Directed by: Robert Clouse
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly (the martial artist, not the former Buffalo Bills quarterback)
Release date: July 26, 1973
Runtime: 102 minutes
Jackie Chan gets his ass kicked: three times!
Before I get too far, I want to say this:
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk quality. Readers of this website shouldn’t operate under the misunderstanding that the only things praised on this site are dumb but lovably cheesy movies, like Evil Dead 2, Big Trouble in Little China and Santa’s Slay. When a movie is undeniably *good*, we’ll acknowledge it. You still shouldn’t expect a review of Citizen Kane or anything like that here (though you should still watch that movie, if only for a sense of cultural historicity), but there’s movies that fit the terribleblog.net oeuvre and are of immense, undeniable quality, and that’s where Enter the Dragon comes in. This is a movie that is better for you in the long run.
First of all, I have to admit my bias and disclose the fact that I’m a huge Bruce Lee fanboy. I’ve seen all his movies, read all his quotes, shaped my life to be like him, traveled t- okay, just take it as given that I’m really into Bruce Lee and his movies. Luckily, a friend of my father’s by the name of Clifford Ng has sent my family tons of Bruce Lee nerd shit over the years, even though I’m the only one who actually likes Bruce Lee. Some years ago, he sent a DVD of Enter the Dragon, and I watched it repeatedly growing up. It had a significant effect on my adolescence; one of the reasons I didn’t have a drop of alcohol until I turned 21 and never tried any drugs period was because of this movie. When Cliff sent the Blu-Ray, I was like “oh cool, wish Brucey Baby recorded a commentary track instead of dying,” and opened it up. You have no idea the absolute deluge of nerd shit that tumbled out of that little box. Look at this dumb fucking patch:
Yeah, I’m definitely about to put that shit on a leather jacket. Oh, look at this cute little number:
|I definitely wrote my legal name on that blank space. You know, just in case The Dragon requires my services.|
Now, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of kung fu movies. They seem to follow their own formats in terms of plot and staging, but Enter the Dragon had an influence that’s actually kinda weird: it seemed to mostly affect fighting video games. Games like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, etc. all have this sort of idea where people enter a martial arts tournament for whatever individual motivation, ultimately fighting the organizer of the tournament itself. That all originated (as far as I know or care to look up) in this movie.
We begin with our main character, Lee, played by Bruce Lee (guess that makes method acting all the easier) at a Shaolin temple battling some no-name oaf, who just so happens to be played by Sammo Hung, of all people. You might recognize Hung as one of Jackie Chan’s classmates, one of the Five Treasures, who would later go on to be an extremely accomplished fight director and a kung fu star in his own right. Here, he’s just another guy who gets his shit kicked in by Lee. Sorry, them’s the breaks in a Bruce Lee movie, bud.
After totally emasculating this guy who we’ll never see again, Bruce decides to talk with his Shaolin master (sifu? I have no idea) who has probably the most ridiculous out-of-place American accent in this entire movie. It seriously would’ve been better if the guy had just phonetically pronounced all the English words and struggled through the script, because that’d at least be somewhat believable. Meanwhile, Lee provides his own voice, and I have to admit I love his accent. It’s difficult enough to learn a foreign language, and incredibly difficult to act in a foreign language – Lee’s able to do it better than most actors I know.
Some British guy with a somewhat unfortunate mustache approaches Lee at his dojo (wait is that a Chinese word or a Japanese word? This site needs an ombudsman I swear to God) and requests some super-secret favor, to which you already know Lee will acquiesce. Before that, however, Lee decides to teach one of his students the finer points of martial arts. It’s a fascinating scene, because we really get the sense that this wasn’t written by Michael Allin (the credited writer), but by Lee himself. It really seems like he’s espousing his philosophy of fighting – and of life itself. It reminds me a lot of the way I coach kids in wrestling; you go hard on them, but it comes from a place of love and an actual desire to see them progress and grow.
The British guy finally gets to talk, and he tasks our hero with infiltrating a remote island where dubious activities are purported to take place. This is something else I like about the film; contrast it with today’s world in which you need two independent sources and definitive proof of criminal wrongdoing, whereas this international organization (which you can totally trust, it’s cool) just goes in based on intuition. It’s infinitely ballsier and a hell of a lot more fun to watch than someone who has to fill out three legal forms in triplicate before they can invade a drug ring. The main bad guy here is called Han, and he’s a triad leader who’s been tangentially connected to drug running and girl smuggling; murder may or may not be involved. Fuck bringing you in on technicality charges of tax evasion, we’re sending in a 5’7” Chinese dude to jump kick you into the stratosphere.
