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.
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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, spectacle.
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.