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Enter The Dragon
cast: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Shih Kien, Bob Wall
director: Robert Clouse
98 minutes (18) 1973
widescreen ration 1.85:1
Warner DVD Region 2
reviewed by Richard Bowden
"You have offended my family; and you have offended a Shaolin temple."
A favourite mixture of camp, high adventure, culture clash, and martial arts excellence, Enter The
Dragon survives today as the quintessential Bruce Lee film, the vehicle for his talents which
finally allowed him an international reputation shortly before his early death. It is often listed as
the pinnacle of kung fu cinema (the artiness of Ang Lee's recent genre hit notwithstanding) and still
enjoys a strong cult following.
The film breaks down into six principal parts. There's the opening fight and
statement of Lee's martial philosophy; the tournament arrivals and harbour scene; the start of Han's
tournament; agent Lee's explorations and Roper's temptation; then the conclusion of the tournament
and Han's defeat. It ends with a brief, wordless epilogue displaying a physical exhaustion of the
principals, reminiscent of the close of The Wild Bunch. Such a straightforward structure works
to minimise narrative subtlety while simultaneously showcasing Lee's inimitable fighting talents. The
backgrounds of the two main supporting characters, Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly) is
given in two flashback sequences, then hardly referred to again. No one would pretend that the
dialogue, even when loaded with Lee's own private significance, is anywhere more than adequate. Much
of the conversation provides unintentional pleasure, whether through the fighter's own oriental
lisping, or the film's emphasis on arch phrases (apparently characteristic of men of action). The
most interesting part of the film's spoken elements is at the start, where in Lee's so-called 'Monk
Scene' (missing from some release prints) then also a little later, he reveals something of his
personal philosophy. Lee, we are told, has taken his fighting technique "beyond the mere
physical level - to the point of spiritual insight." For the fighter of this calibre opponents
and all immediate combat concerns vanish, to be replaced by a notion of committed distancing, or
'emotional content' ('not anger'). Interestingly Lee remarks that each fight "should be like a
small play - but one played seriously." One can see that it is a series of such martial
'dramas', gradually increasing in scale, from which the tension and drive of the film emanates,
rather than any traditional development of character.
If the cruel, autocratic Han and his island are reminiscent of Dr No, or his
hall of mirrors of Lady From Shanghai, then the supporting characters are hardly less
original. The wheeler-dealer Roper, down on his luck, a somewhat feckless gambler, is very familiar.
Williams has dated more badly, most noticeably in the association of his black athleticism and
streetwise 'coolness' with overt sexual virility. Confronted with a choice of Han's whores, for
instance, Williams chooses virtually all of the ladies on offer. "Please understand, if I missed
anyone," he nonchalantly adds, "but it's been a big day." It is Williams that faces
the most emphatic personal end, pummelled dead, strung up and ditched into a vat of acid - in a
conclusion that, on reflection, is almost a judgement on his racial assertiveness.
Lee is at the centre of the film. Throughout he provides moral, physical and sexual
standards against which others are measured - most conspicuously, westerners. There is a revealing
juxtaposition between the ultra-fit fighter and the middle-aged, bespectacled Braithwaite (Geoffrey
Weeks) who briefs him at the beginning of the film. While Lee has a personal interest in Han's
destruction, one immediately understandable and honourable to the audience, the Englishman's
professionalism is both guarded and generalised. He represents only "gatherers of information
upon which governments can act." Braithwaite offers Lee a drink, (which of course the ascetic
fighter declines), and confirms Lee's unspoken judgement on the unattractiveness of firearms
("Any bloody fool can pull a trigger"). Naturally it is Braithwaite, tucked up in bed, that
receives a distress call half an hour late, while Lee battles against superior odds out in the field.
On the outward-bound junk, Lee proves his moral superiority to an arrogant competitor, outfoxing and
leaving him adrift in a boat. Finally, by the end of the film, after winning every contest, the
topless and blood-tasting Lee provides a far more convincing image of physical potency than ever do
the sexually active Roper and Williams.
