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Enter the Dragon (1973)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)

Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Ahna Capri, Kien Shih, Bob Wall, Bolo Yeung

Written By: Michael Allin, Bruce Lee (uncredited) Directed By: Robert Clouse

The Short Version

Enter the Dragon is easily one of the most influential action movies ever made.

Is it perfect?  Of course it isn’t… except in all the ways that it needs to be.

All of that amazing stuff that people say about Bruce Lee?  They mean it.

The plot is of secondary concern here; just enjoy the fights… and the philosophy.

Enter the Dragon is required viewing for any action fan.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

ARTISAN SWISS.

Sure, there are plenty of holes in it.  But it’s awesome anyway, because a master made it so.


Pairs Well With...

TSINGTAO.

Ignore the skunk and enjoy the most popular Chinese beer in North America.  Just don’t use the bottle as a weapon.

“A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously.  A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready.  Not thinking, yet not dreaming.  Ready for whatever may come.  When the opponent expands, I contract.  When he contracts, I expand.  And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit.  It hits all by itself.”


You can’t talk about action movies in general or martial arts movies in particular without eventually referring back to Enter the Dragon.

Easily one of the most influential films ever made, Enter the Dragon is the bridge that really brought martial arts action – and martial arts in general – to the attention of “Western” audiences.  Sure, there’d been some exposure to the stuff before, but Enter the Dragon is the film for which the floodgates truly opened, and after it premiered, the action world would never be the same.

The floodgates opened, of course, because for the first time, a major American studio – Warner Brothers – came in to co-produce a genuine Hong Kong film, though that partnership was definitely not a smooth one.  To say that the stuff that went on behind the scenes was a nightmare is an understatement.  There were some nasty injuries when a fight scene involving a broken bottle – real glass, not sugar glass – went awry.  There was another mishap involving a young guy named Jackie Chan getting hurt.  Snakes decided that it was okay to bite actors.  A real corpse (unrelated to the production) was discovered near the set.  The American studio wanted to play big boss with the Asian studio.  The American white actor wanted to be big man in the cast, and even went so far as to demand that his character’s fate be changed and that the black guy should die instead.  (Sadly, he won.)  Because of course, the only reason a film like this would sell in America is because an American white guy is in it…

Momentary pause: it saddens me to say that it would take nearly four decades for that kind of thinking to maybe go by the wayside in Hollywood.  But anyway…

…It certainly couldn’t sell on the strength of this Asian (though also American, having been born in San Francisco) guy named Bruce Lee, could it?

I am extremely happy to say that the overwhelming response of history has been a resounding “Well, DUH!

Without question, the reason that everyone – whether they’ve actually seen the movie or not – knows of and reflexively tends to show reverence toward Enter the Dragon is because of Bruce Lee.  The fact that Lee would not live to see the premiere has only further punctuated the film’s statement of “Yes, I am here, and I cannot be ignored!”

Looking back with some objectivity, is the collective reverence a bit overstated?  Perhaps.  Without Bruce Lee and the amazing fights that he choreographed, Enter the Dragon would be a low mediocre film at best.  On the other hand, that’s pretty much like saying that if you removed the engine, transmission, and tires from a top of the line Porsche, you’d have a trailer park junker mounted on cinder blocks.  So what, then, do we really have?

We start with a pre-credit sequence that wasn’t in the original script.  A Shaolin monk named Lee (Bruce Lee, Fists of Fury) is sparring with an opponent (Sammo Hung, Ip Man 2).  That Lee is a master is readily apparent.  The extent of that mastery is especially clear when he vocalizes his lessons later: it’s much less about physically fighting the opponent than it is about the philosophy of winning the battle inside oneself so that external victory becomes a matter of course.  Consider the exchange as he is approached by a student, because if you really want to get the full flavor of what makes Enter the Dragon – and Bruce Lee – so special, it’s worth the time:


“Kick me.”

(The young student misses.)

“What was that?  An exhibition?  We need emotional content.  Now try again.”

(The young student fails again.)

“I said emotional content.  Not anger!  Now, try again!  With me!”

(The young student tries again, with two successful strikes.  Lee smiles.)

“That’s it.  How did it feel to you?”

“Let me think…”

(Lee smacks him upside the head.)

“Don’t think!  Feeeeel.  It is like a finger pointing away to the moon.”

(The student watches Lee’s finger, and Lee smacks him upside the head again.)

“Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of that heavenly glory.  Now do you understand?”

(The student smiles, and bows deeply.  Lee smacks him upside the head again.)

“Never take your eyes off your opponent.  Even when you bow.”

(The students bows, cautiously, his eyes remaining on Lee.)

“That’s it.”


Screenwriter Michael Allin didn’t come up with that.  Bruce Lee did; indeed, he specifically requested its addition.  (All of the philosophy in the movie is Lee’s.)  This is because he wants the audience to understand that there’s more – much more – to what he does on the screen than simple combat.  If you even halfway get the point of what he says above, in conversations with the Shaolin Abbott, and later in a chat with a brute on a boat that provides one of the film’s most comedic – but philosophically important – moments, then you’re on the road to truly appreciating the power of Bruce Lee.

Or, if deep thought isn’t your thing (your loss), you can always appreciate what happens when a man with almost no body fat absolutely annihilates everything in front of him.