Oh my God, you have got to hear this main theme song. It’s probably the best kung fu theme song ever written, and one of the best action themes I’ve ever heard. It perfectly mixes funk with world and a hint of jazz and totally puts you in the mood to kick some ass. Lalo Schifrin did a fantastic job on this score; you might recognize his work from Bullitt, Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry, THX 1138, Sudden Impact, all the Rush Hour movies, and (sigh) The Amityville Horror. You might also recognize the bassist as Max Bennett, and if you don’t recognize that name then go buy the Frank Zappa album “Hot Rats,” you culturally illiterate slime.
Lee is told the story of how he lost his sister, Su Lin – she was chased by a group of men, including Han’s personal bodyguard, through the backstreets of some Chinese slum. This is really one of the best scenes of the movie, not just because it utilizes action (the main draw of any of these kinds of movies) to weave exposition into the narrative, and not just because of 23-year-old Angela “Lady Whirlwind” Mao (who’s a wonderful martial artist), but because it gives Lee some real motivation beyond proving his worth/discovering the extent of his abilities which to me seems to be some bullshit that’s clouded up the fighting games I mentioned earlier. Su Lin’s eventually cornered by the gang (including Jackie Chan, who receives a crotch shot, which I’m pretty sure makes this an official Jackie Chan movie as much as it is a Bruce Lee movie) and, rather than suffer assault and battery at their hands, she guts herself with a shard of glass. It’s a visually intense scene and one that too often gets forgotten by fans. Anyway, now Lee’s got motivation to kill I MEAN APPREHEND Han outside of the audience’s expectations/some British guy with a mustache.
Lee’s only way to get close to the island is by joining some martial arts tournament. He’s joined in this tournament by characters named Roper (John Saxon, a supremely talented actor) and Williams (Jim Kelly, a supremely talented martial artist). Their backstories are much quicker, but you still grow to love each of them. Williams lives in a ghetto where he uses kung fu to fight off racist cops (which, sad to say, serves to make the movie timeless). Roper’s on the run from the mob, which in itself is not particularly interesting, but his scene where he beats up a bunch of hired thugs is instrumental for setting up a rule of kung fu movies: guns must be disarmed as quickly as possible. Lee once instructed viewers of a late night interview show that trying his various kung fu moves around the streets of Philadelphia would get your ass shot (which is accurate, just look at HitchBOT). Movie logic would dictate similar consequences would unfold, and as such it's (technically speaking) the responsibility of the stunt coordinators to disarm a villain (of a firearm, of course). This could be John Saxon just kicking a guy, but in later movies it has to be more creative and exciting. It's just one of those examples of a production crew encountering a problem and quickly dealing with it. As it stands, maybe it's the benefit of a limited cast, but the charisma and charm of both Roper and Williams is immediately apparent. It helps that they're both fantastic looking to boot. I especially love the scene of them judging some of the talent Han has acquired for the tournament; it reminds me of what my teammates and I used to do at wrestling tournaments before I’d get my ass kicked by Rob Vettori.
Upon arriving at the island, our three heroes are treated to this huge celebration. The scenery and music and stuff are all very nice, but it's very obviously all for show. There's pretty girls, abundant food, beautiful paintings, and while the music isn't exactly AC/DC, it's still danceable. There's even a sumo bout going on, even though this is in China. Do they do sumo in China? Someone PLEASE get that ombudsman on line one. You can tell there's something going on; there's a reason Han's showing off the goods here. How come my wrestling tourneys all got dumped in the backwater hickswamps of Western Maryland?
Lee is able to make contact with a female operative who went in before him but went dark due to the heavy monitoring from Han. She confirms that disappearances for the girls happen regularly, and Lee doesn't have a lot of time to spare. As such, the typical tournament style setup won't last for very long, which is really to the audience’s benefit. No one gives a shit about the preliminary rounds. As Williams fights the first match, Roper makes bets on him, then - in a far more enjoyable fight - gets dumpstered by some nobody just to give Williams favorable odds to bet on HIM. It’s well acted and well shot, but I have to wonder why some of these background martial artists are wearing wristwatches. Pretty sure that’s a technical foul or whatever.
That night, Lee sneaks out into the night to see if he can do anything about the missing girls. This scene's interesting because it doesn't feature any feats of speed or strength - just stealth. The whole thing is very Metal Gear Solid-esque, and I wouldn't be surprised if Hideo Kojima took at least a little bit of inspiration from this scene. He finds an underground lair (because this is basically a Chinese James Bond movie at this point), but gets discovered by some guards. Of course these nameless bozos can't apprehend him, and the next morning Han is displeased, so the guards have to fight this dude named Bolo. This is where the savagery of the island is revealed, as Bolo kills all of them, but I can't help but take notice of the absolute ridiculous body and facial expressions of Bolo. He's the Bane of this movie, like he's getting inflated by some sort of chemical, but with the smile of Jim Carrey.
Better still, the next scene is Bruce Lee fighting the guy responsible for the death of his sister. The guy shows off by breaking a board in his face, leading to the immortal line "Boards don't hit back." What follows is the most dominant performance I've ever seen in a martial arts movie. Lee absolutely obliterates this guy with incredible roundhouses and some of the fastest punches I've ever seen put to film. Lee's opponent winds up deader than my hopes and dreams, and it's one of the best moments of a movie filled with excellent moments.
