Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A crude but awesome kung fu movie.
What did I get? Released posthumously, Enter the Dragon materialized in 1973 calculated to deliver, honor, and ratify the legend of Bruce Lee — all in one fell swoop. To say that the Chinese martial arts were ripe for exposure on American shores is an understatement; Lee promptly became the form’s patron saint. Not half as kinetic, jarring, or hyperbolic as I was fearing, Enter the Dragon is a breezy cauldron of mayhem, even if it does represent some form of cross-cultural slumming. Artfully crude yet brimming with relaxed assurance and wit, the movie’s dirty little secret is that the fights are almost the least of it.
As with River Phoenix and Heath Ledger, who similarly succumbed to a tragic pharmaceutical cocktail, Bruce Lee’s premature death inevitably left behind a blank slate of unresolved promise on which one could trace one’s chosen fancies. Cheek is an attribute that movies favor, and judging from Enter the Dragon, Lee had plenty of it. Punctuating his combat with palpable cognition and emotionalism, quizzical head shakes and fleeting WTF expressions, Lee was adept at infusing his fighting with the actorly arts. (Athleticism aside, I offer the premise that Lee’s chops may have been overrated — the only kung fu fighter the movie dares to present uncut and shot from any distance is the delightful, balletic Angela Mao.)
Enter the Dragon effortlessly set the template, slavishly followed by every ’80s teen movie you could care to name, of an affable hero conquering a realm dominated by entitled bullies. Hosting an already iffy martial arts competition on his island redoubt, the smarmy, amputated heroin kingpin Han is the very picture of debased debauchery. O’Hara, played by the transplendently blond Californian Robert Wall, is the rough precursor of the blond dickhead in The Karate Kid immortalized by William Zabka, while Bolo, played by the smooth and beefy Bolo Yeung, finds his analog in that alarmingly lethal assassin every Bond movie has.
Presented fully formed and furnished with a pro forma revenge motivation, Lee (now referring to the main character) is innately appealing and yet fundamentally unknowable; we mistake his delicacy and asceticism for kindness. As indicated by his master’s catechism at the outset, his is a learned altruism. Lee is shadowed by a duo of charming but questionably helpful Americans, the white Roper and the black Williams, but they are too venal and vain, respectively, to win our approval. Lee’s playful encounters with various insufficiently mellow characters reveal something of the eventual inheritor to his crown — Jackie Chan, who, I’m told, briefly appears in the movie as one of the teeming thugs Lee whomps.
With a fine eye for composition and an efficient sense of pace, Robert Clouse’s fondness for symmetry and bold use of color supply much visual pleasure. Enter the Dragon is quite simply a beautifully constructed movie. The images of Lee in the hall of mirrors during the final reel are gorgeous in and of themselves — beyond whatever thematic resonance they might be said to have.
What here smacks of 1973? As the first and best chop-socky feature, most everything. But what’s striking is the relative innocence of it all — the fandom and the ironic appropriations were still to come.
IMDB score: 7.6
My score: 8
Director: Robert Clouse
Writer: Michael Allin
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Ahna Capri, Kien Shih, Robert Wall, Angela Mao, Betty Chung, Geoffrey Weeks, Bolo Yeung, Peter Archer, Li Jen Ho, Marlene Clark, Allan Kent, Jackie Chan
IMDB synopsis: Enter the Dragon revolves around the three main characters. Lee, a man recruited by an agency to investigate a tournament hosted by Han, since they believe he has an Opium trade there. Roper and Williams are former army buddies since Vietnam and they enter the tournament due to different problems that they have. Roper is on the run from the Mafia due to his gambling debts, while Williams is harassed by racist police officers and defends himself from them and uses the car for his getaway. It is a deadly tournament that they will enter on an island. Lee’s job is to get the other two out of there alive.