In real life Lee had an ongoing concern for the poor of the orient and saw the
martial arts as one way to restore their dignity. His first film, The Big Boss (aka: Tang Shan
da Xiong, 1971), set in and around an ice plant was (in its way) involved with commercial
exploitation and corruption. For Enter The Dragon, it was partly through his insistence that
director Clouse filmed the dramatic and memorable scenes in Hong Kong harbour, setting the arriving
contestants amidst a floating shantytown. When, during the cavern fight, Lee finds himself in combat
alongside the pens holding Han's mute prisoners (his "bar room dregs"), his endeavours are
explicitly and economically connected with the rights of those dispossessed. We realise then that he
is fighting as much for their freedom as for Braithwaite's secret masters, his sister's memory or the
honour of his temple. Fittingly, it is these discarded men who will eventually overrun Han's island
and restore their rights.
In fact, Han's private island is a dictatorship; one in which he "lives like a
king"; in which Nazi salutes of raised, punching fists greet the newly landed competitors, and
where the ubiquitous fighting outfits of his kung fu army are also a uniform of repression. His
tournament becomes a showcase for Han's philosophy, as well as a convenient means to recruit. As one
of the first things we see ashore, Clouse wisely lets his camera pan over a vista of striking fists
with the martial shouts they engender. Like Riefenstahl's images of a Hitler rally, and aided by
Schifrin's insistent, garish score, Han's discipline en masse makes for a thrilling, if ominous,
Such an island of course also provides an excellent proving ground for the heroic
Lee's talents. But, apart the relatively short opening taster bout, he hardly lifts an arm until
reaching Han's enclave - and even then spends long minutes as a calm observer of the opening bouts.
In between he exercises more guile and restraint, sly humour and cat-like athleticism than the
expected muscle. By then of course, we have seen just how his sister has been killed, and know he
itches to tackle Han's bullying bodyguard O'Hara. Lee is coiled and not yet sprung. The audience is
eager to see him fight, just as we know Lee is himself aching to exact revenge. The resulting
tension, a martial anxiousness, goes a long way to papering over any weaknesses in dialogue and leads
to the highest expectations.
Fortunately for the viewer such expectations are fully justified. Lee's legendary
martial artistry is awe-inspiring, enough to catapult the film into the front rank of action movies.
Frequently shown in slow motion so that the camera could catch his rapid-fire actions, Lee's fighting
demands repeated viewings. He fights O'Hara, numerous cavern guards, different individuals en route
and, finally, Han in a mirrored room - all with an authority and skill, with bare hands and nunchuka.
During his fights Lee frequently demonstrates the previously described 'emotional
content' of his martial philosophy: a mental posture which manifests itself as a calm
self-collection, concentrated into cold fury for victory. On the point of dispatching O'Hara, for
instance, Lee ruminates on his immediate aggression with an intense self-absorption, killing his
sister's murderer through a contemplation of inner pain almost impossible to describe. Later, as the
ensuing melee swirls around Lee, the camera zooms again on its hero: typically, he is calm, perfectly
focussed. It is during moments like this, full of vengeful rectitude, that the actor provides
overwhelming confirmation of star status.
There are a few minor disappointments in the film, not least of which is absence of
Han's "daughters and personal guard" from the final conflict. (Whether or not this was due
to constrictions of budget, or shooting schedules would be interesting to discover.) Perhaps too
Roper could have been given more to do in the final scenes besides fight in the tournament ground
with the rest (although perhaps not a surprising decision, given that actor Saxon is not an
experienced kung fu actor). These quibbles aside, one leaves Enter The Dragon frequently
exhilarated by an action movie that has held movie audiences consistently down the years and
continues to do so.
The DVD includes a fully uncut version of the film, trailers, TV spots, a
contemporary featurette and an interview with Lee's widow.
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