AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 102/98 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Lee is a martial arts expert who does jobs for the British government. His latest is to infiltrate an island fortress, under the cover of being invited to a martial arts tournament, to investigate a possible slavery/drug ring led by a man named Han. Lee has another reason for going on this mission; Han was in charge of a gang that caused the suicide of his sister and Lee wants revenge. Martial artists from all over the world come to Han’s island, including old Vietnam buddies Roper and Williams, who are both on the run. Han’s hospitality is overwhelming, but Roper has a distinct feeling that the guests are “being fattened up for the kill”, while Lee is determined to find out what’s going on underneath Han’s palace….
It seems to be the case that the hardcore Bruce Lee addicts don’t tend to think too kindly of the first co-production between Hollywood and Hong Kong Enter The Dragon, while more casual fans, perhaps less used to Asian cinema, rate it more highly and there are some people that even consider this film, another one which has influenced many from Bloodsport to Mortal Kombat, to be the greatest martial arts movie ever. The latter statement is certainly not something I can agree with; there are quite a few superior genre efforts to my eyes, even from the 70’s like The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin and A Touch Of Zen. Otherwise though, I’m kind of in the middle. Enter The Dragon, which is really far closer to a James Bond film than Lee’s previous efforts, was the first Lee film that I saw, on ITV at 10.30 [I remember it well] totally uncut [successive showings were trimmed], and both it and the man himself totally blew me away. It seems to bother many that Lee shared screen time with a white co-star, but that, rightly or wrongly, was probably thought necessary by the producers for commercial reasons, similar to Jackie Chan’s Hollywood breakout picture Rush Hour. It’s good to see Lee in a glossier production, but on the other hand, it lacks the heart and emotion of the Hong Kong films, and is also a lot simpler in many ways. In his other movies, there’s a moral or dramatic conflict that places a wall between the viewer and the actions of his characters so that we’re asked to consider if he’s doing the right thing. Here, we can freely root for the guy to kick ass. He may be violating the Shaolin code, but we’re never asked to question this.
The initial title of Michael Allin’s screenplay was Blood And Steel. He and Lee fought over it, some saying that Allin deliberately put lots of ‘r’s in Lee’s dialogue, and Lee added and rewrote some scenes. Rod Taylor came close to playing Roper but was thought to be too tall, while Rockne Tarkington was meant to play Williams but considered the pay too low. Saxon insisted that the script be changed so that Roper, rather than Williams, be the guy who survived. Lee choreographed the fights and directed the first where he defeats Samo Hung. He brought Bob Wall back from The Way Of The Dragon, while Jackie Chan appeared twice to be kneed in the groin by Angela Mao and have his neck broken by Lee respectively. Mostly filmed in and around Hong Kong including the Golden Harvest Studios, it was a tense set with Lee falling out with studio head Raymond Chow over control of the film, stuntmen and extras hired from rival Triad families brawling, and Wall mistiming his thrust of a broken bottle so it cut Lee’s hand – whereupon Lee kicked Wall so hard in the same fight scene that he sent Wall flying [you can see it in the film] and nearly broke both his arms. Lee died, under circumstances which are still debated though the most common explanation is an allergic reaction to an asprin, three weeks before the premiere, and was never to see how popular the film, still the tenth most profitable Warner Bros. picture of all time, was worldwide. An opening scene between Lee and a monk, plus a reference to it near the end, was removed from the international version, though it turned up, re-dubbed, in Game Of Death 2. The UK release lost only a few seconds until it had the nunchuku footage removed in 1978. The video was nearly two minutes shorter but did restore some of the other cuts.
This review is of course of the extended version that was contained in the Blu-ray set, and it’s easy to see why the monk scene was cut out [though perhaps they could have placed it a bit later as one of the flashbacks], as it’s almost immediately followed by a similarly philosophical bit between Lee and a student. Lee’s words about having no technique, there being no opponent and the enemy destroying himself are important though to understanding his take on the martial arts, and there’s not much of this kind of stuff later on in the film except for the great bit soon after when, after the camera has seemed to be unable to take its eyes off the Hong Hong Boat People while Lee, Roper and Williams are leaving the harbour, and the brief flashbacks introducing Roper and Williams which appear to have been thought up and shot on the spot, Lee is challenged by an arrogant bully of a fighter travelling on the same boat as he to the tournament. He shows him “the art of fighting without fighting”, by letting him think the two of them are going to fight on a nearby island, but not actually getting into the small boat they’re supposed to use to get to the island and handing control of it to the poor Chinese passengers. In fact this scene may tell us one of the most important lessons of all: that it’s best to avoid violence altogether and try to defeat your opponent in some other way.
