Don’t think. Feel. It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.
I consider reviewing Enter The Dragon to be both an honor and a challenge, both for the same reason: Enter The Dragon is a classic, the zenith of martial arts movies. Its star, Bruce Lee, was an amazing man, not just for his fighting prowess (though could anyone dare claim to be better?) but also for his philosophy. Bruce Lee was to martial arts what Charlie Chaplin was to comedy, Babe Ruth to baseball, or Mozart to music: he didn’t invent it or define it…he perfected it.
Bruce Lee was around theater and filmmaking all his life. His father was a member of the Cantonese Opera Company. In 1940, he had brought his wife along on a tour in the United States, and it was in San Francisco that Bruce was born. His first appearance in a movie was as an infant, and he had small roles in many movies as a youngster. He moved to the United States in 1959, worked many odd jobs, attended the University of Washington (where he majored in philosophy), and taught Gung Fu. His break into acting came in 1966, when he portrayed the sidekick in the short-lived TV series, “The Green Hornet.” He had small roles in movies and other television series, and became the martial arts trainer to many Hollywood greats, such as James Coburn and Steve McQueen (both were pallbearers at his funeral). In 1971, he returned to Hong Kong, and found that he was a huge star there, all because of his work in “The Green Hornet.” He began making films there, released in the United States as Fists Of Fury, The Chinese Connection, and The Return Of The Dragon. Then in 1973 came the movie he had been preparing for his entire life, the one that would make him an international star and bring his Chinese philosophy to millions: Enter The Dragon.
Enter The Dragon was a film that came close to not being produced. It was the first martial arts film produced jointly by American and Hong Kong studios. Most members of the production staff spoke Chinese, Japanese, or English, and rarely did they understand any other language. Lee fought with the screenwriter for authenticity (a battle, fortunately, that he won). The budget was extremely tight, and often the sets were built from scraps and other materials at hand. Lee had many battles with the extras and stuntmen. An onset mishap and the subsequent misunderstanding surrounding it — Lee received twelve stitches to mend a cut caused by a real broken glass bottle used in a fight sequence — almost caused Lee to take the life of fellow actor Bob Wall. John Saxon was convinced that he was the real star of the movie, thinking he had been brought in to give the film legitimacy to American audiences. During post-production work, Lee collapsed and had to be hospitalized. That attack came only a month before the allergic reaction to a prescription painkiller that killed him. He did not live long enough to see the premiere of Enter The Dragon. As they say, the rest is history.
Enter The Dragon tells the story of Lee (Bruce Lee, natch), a Shaolin monk. The British government recruits him (remember, at one time Hong Kong was under the control of Great Britain) to help them bring Han (Kien Shih) to justice. Han holds forth on an island out of British jurisdiction where he deals in all manner of vices. He is also a former Shaolin monk who has turned against his order. To infiltrate the island fortress, Lee accepts an invitation to Han’s martial arts tournament.
On the boat ride to the island, we are introduced to two of the other contestants. Roper (John Saxon, who also brought “legitimacy” to A Nightmare On Elm Street) is a playboy who needs the tournament winnings to pay off gambling debts. Williams (Jim Kelly, International Middle Weight Karate Champion of 1971 and star of Black Samurai) is a street cat who’s just fighting for the thrill. When they reach the island, the tournament fighters are treated to a night of pleasure before the fighting begins. Lee takes the opportunity to spy on Han’s operation.
Finally, we get to the real reason for watching the movie: the fighting. Lee’s first opponent is Oharra (Robert Wall, who also appeared in Bruce Lee’s The Return Of The Dragon and The Game Of Death), the man responsible for Lee’s sister’s death. At the end of a spectacular fight, Lee kills the man.
Lee continues his nighttime clandestine operations, but this time he is caught. Of course, he defeats all his attackers. He summons the British officials, who now, with Lee’s help, have enough evidence to move against Han. But, now the jig is up. Before his backup can arrive, Lee must face Han in a fight to the death. The centerpiece of their duel is a fight in a room filled with mirrored passageways. If you have any doubts as to who wins…well, you’ve never seen Bruce Lee fight. This is the guy who, in real life, did not lose a fight after the age of thirteen.
Warner Brother’s DVD release of Enter The Dragon was part of the film’s 25th anniversary in 1998. While an early release, the DVD is impressive nonetheless. The movie is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in an anamorphic transfer. I can say this for certain: the movie has not looked this good since its initial release. It does show its age through occasional stains on the negative, dirt, and scratches. Color fidelity is excellent, and there is minimal grain. The version of the movie is an extended cut, which restores some of the philosophical scenes cut from the original theatrical release. Audio has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1. There’s very little use of directional effects. Use of the surround channels is mostly restricted to Lalo Schifrin’s excellent score. Speaking of the score, it is available in a separate audio channel — a nice touch that is rare even in more recent releases.
The disc was produced back in the days when dual-layered discs were rare, so the disc is double-sided, with the movie on one side and the goodies on the other. The movie side contains textual information — cast and crew biographies, behind the scenes information, a piece on the significance of belt ranks in martial arts, a retrospective on the history of martial arts films, and a blurb about Jackie Chan which proclaims him the heir to Bruce Lee’s “throne.” I cannot understand why they included some of this material. Systematic martial arts, and belt rankings in particular, flies in the face of Bruce Lee’s philosophy and his martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do. While I enjoy Jackie Chan’s films, they’re as different from Bruce Lee’s as red apples are from green apples. A commentary track is also presented, recorded by producer Paul Heller and screenwriter Michael Allin. The commentary was not evaluated for this review. When you flip the disc over, the text portions are repeated, though a separate section opens up, “The Lair Of The Dragon.” Here you will find an introduction to the movie recorded by Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell. It’s the same as the introduction presented at the top of the movie. A new documentary, produced for the film’s 25th anniversary, is included. It runs nineteen minutes and includes interview footage with Bruce Lee. There is also the featurette produced for the film’s release in 1973. An interview gallery presents ten interview snippets with Linda Lee Cadwell. The clips run from twenty seconds to five minutes. Rounding out the extras is a home video of Bruce Lee working out, four theatrical trailers, and seven television spots (“Part man, part myth, part magic…and pure mayhem!”).
How could I possibly speak ill of this movie?
Enter The Dragon should be a part of any movie collection, particularly of those who enjoy pure action. Even if it is an older release, it still stands up as an excellent special edition.
If you are interested in learning more about Bruce Lee, there are two books I would highly recommend. First is his book, “The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do.” Sure, you could look at it as a martial arts training manual, but then you’d miss 99% of what he is saying. Martial arts are about more than just fighting…it is a philosophy and a way of life. The other book was written by the director of Enter The Dragon, Michael Clouse, and is entitled “Bruce Lee: A Biography.” It contains many previously unavailable photographs, though the text is a little glossy. Still, he presents all facets of Lee’s life, not necessarily in a flattering light at times.