VHS Revival concludes its exploration of all things Lee with the movie that transformed him into a global icon
Bruce Lee was on fire in 1972; each of his Hong Kong films broke Asian box office records greater than the last. Naturally, Hollywood wanted in on the action, despite having driven him away years earlier. At the time, the studio heads were reticent to portray an Asian in any more than a supporting role, even to the point of giving the role that was tailor made for Lee, the Shaolin monk in the Kung Fu television series, to David Carradine, a white actor with no martial arts experience. Now that Lee was an international star and a guaranteed moneymaker, Warner Brothers decided to change its tune and offer Bruce his own big-budget, slickly produced star vehicle. While the experience was two steps forward and one step back for Lee, Enter the Dragon became a legendary success that would forever change the nature of action cinema.
Though the film had a lavish budget compared with his other films (including a Lalo Schifrin score), the production wasn’t painless. Director Robert Clouse didn’t understand how to handle Lee any more than Wie Lo did in The Big Boss. The idea may have started as simply making him a Kung Fu James Bond, but Lee was too complicated and big a persona to fit into that preconceived mould. The film begins comfortably, with a training fight between Lee and a very young Sammo Hung; comfortable because Lee directed the sequence himself. After that, Clouse steps in and the plot becomes increasingly convoluted.
Braithwaite (Geffrey Weeks), a thoroughly British representative of and unnamed, MI6-esque intelligence agency, has come to the Shaolin temple to recruit Lee (also his character’s name, to avoid any confusion) for a top-secret operation. It seems a former Shaolin graduate has perverted the order’s teaching by using his skills to form a criminal empire. Han (Kien Shih) controls this empire from a well-guarded private island partially located in British-controlled Hong Kong, and only allows visitors during an annual international martial arts championship. Braithwaite wants Lee to accept his invitation and report back on any sort of illegal shenanigans going on behind the scenes. Lee accepts the proposition in order to avenge the honor of the Shaolin temple.
The studio seemed to be worried that Western audiences might not relate to temple honor-avenging as a significant enough motivation, so they shoehorned in a more traditional revenge angle. Just before Lee leaves, an old man (his dad?) recounts, in flashback, the day he and Lee’s sister were accosted by some of Han’s thugs on drunken shore leave. Lee’s sister (Angela Mao) gives the thugs a healthy pounding before being cornered, when she opts for suicide over submission. Since the thugs were led by Han’s current head bodyguard, Oharra (Bob Wall, sporting the same facial scar from Way of the Dragon), the old man figured Lee might want to bring that up with him at some point.
Lee was beautifully suited to be an international movie star because so much of his performance is vividly communicated nonverbally. Unspoken, I should say, since Lee’s unique verbalizations during a fight sequence was always a part of his magic. He could say more with sly look, cocky gesture, or intense stare than a full page of dialogue. Living in America since he was 18, Lee was fluent in English, but still retained a heavy accent. This, combined with his assured but soft-spoken delivery, made the studio nervous. So, attempting to make Lee safer for Western consumption, Warner Bros. brought in smooth-talking John Saxon to handle most of the dialogue scenes. It’s a painful reminder of Hollywood’s inherent prejudice that even when they give Lee his own version of a Bond film, they don’t trust him to be Bond.
That said, Saxon is highly entertaining playing roguish, compulsive gambler, Roper, a man so suave he has a car phone installed in his golf cart. Roper is mostly used to chew through exposition with a humorous touch, which is a wise move. Even though Roper is a fellow competitor in the contest, and Saxon was a real life black belt in karate, his fighting skills are on “elementary playground” level compared to Bruce Lee. Appropriately, Roper’s signature move is the nut punch.
In a brilliant marketing move, the studio capitalized on the crossover appeal of Blaxploitation and Kung Fu imports by casting Jim Kelly as Lee’s second co-star. He doesn’t get as badass an introduction as Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon (no crotch-cam), but he does get the best backstory flashback explaining why he came to the island. Seems that while being harassed by a pair of racist cops, he knocked one out, tossed the other through a fence (where the jerk is immediately pounced on by an agitated guard dog!), and drove off in their police car. That is going on the lam in style. I also appreciate that he personalizes his quarters by putting up a “Power to the People” poster on the wall. I’m guessing he brought it with him. Han doesn’t seem to be the socially conscious type.
Regardless of his shared screen time, Lee owns this movie through and through. Lee had one of the most magnetic screen presences of any actor. He radiated confidence and guile. On their way to the island, he cleverly demonstrates his style of “fighting without fighting” on a raging asshole tormenting the crew, making a fool out of the bully without raising a fist.