Han takes Williams into his private study, where he accuses him of attacking the island guards. When Williams denies it, Han kicks him straight into...this:
The women are apparently being drugged (probably the result of experimentation of LSD) as Han continues beating the shit out of Williams. It's revealed that Han's left hand is made of iron, which allowed him to beat the more skilled, much younger man. I guess that's all it takes these days, just having a metal hand. No wonder Bruce Campbell kicked so much ass in Army of Darkness.
Han then turns his attention to Roper. This scene acts more as an extension of the party scene, showing all the neat little trinkets Han has accumulated, most likely via scurrilous means. He sees the claw hand, the violent bodyguard daughters, the secret underground lair, the dead body of his friend Williams, the illegal drugs, the hostages, and all this in an attempt to recruit Roper and have him expand Han's empire to the United States. All in all, that's a pretty harrowing job interview. All I ever get asked is whether I can add 1/2 and 1/3 without a calculator.
Lee starts his second infiltration, and this begins the extended climax of the movie, where he sneaks around the lair in a tactile neck and eventually alerts the guards. This is IT: the moment in every Bruce Lee movie where everyone who's on screen who isn't nicknamed "The Dragon" is about to get their teeth shoved down their breathing tubes. Lee alerts his British contact to the ensuing chaos and then he gets ready for carnage. He fights off about twenty guys and even gets to use his signature nunchucks. The choreography here is especially great for the way it uses the scenery.
Lee gets captured, and Roper has to fight Bolo. This scene is particularly noteworthy because Bolo was played by this enormous kung fu champion, whereas Roper's played by John Saxon, who's really just some guy. Roper still somehow manages to beat him, and it's pretty impressive. It goes to show that Saxon's a great actor and a pretty decent martial artist, while Williams is a great martial artist and a pretty decent actor. It's one of the strengths of the movie when you can pull that off, and it happens so rarely. Sadly, Han isn't nearly as happy as I am, as he bellows (in Mandarin) "WORLDSTAAAAAAAAAAAR" and all the dudes on the island start fighting each other. This is the best scene of any kung fu movie I've ever seen. The choreography's great, the scenery's great, and Bruce is just the absolute greatest of all time. Taken from us way too soon, man. Almost brings a tear to my eye (I say as he breaks innumerable stunt men's femurs). As is typical for this sort of fare, Lee and Han get locked into a one-on-one duel that progresses all the way to Han's private art collection. What follows is one of the most famous scenes in the movie: Han hides in a maze of mirrors, armed with a deadly steel claw replacing his iron hand. It's a fantastically shot scene, and I give a ton of credit to Gilbert Hubbs on setting it all up; I'm just stunned that Arnold Schwarzeneggar had to steal this scene for Conan the Destroyer. I hope we're not at the point where I have to tell you whether Lee wins the private duel. All in all, the extremely long climax finally comes to an end with the British police storming the island, the audience finally gets a breath, and Lee can finally relax knowing he used all his speed, strength, wits, and cunning to survive this ordeal and tie up all the loose ends. It really is a perfect ending to a perfect kung fu movie.
It feels like so many movies wish they could be like this. I don't blame them; shit, if anything I wish more movies TRIED to be like this. This is easily better than any James Bond movie I’ve ever seen. To quote Kevin Murphy (Mystery Science Theater 3000), "Enter the Dragon is cooler than cool. Quentin Tarantino wishes he was this cool." There hasn't been a kung fu movie this good since it came out. I can totally understand the celebration of Jackie Chan, and he's a wonderful martial artist, actor, and celebrity, but there was only one Bruce.
|Well, okay, maybe two|
It's seriously heartbreaking knowing Lee died after making this movie. Seeing it just makes you wish you could see what Lee could've done after this, maybe even partnering up with Chan in a movie. Seriously, would there have been any cooler partnership? The possibilities for a creative mind like Lee's were absolutely boundless, and the thought occurs - maybe he could've starred in some movies that were instead taken over by other Hollywood action stars after his passing. Could you imagine him in The Towering Inferno? Okay, bad example, but you get the idea. Imagine him doing a jump kick to Jaws. Imagine him karate chopping Mike Myers in Halloween. Imagine him fighting Clubber Lang. Imagine him instead of Short Round in the second Indiana Jones movie.
Bottom line: you need to see this movie. As far as I'm concerned, this should be classified as essential viewing. It's the zenith of kung fu movies and one of the best action films of all time. It's astounding that this is one of my most watched movies of all time (I've seen it almost as much as I've seen Con Air, which may be why I'm reviewing movies here instead of The Chicago Tribune) and I STILL never get sick of it. I hope Bruce Lee's legacy never dies. As far as I can tell, you won't get a better impression of him than the one you get from watching this film.