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Enter The Dragon (1973,USA/Hong Kong)

02/10/2011

Director: Robert Clouse      Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Robert Wall, Kien Shih

Enter The Dragon was the last film international martial arts superstar Bruce Lee completed before his tragic and untimely death in 1973. It is far and away the best known of his films, certainly outside of Hong Kong and is the one most non-kung fu fans will recognise. The fact it was a collaborative effort between Warner Brothers and Golden Harvest probably has a lot to do with this, the Warner Brothers influence guaranteeing worldwide distribution and a film made in English, opening it up to mainstream audiences. The Warner Brothers influence is probably also the reason that, despite it’s popularity, it’s quite far from Bruce Lee’s greatest work.

Mr Lee (Bruce Lee) is a disciple of the Shaolin temple, specially selected by British intelligence agent Mr Braithwaite to infiltrate the martial arts tournament of Hong Kong gangster and disgraced former Shaolin monk, Han (Shih) and find out just what it is he is up to on his isolated, high security island lair. Joined in the competition by Roper (Saxon), an inveterate gambler avoiding a massive debt to the mob and Williams (Kelly), an afro sporting Black Panther type karate expert, Lee soon gets to the bottom of Han’s diabolical plan and sets about bringing the mobster down.

I love the film. I can’t stress that point enough. I love it’s cheesy dialogue, all of which was relooped by the actors after filming giving it a dubbed vibe. I love it’s garish colour scheme and ostentatious set design. I love it’s jazz funk soundtrack courtesy of Lalo Schifrin. Most of all I love the action – I don’t think I will ever get tired of watching Bruce Lee bust some moves on the bad guys  and I even get a kick out of John Saxon’s attempts to look like a karate expert. The thing is though, as much as I love it, there’s no escaping the fact that this is kung fu lite, an exploitation style attempt to dilute the genre for mainstream audiences by cobbling all these elements onto a sub-James Bond plot.

As far as Bruce Lee’s kung fu movie career goes, the only film I would rank below this is Game Of Death and that’s purely because Lee died before filming was completed on that production which meant it had to be cobbled together from existing footage of him and using stand ins. The Big Boss, Way Of The Dragon and especially Fist Of Fury all out perform Enter The Dragon in terms of action and drama. By comparison, Enter The Dragon feels like a gaudy caricature of these other films.

So why has it become so universally loved? Because it is one helluva lot of fun that’s why. It’s completely straight faced approach means it gets away with everything. There’s also the fact that all of it, every last moment, is an excuse to set up the next set piece so it doesn’t really matter about the cheesy story, clunky dialogue and shonky special effects. To be fair there are some genuinely spectacular moments in the film too. The final showdown in the hall of mirrors is truly brilliant. As Lee and Han try to outmanouevre one another in the maze they enter shot from unexpected angles and directions as we are bamboozled by the myriad reflections on show. There are a multitude of unforgettable moments that through a combination of skill and luck manage to raise the overall level of the film. Lee’s bout with the crazed Oharra, Williams’ refrain of “Bullshit Mr Han man” when Han reveals his evil ploy to him, the nunchucks in the cavern sequence, some truly gorgeous shots of Aberdeen Harbour in Hong Kong – these are just a few of the things that spring to mind whenever I consider the film.

The blu ray edition helps things along a bit, the main benefit being the reproduction of the amazing colours employed by the production designers. The transfer is really vibrant, capturing the reds and golds of Han’s lavish palace beautifully. The UK release is post BBFC nunchuck ban so that scene has been restored (thankfully, given the continuity problem it caused to remove it). The disc is also packed with extras although I don’t think it’s anything more than was included with the 25th Anniversary DVD edition.

I hope this review hasn’t felt too negative about Enter The Dragon. Relatively speaking, when compared to Bruce Lee’s other work, it is a fun and vibrant work but lacks some of the edge present in his other films. I can honestly say I’d rather watch Fist Of Fury or Way Of The Dragon if I want to see Bruce in full butt kicking flight. Perhaps it isn’t right to compare this, his first and only US (co)produced martial arts film to his earlier Hong Kong works as they are horses of a slightly different colour. Either way, don’t let my criticisms put you off. Enter The Dragon is still great fun and a great point of entry for someone trying to get into the kung fu genre. I just can’t help but feel sometimes that it may also be partially responsible for mainstream moviegoers attitudes towards the genre, providing the basis for the general attitude that kung fu movies are cheesy, badly acted pieces of work that amount to little more than some fun fight scenes. Nonetheless, it is an important chapter not just in Bruce Lee’s career but in the history of martial arts cinema and should not be overlooked.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 24/01/2012 06:38

    Good, complex, considered appraisal of this film and your reactions to it.

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