For anyone questioning Lee’s unflappable cool, I direct you to the cobra scene. Lee returns to the entrance to Han’s secret underground base to find it is now guarded by a cobra. At first, it seems like a standard ’70s action beat: actor reacts to a fake snake, cut to an insert shot of the real snake. No big deal. When Lee snatches up the snake and stuffs it into his bag, though, he is clearly handling a live snake. Impressive, but surely they would have substituted the cobra for a less aggressive, harmless snake for Bruce to handle. Nope, it is a real, live cobra he pulls from the bag later, no tricks, no cutaways. It had been devenomized (the director wasn’t that crazy), but it was still angry and capable of delivering a painful bite. Not only does Lee handle it without fear, he smacks it on the back of the head to get it riled up! Word from the set is that he tapped the cobra nine times without being bitten, which means Bruce Lee was literally faster than a cobra. The snake did peg him on the tenth take, but I imagine Lee gave him that one to spare him the embarrassment.
Having a James Bond style plot means introducing a few awkward James Bond style issues. The biggest is when Han offers his contestants a harem of lovely ladies to spend the evening with. They play it as a joke (Williams takes five per evening, Roper beds the hostess), but it would be a little uncomfortable even if it wasn’t specifically stated that Han TRADES IN SEX SLAVES! Geez, even Connery might have had objections to that (kidding, he would have been totally fine with it). At least Lee takes the high ground by only using the provided prostitutes as a cover to meet with his informant.
The movie excels with its colorful villains. Naturally, Han is the Bond-iest of baddies. Not only does he have a Dr. No style metal hand (which can be swapped out for various bladed prosthetics), they even have him stroking a white cat in one scene. I’m surprised they didn’t give him a gold finger. His Shaolin origin is primarily just a plot device as he is more megalomaniac than monk. Han does chide Ohara for fighting dishonorably, but he also kidnaps women and pushes heroin, so his views of honor are highly flexible. He does have a sentimental side, though, keeping the skeletal remains of his severed hand lovingly on display, as if it were a bowling trophy.
There are a couple of notable henchmen, as well. The Sasquatch-sized Bob Wall makes Ohara properly intimidating, until Lee cuts him short. The top marks, though, go to body builder and crazy face maker, Bolo Yeung, who would later go on to fame as the guy who looks like he wants to eat Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport. Bolo has the best kill face in history. No one has expressed as much ecstasy as Bolo when looking at a freshly snapped neck. Regrettably, we are denied a Bolo vs. Lee match-up. Instead, he is inexplicably taken out by Roper, with a nut punch no less.
Regrettably, Enter the Dragon is missing one of my favorite gags from Lee’s movies, where one nameless goon is smart enough to turn tail and run rather than suicidally jumping into a fight he has zero chance of winning. The closest we get is when one of Han’s guards starts to harass Lee about not bothering to dress in the mandated training uniform for morning exercises. Lee shuts him up with one side eye glare, and the guard wisely slinks off without another word. The same guard later trusts that a couple of sticks might give him an edge against Lee during a giant brawl. They don’t. Should have stuck with your instincts, nameless goon.
Action-wise, Enter the Dargon is a bit of a step back from the masterful frenzy of Fist of Fury or the meticulous grace of Way of the Dragon. This is not to say Bruce’s performance isn’t as impeccably choreographed as always, only that it wasn’t shot or edited with the same focus you see in Asian martial arts films. Though he wipes the floor with dozens of opponents down in the secret lair, the fight is mostly locked tightly on Lee, giving the sense that the guards are just waiting in line to get pummelled. Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is that it lacks a sense of challenge, since no one is even close to Bruce’s level. It is always fun to see Lee at full swagger before he takes someone apart, but he is at his best when at least one opponent gives him a run for his money.
This obvious imbalance does lead to the film’s most visually arresting scenes, though, the legendary ‘chamber of mirrors’ fight. During the climax, Han attempts to give himself the advantage by luring Lee into a disorienting mirror-lined maze. It is beautifully shot, with multiple images of Lee springing forth and gliding away as he slowly moves through the maze. For a time, Han’s gambit pays off, as he is able attack and retreat without Lee being able to track him, until the advice of Lee’s Shaolin master comes to him Obi-Wan style, providing the solution to his reflective predicament.
Even with its flaws, Enter the Dragon is a magnificent film, one that continues to influence action cinema even today. The exotic fighting tournament became a staple in martial arts movie, video games, and movies about video games (Mortal Kombat is an infinitely more ridiculous duplicate of the plot). The mirror room climax made an updated appearance in John Wick: Chapter 2, and The Bride’s casual disregard of the deadly Black Mamba in Kill Bill: Vol. II seems like a nod to Lee’s cobra wrangling.
It is impossible for me to watch this movie without pangs of what could have been. However, the tragedy of losing such a singularly amazing talent far too soon cannot overshadow his accomplishments. All four of his films are gifts, and though Enter the Dragon is not my favorite, it catapulted Bruce Lee to the highest point of his career, garnering worldwide exposure. If not for this movie, Lee may not have become the icon of eternal cool that he is today, and we might never have known what we were missing.
Not too shabby as far as legacies go.