside, Lee eventually got into tangles with some of them. After putting them in their places, Lee was reported to have taught at least one subsequently contrite extra a few moves even.
It seems no movie production is without its feuds. For Enter the Dragon, a recurrent urban legend claims Lee held a death grudge against Bob Wall. In the fight scene between Lee and Bob Wall’s character, O’Hara, O’Hara breaks some glass bottles as weapons. In the scene, during one take Wall’s timing was off, and when Lee punched at Wall, Lee cut his arm on the bottles. Although this was likely an accident, in his book The Making of Enter the Dragon, director Robert Clouse stated Lee was so angered by the incident he vowed to kill Wall. As Clouse tells it in this book, Clouse convinced Lee Wall needed to live, thereby allowing Lee to save face by having a reason not to kill Wall. More likely Clouse simply made up this story for whatever reason. That Wall has appeared in other Bruce Lee films also tends to discount Clouse’s story. So although this tale is probably bogus, the on-screen confrontation between the two looks realistic enough that one could believe it harbored genuine bad feelings between the two actors, giving life to Clouse’s yarn. I give Mr. Wall plaudits for taking the punches he did in that scene, especially the one where he got kicked in the family jewels. That particular part looked painful. Like I’ve said, the fight scenes appear all too real. That’s one of the pluses of the movie.
I also must mention Lalo Schifrin’s excellent score. The combination of percussion and instrumentation complements the martial arts backdrop perfectly. All in all, Enter the Dragon is the standard to hold all other martial arts films to. If you’ve ever suffered through the cheesy kung-fu movies with the bad dubbing, Enter the Dragon is the antidote. Its well choreographed fight scenes and Bruce’s on-screen charisma make for riveting martial arts wizardry. Had Lee not died at the height of his fame—which served only to propel his mystique into rarefied heights—one can’t help but wonder how many more quality martial arts movies we might have been regaled with. Yet I can’t fathom any such movie surpassing Enter the Dragon. It’s a movie for the ages and one for which the overused adjective magisterial truly applies. It’s that good.
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1 thought on “ENTER THE DRAGON”
“The enemy has only images and illusions behind which he hides his true motives. Destroy the image and you will break the enemy.”
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