But first, let’s get back to our story, already in progress, and move on to the stuff that the credited scriptwriter is responsible for.  To be honest, most people get lost at this point (I’ve seen a lot of errant versions of what happens next); don’t worry if you end up being one of them.  Really, if it’s not Bruce Lee’s philosophy or a setup for a fight, it’s almost immaterial.

A former – now disgraced – Shaolin monk named Han (Kien Shih, Tiger’s Claw) has a private island off the coast of Hong Kong.  Every so often, he hosts a tournament called Mortal Kom- sorry.  He hosts a martial arts tournament that draws the best of the best.  An American man named Roper (John Saxon, A Nightmare on Elm Street) is up to his eyeballs in mob debt; he can use some prize money (and some gambling winnings on the side).  Another American named Williams (Jim Kelly, Black Samurai) is a hotshot with something to prove who’s just in it for the excitement.  Our Shaolin friend Lee has also been invited, but he wants nothing to do with the dishonorable Han… until a British official (remember: they owned Hong Kong in 1973) begs him to go and serve as a spy.  See, they’re pretty sure that Han is up to no good – maybe Opium-style no good – but they need someone to prove it, and the only way anyone’s getting on that island is through the tournament.  The Shaolin Abbott gives Lee yet another reason to go: it turns out that three years back, one of Han’s lieutenants, Oharra (Bob Wall, The Game of Death), led a gang that attacked Lee’s sister, compelling her to kill herself to preserve her honor from their violent advances.  Thus suitably motivated, Lee agrees to help the Brits, and just like the two Americans, he’s off to the island of Han…

As noted, the plot is almost an afterthought here; it’s just an excuse to get everyone where they need to be to fight, philosophize, or otherwise show off, and really, that’s fine.  Enter the Dragon is probably better enjoyed less as a coherent story than as a collection of scenes, anyway.  We clear on that?  Good.

In keeping with this, the perfect man for the job is at the helm: Robert Clouse, whose directorial philosophy generally seems to be to let stories worry about themselves while he concentrates like hell on showcasing the action scenes that everyone’s actually paying to see.  And when it comes to showcasing martial arts action sequences, few are as adept as Robert Clouse, whose brilliant work only looks better thanks to fight choreography by – imagine that – Bruce Lee.  As a result of the combined talents of Clouse and Lee, the fights in Enter the Dragon are among the best filmed bouts you’ll ever see, despite the fact that finishing blows often (though not always) happen just beyond the camera’s reach.  I know that seems counterintuitive, but trust me: it works.  Just watch Jackie Chan get scalped by hand off camera and you’ll see just how powerful appropriately applied suggestion and overdubbed sound effects can be.  (The entire film, by the way, was shot silently: all sounds and vocal performances were added in post production.)  You don’t even have to realize that it’s Jackie Chan; most people don’t.

Unmistakable, though, is man-mountain Bolo Yeung (Bloodsport) as one of Han’s heavies (conveniently named Bolo), providing a real treat for kung fu flick fanatics who want a little icing to go with their Bruce Lee cake.  Indeed, every fighter in this flick is more than credible; even John Saxon holds his own, much as I don’t want to admit it.  (The behind the scenes stuff noted earlier just leaves me cold.)  If you’re looking for a wrong note to be hit by any of these fighters in any of these fight scenes, you’re just not going to find one.  Whether the action is one on one or one versus twenty, it’s all good.  Hell, even the serving girls put on a demonstration of being able to turn their jewelry into precision projectiles of doom.

Enter the Dragon is considered the kung fu gold standard for a reason, folks.

That’s why you don’t shake your head when you see that Williams has apparently brought Black Power posters with him across the ocean to hang up in his guest room, and why you let go of the obvious stereotype when he picks not one but four concubines to help him pass the time in the evenings.  It’s why you grin when you notice that Han bears no small resemblance to Dr. No, or perhaps a clean shaven Fu Manchu.  It’s why you put up with the insanely brash music of Lalo Schifrin.  The stuff you really came to see is just too good for any dripping cheese to matter.  And that, in the end, is all that counts.

That’s also why every martial arts film that has come after Enter the Dragon has borrowed from it in some way, either blatantly or subtly.  Just as Dirty Harry became the template for urban gunplay action in 1971, so did Enter the Dragon become the template for kung fu.  One doesn’t have to look very hard to realize that it is, in fact, one of the most influential movies ever made.  It didn’t just influence other movies, either; it influenced all aspects of popular culture, and is the reason that the popularity of real martial arts practice exploded across the Western world in what we would today call viral fashion.  Within a year, everybody was kung fu fighting, and those cats were fast as lightning.  And many – especially those who paid attention to Bruce Lee’s words as well as his actions – became better people for it, and still do today.  Who knows what might have happened had Enter the Dragon been merely the beginning of a new chapter for Bruce Lee instead of his epitaph?

While that is something we’ll never know, the power of his legacy as it stands – and the power of Enter the Dragon – cannot be denied.

Bottom line, Enter the Dragon may not be “a perfect movie,” per se, but it is perfect where it counts, and as such, has more than earned its place as one of the most influential films of all time.  If you have any interest in martial arts or action movies at all, there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for you to not own Enter the Dragon as part of your permanent collection.  And if you’re one those people who has heard of the legend but never actually seen it for yourself, you owe it to yourself to correct that oversight.  Just remember, when it comes to the plot – or to many other things, for that matter – take Bruce Lee’s advice.  Don’t think.  Feel.  And don’t concentrate on the finger, or you’ll miss all of that heavenly glory.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2012


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