We do get one great set piece early on, and it doesn’t feature Lee at all. Instead, it has the wonderful Angela Mao, playing Lee’s sister, be chased by thugs and knock down villain after villain in cool style before opting to kill herself to save her from a fate worse than death. Lalo Schifrin’s musical scoring is terrific here, going from menace to a kind of joy [as it seems Mao will come out on top], to desperation to finally horror. It’s such a shame she wasn’t in the film more, though she made some other good films like Hapkido. Anyway, our three main protagonists, who in a way all seem to be on the run from themselves, arrive on the island, and after bring wined and dined and presented with a choice of hookers [Williams, being something of an African/American cliché, picks “only four” because he’s “a little tired”], the tournament begins, and we are treated to a variety of martial arts throughout the many face-offs. In between these, Lee and Roper discover what Han is really up to in his underground lair, and that Han has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of guards to get beaten up. Lee defeating man after man, moving from bare hands to a staff to two sticks to a nunchuku, is as fantastic a display of martial skill as you can get, while the duel with Han in a hall of mirrors is highly suspenseful, visually interesting and handled extremely well by Clouse, even if it make little sense. Han, played by Shih Kien whose skill is virtually limited to simple kicks and flailing arms, is initially no match for Lee, but his last false hand [he has a collection] almost evens the score, and then in the hall of mirrors the two are virtually even as Han obviously knows his way around.
Lee gets to beat the hell out of Bob Wall again, while it’s Saxon who gets to face off against Bolo. The direction almost convinces the viewer that Saxon could win such a fight. The most brutal moment in the film is when Bolo breaks necks and snaps bodies when Han asks him to punish four of his incompetent guards. This kind of viciousness is rarely seen in a US martial arts film today. Rather more absurd is when Han orders his men to attack Lee and Roper four by four, considering by now he knows how powerful Lee is, but then this supervillain is an idiot, even showing Roper his operation and then letting him go. Then there’s the odd scene where Williams is fighting Han and the brawl tumbles through a wall into some kind of psychedelic drug den where tattooed women are smoking suspicious cigarettes and laughing at everything. It’s rather random but memorable, and helps prove, in my opinion, that as much of the credit for the success of the film should go to Clouse. While he probably never matched Enter The Dragon and was admittedly given some rubbish to direct in the latter stages of his career, I’ve always thought him to be undervalued. He usually films action with a decent awareness of environment, and has a reasonably strong visual sense, though he and cinematographer Gil Hubbs in this film are a little too fond of the zoom lens, and they decided to emphasise brown throughout which isn’t the most appealing choice.
Early on in the film Lee tells his dead parents that they wouldn’t approve what he’s about to do, but neither the script nor Lee really show how conflicted he’s supposed to be about taking revenge. Lee, truth be told, isn’t as strong actor-wise as he is in his previous two films, but then the character’s not too well constructed either. Roper is obviously meant to be a lovable rogue; smooth, confident and a hit with the ladies, and Saxon is quite appealing in the part, but he doesn’t deliver the more comic lines very well. He gets more dialogue scenes than Lee but isn’t allowed to overshadow him to my eyes, though I know that many are not of this opinion. Saxon also doesn’t manage to look silly in 1970’s clothing which is quite a feat. Jim Kelly slightly overacts the ‘street guy’ thing but this was his film debut so he can be forgiven. Lalo Schifrin’s tremendous score is another star of the film; cool, funky but with a strong dramatic sense. The main theme is one of those simple tunes that’ll probably stick in your head for ages afterwards, and there’s a good stab at some Oriental music too. No, it’s not at all the greatest martial arts movie ever made, but there’s still something about Enter The Dragon that draws one back to it over and over again.