#301) Enter the Dragon (1973)

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#301) Enter the Dragon (1973)

OR “Exit the Legend”

Directed by Robert Clouse

Written by Michael Allin

Class of 2004

The Plot: Shaolin martial artist Lee (Bruce Lee) is approached by British Intelligence to infiltrate the private island of Han (Shih Kien), a suspected drug lord. Han is holding his annual martial arts competition, which in actuality is a front for henchmen recruiting. Along with compulsive gambler Roper (John Saxon) and Vietnam veteran Williams (Jim Kelly), Lee discovers Han’s nefarious deeds, but this entire plot is only here to justify Bruce Lee’s gravity-defying, eye-catching martial art skills.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “martial arts extravaganza” and praises Lee, as well as the film’s climactic fight scene. An essay by film critic/author Michael Sragow is a love letter to Bruce Lee.

But Does It Really?: Oh yeah. China has the market cornered on the martial arts genre, but thank God “Enter the Dragon” qualifies for NFR inclusion. The plot is thin and the dialogue insipid at times, but who cares when you can watch a true martial arts master at work? Bruce Lee is a legend of 20th century filmmaking, and his brief but monumental film career should be recognized. Hats off to Bruce Lee for putting the “art” in “martial arts”.

Everybody Gets One: Born in San Francisco but raised in Hong Kong, Lee Jun-fan (“Bruce” was a nickname from his mother) started practicing martial arts at the age of 16. Following several fights with alleged Hong Kong organized crime members, Lee moved back to San Francisco and started teaching Jeet Kune Do in Oakland. After a successful stint as Kato on “The Green Hornet”, Lee wanted to be a movie star, and was encouraged to make films in Hong Kong that would showcase his star power to American producers. Films like “Fist of Fury” and “Way of the Dragon” caught the eye of Warner Bros., who agreed to co-finance “Enter the Dragon” with Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest, and Lee’s own production company; Concord.

Wow, That’s Dated: This thing is soooo ‘70s. Special shoutout to cinematographer Gilbert Hubbs for his very ‘70s zoom-ins, and composer/recent Oscar recipient Lalo Schifrin for his “Shaft”-esque score.

Seriously, Oscars?: No nominations (from the Oscars or otherwise) for “Enter the Dragon”, so I’ll take this time to bemoan the continued lack of a stunt coordination category at the Oscars. How many great stunt people/martial artists like Lee deserve recognition for their film work?

Other notes

  • This is another movie with a nationality dispute. “Enter the Dragon” was primarily a Hong Kong production, but Warner Bros.’ participation, as well as its American director and writer, make it NFR eligible. No complaints here: watching a martial arts film after two years of standard studio fare was very refreshing for me. You don’t see a shirtless Bogie kicking his opponents in the face, I’ll tell you that.
  • We’re only five minutes in and this film has already dispensed some excellent life advice. Good thing I’m taking notes.
  • Be on the lookout for a young Jackie Chan in a handful of scenes. I spotted him during the fight between Su Yin and Han’s henchmen.
  • Jim Kelly was a middleweight karate champion who got the role of Williams when Rockne Tarkington backed out at the last minute. He’s clearly not an actor, but he does the best with what he’s given, and managed a brief film career thanks to this movie.
  • In a common practice of the era, “Enter the Dragon” was filmed without sound, with the entire soundtrack being recorded in post. You get used to it after a while, except for the recycling of the exact same sound effect every time a character hits the ground. It drove me nuts.
  • Established actor/former teen heartthrob John Saxon was a black belt in judo and karate, and did most of his own fighting. Not bad for someone two years away from “Mitchell”.
  • Bruce Lee is no Olivier, but he is most effective when you remove the dialogue. Even in scenes where he isn’t fighting, his movements are precise and disciplined.
  • The thugs have to fight each other to keep their jobs? Man, their union is not cutting it.
  • O’Hara is sporting the “Ben Affleck in ‘Argo’” haircut.
  • This film definitely has a Bond influence. Han looks like a cross between Dr. No and Blofeld, complete with cat!
  • Opium: The opiate of the masses.
  • “Enter the Dragon” follows the Standard Movie Fight Procedure: All henchmen attack the hero one at a time.
  • Wait, is Han Dr. Claw? Is THAT what he looks like?
  • The finale in the hall of mirrors is successful and popular enough to be declared an homage to “Lady from Shanghai” rather than a rip-off. Kudos to everyone; that thing must have been a logistical nightmare to shoot.

Legacy

  • A few weeks before the release of “Enter the Dragon”, Bruce Lee died of cerebral edema caused by heat stroke at the age of 32. The film went on to be a massive success in both Hong Kong and the United States, and helped cement Bruce Lee as a film legend.
  • Following Lee’s death, Robert Clouse and Harvest were able to utilize outtake footage of Lee – along with a double – to complete his final film: “Game of Death”.
  • Along with the TV series “Kung-Fu”, “Enter the Dragon” helped popularize martial arts for a western audience. You could, in fact, say that back in the ‘70s, everybody was Kung Fu fighting.
  • Many, many spoofs and homages over the years. We’ll stick with “A Fistful of Yen”, the centerpiece parody of “Kentucky Fried Movie”.
  • There have been threats of a remake for over a decade now, to be helmed at various times by the likes of Kurt Sutter, Spike Lee, and Brett Ratner (who I assume would not have had rehearsals). The ball is currently in the court of stuntman-turned-director David Leitch, so…that’s good at least.

Further Viewing: Several biopics about the life of Bruce Lee: 1993’s “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” was based on his widow Linda’s biography, while 2008’s “The Legend of Bruce Lee” got approval from his daughter Shannon.  Also worth a view is the 2000 documentary “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey”, which includes more outtake footage from “Game of Death”.

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