Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Enter the Dragon, released shortly after the actor’s tragic death in 1973, is the movie that made Bruce Lee a legend. It’s also the movie that more than any other was responsible for introducing the kung fu Hong Kong action film to western audiences.

In the early 70s there was a general expectation that kung fu movies were about to make the crossover into the mainstream among western audiences, and this expectation was the driving force behind three fascinating multi-national co-productions. Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was a collaboration between Hammer Films and Shaw Brothers Studios, was an unlikely combination of a Hammer Dracula movie and a king fu movie. The most surprising thing about it is that the combination works and it’s an outrageously entertaining movie. The Man from Hong Kong was an Australian-Hong Kong co-production, combining martial arts with the outrageous and frequently extremely dangerous stunts that characterised ozploitation movies, and with a considerable James Bond influence as well. It’s also enormous fun, and was commercially quite successful.

The most significant and biggest-budgeted of these crossovers movies though was Enter the Dragon, made by a Warner Brothers subsidiary and a subsidiary of Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest studios. It was an attempt to mix a traditional Hong Kong king fu revenge film with an American-style action thriller, with a bit of James Bond and a bit of blaxploitation thrown in. Overall it would probably have been the least satisfactory of these multinational hybrids except for one thing - Bruce Lee. Lee choreographed all the fight scenes himself, and they’re still breath-taking. He was great in the action sequences, but more importantly he had real charisma and a talent for sly humour that would undoubtedly have made him a major international star had he lived.

The plot is frankly ludicrous. There’s really not a single thing about the plot that makes sense or is even vaguely plausible, or that connects to anything else. Lee (played by Bruce Lee) is a shaolin monk kung fu expert recruited by a mysterious agency (presumably some shadowy British covet law enforcement agency) to infiltrate an island owned by a master criminal heavily involved in both narcotics and prostitution rackets. Han, the criminal concerned, is a renegade shaolin monk himself. For reasons that are never explained (but then nothing in the plot is ever explained) Han decides to host an international kung fu tournament. Among the many martial artists attracted by this tournament three are significant to the action of the film - Lee, Williams (Jim Kelly providing the blaxploitation element) and Roper (John Saxon).

Lee meets up with one of Han’s stable of high-class hookers, who is actually a British undercover cop. She can’t provide him with any useful information, and plays no further part in the films. This is another plot element that simply goes nowhere. Lee encounters the man who killed his sister, one of Han’s agents (this provides the traditional revenge motif), and exacts his vengeance in fairly spectacular fashion. From this point on the plot more or less stops and we have a succession of action and fight sequences.

Despite the incredibly silly and disconnected script the movie still works, and it works mostly because the action sequences are done with such superb style. The hall of mirrors showdown between Lee and Han is one of the best action scenes you’ll ever see.

It also works because Lee has sufficient charisma to keep us interested even when the storyline starts to unravel completely. John Saxon’s performance as Roper also helps considerably. Pretty much everyone else in the film is just a stock character, which is not a criticism - it’s more or less a convention in this type of movie, as it is in many genre movies. Roper has a bit of depth though. He seems to be a cynical and basically amoral opportunist, but he’s incapable of behaving like a cynical opportunist because he’s really hopelessly sentimental and is willing to risk death to save a cute and cuddly kitten from the wicked bad guy. He almost seems as if he’d like to be a bad guy, but his inherent decency keep interfering.

But when it comes right down to it there are three reasons to see this movie - spectacular fights, general stylishness and Bruce Lee. Those three reasons are more than enough. Despite its flaws it remains a must-see movie for cult movie fans.


Alex Bakshaev said...

I'm not heavily into martial arts films, but "Enter the Dragon" and, perhaps, "Ninja Terminator" will always have a place in my heart.
John Saxon factor makes "Enter the Dragon" all the dearer to me, that man is a legend!

Nigel M said...

Cinema played a big part in my early years and there are so many films I remember seeing (others not). I remember leaving the cinema after enter the dragon- I must have only been 4 or 5 at the time. The air alive with excitement. But some films had the power to make such an incredibe impact on me. Seeing the room of mirrors fight sequence on a large screen with using some pretty scratchy reels that had clearly already been around a bit was incredible.

It is one of those things that I believe has contributed to my lifelong love of film. I struggle to put into words the joy films have brought me over the decades and it was Enter The Dragon (and a few other notabe features) back in the early 70s that really captured my imagination- for what its worth Squirm, Food For The Gods, Earthquake, Digby, Return From Witch Mountain (saw twice), Grease, Confessions Of A Window Cleaner, 7 Golden Vampires and Hard Times (bronson) were the other main culprits. But Enter The Dragon was the daddy of the lot

Samuel Wilson said...

Enter the Dragon is an archetypal Seventies exploitation film, so commercially calculated as to achieve a kind of genre purity unto itself. You have Bruce Lee doing his thing plus the singular encounter of John Saxon vs. Bolo Yeung. The one bad consequence of it was the tendency for many years afterward to hire Robert Clouse whenever a studio wanted to promote a new martial arts star, as if he really had much to do with Enter's success.

dfordoom said...

Nigel M, I loved Earthquake. I have a real weakness for 1970s disaster movies. And I loved Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires as well. I think Hammer made some of their most interesting movies in the 70s, even as the company was slowly going down the toilet financially. Another 70s Hammer movie I love is Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde.

Stacia said...

One of my favorite films. I have it memorized, which I feel I should apologize for. But I shan't!

The undercover agent at Han's is mentioned by the British dude earlier in the film, so I think her talk with Lee once he arrives is simply to wrap up that little threadlet of plot. Also to keep the sexy sexy part of the film without sullying Lee's wholesome image.

The idea of a secret martial arts tournament is a big one in the genre, and I've always wanted to know if it started in the late-60s films or if there is some cultural/historical basis for it.

There is some self-awareness that the film revels in cliche. Favorite line: "Man, you are RIGHT out of a comic book!"

dfordoom said...

"Also to keep the sexy sexy part of the film without sullying Lee's wholesome image."

That's a good point. In a British, European or American thriller of the same vintage they would certainly have ended up in bed together.