Saturday, February 9, 2013

Enter the Dragon - 1973

"Enter the Dragon" - 1973
Dir. by Robert Clouse - 1 hr. 38 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There's this action star you may have heard of before, Bruce Lee.  He only made a handful of films, all of them low-budget, and he died in the prime of his life, in the middle of shooting another film.  "Enter the Dragon" is Lee's last complete film, and was released shortly after his untimely death.  It's also Lee's martial-arts masterpiece.

There is a mysterious invite-only martial arts tournament on an island, run by a man named Han (Kien Shih).  Lee (Bruce, of course), Roper (John Saxon), and Williams (Jim Kelly) are brought to the island.  Lee has been enlisted by the British Intelligence Agency to bring down Han.  And there is a ton of kung-fu fighting (ok, that's not true - Lee's own Jeet Kune Do is one of the focuses).  When the tournament breaks down, everything comes down to a final battle between Lee and Han, partially in a hall of mirrors.

You might have already guessed, but the real appeal of this film is not the plot.  And I'd be lying if I said that everything has aged well - you'll likely enjoy Jim Kelly's striking resemblance to Black Dynamite, as well as John Saxon looking kind of like a turtle-necked George Clooney, but the fighting is still pretty good.  Part of what I enjoy about films from this era is that the actors involved were generally actually doing the fighting themselves, instead of just having the cameraman film the scenes while having a grand mal seizure.  But even more than that, there's the ungodly swagger, charisma and ability of this film's star, Bruce Lee.

This video shows Lee's fight against O'Hara, a man whom Lee holds a very personal grudge against.  As I was watching this scene, I was yelling at the TV that O'Hara should just get the heck out of there.  Bruce Lee is a bad man, and you know exactly what's coming.  At first, it's a straight-forward fight.  And then Lee starts dancing, so to speak.  It's spellbinding: excellent film-making in it's minimal approach.  When you've got someone who can actually pull off the things you want to show on screen, you can't add to it.  Just point the camera and let Bruce Lee do his thing, it'll be guaranteed magic.

There's a second memorable fight scene, the final battle with Han.  The entire island has lost the organization that it had earlier, and everyone is fighting everyone.  And that's a lot of people!  Han has apparently severed one of his own hands so that he can attach weapons in it's place, and he employs this technique repeatedly against Lee.  Eventually, Han and Lee move through a revolving door and into a hall of mirrors, which provides a spectacular series of visuals.  I don't want to over-hype it, but when you're dealing with low-budget film-making (this was budgeted at $850k, which was still low for the time, even if it was the biggest budget Lee would have the opportunity to work with), coming up with a spectacular visual is a challenge, and highly necessary.  So aside from it being awesome, it's also an awesome solution to the problem of not being able to hose down anything that pops up with a steady stream of cash.

If you've never actually sat down to watch a Bruce Lee movie, "Enter the Dragon" is a good choice to start with.  "Way of the Dragon" has Bruce Lee fighting Chuck Norris in the Roman Colosseum, but this is a more iconic and even film.  I warn that you're just going to have to accept the quirks of 70's martial arts films, but if you're capable of that, there's a lot of enjoyment to be had out of this film.  But even if you can't, there's almost no way not to be charmed by Lee.  He had the rare gift of being someone who people would pay money simply to watch him physically move (think about Michael Jackson's gifts as a dancer in the 70's and 80's as a fair comparison - you can see those on display in "The Wiz," if you want to know what I'm talking about).  There's such a short list of people who have that kind of athleticism and grace that you could probably familiarize yourself with all of them in one day.  "Enter the Dragon" is a time capsule of Lee at his absolute peak, and it's worth a couple of hours of your time on that basis alone.  And then when you're done, you can watch "Kentucky Fried Movie," and will then have the necessary knowledge to fully enjoy that film, too.

3.5 / 5 - TV

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