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Monday, 4 January 2010

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Director: Robert Clouse
Stars: Bruce Lee and John Saxon
It's about time my stepson Shawn got to see Enter the Dragon because it's the reference point for everything that came afterwards, it's the logical beginning to a voyage into the wonderful world of martial arts cinema and because, well, you just can't pretend to be a kung fu fan and yet not have this film under your belt. So here's his beginning, though by the time it finished he decided that he'd seen it before after all. I don't think he has, I think he's just seen enough of it in clip form and experienced enough of it through its tremendous influence that it feels like he's seen it before. After all films as recent as 2007's Balls of Fury are essentially the same film merely translated into a vague comedy format, and there's probably a few more examples for every year in between.

I don't need an excuse to watch it though, because martial arts aside, it's one of the pinnacles of seventies exploitation cinema, not least because along with the kung fu, it has unmistakable elements of sexploitation and blaxploitation too. It also has a dream cast. Beyond being the last film Bruce Lee actually completed (he's also in the later Game of Death and Game of Death II but those really don't count), there are other eastern legends here: Shih Kien, Bolo Yeung and Angela Mao Yin, and if you watch really carefully, Sammo Hung, Yien Biao and Jackie Chan too. From the west, there's also John Saxon and Jim Kelly, along with Bob Wall and a few others of note. If they'd tried to include everyone, the way Stallone has tried to do with his forthcoming film The Expendables, they still couldn't have done much better.

As so many martial arts films are, it's based around a tournament, this one hosted by a man called Han and held every three years on his private island fortress off Hong Kong, where he runs a school of martial arts. The tournament is his only direct contact with the outside world, everything else being managed by his employees. Han is a Shaolin monk, but one who has apparently disgraced his temple, or at least so say the monks who still run it to Lee, played inevitably by Bruce Lee. So often in martial arts films the actors play characters with their own names, as Lee does here, but this film also included an example of the opposite: the martial artist appearing here as Yang Sze took the name of his character for his own and became Bolo Yeung, under which name he still acts today.

Lee has been invited to the tournament and he has plenty of motivation. British law enforcement, whose jurisdiction extends over part of the island, wants him to investigate Han's operations. They believe he's a key underground crime figure, who kidnaps beautiful young girls, hooks them on drugs and then sells them to a select clientele around the world. They've managed to place a female operative inside Han's organisation, called Mei Ling, but they haven't heard from her in months and can only assume her either dead or powerless. The tournament is the perfect opportunity for them to get a new operative inside and who better than Lee?

The Shaolin monks want him to attend to reclaim the honour of their temple that Han has defiled, but they have an extra incentive that they sneak in at the last minute. After he agrees to go, they add a salacious little fact about his sister Su Lin, about how she died in Hong Kong three years earlier, during the preparation for the last tournament. To avoid rape and murder by Han's men, including his bodyguard O'Hara, she commited suicide with a jagged spear of broken glass. As ably portrayed by Angela Mao Yin, she does some damage to her opponents first, including kneeing Jackie Chan in the nuts, but she's inevitably overwhelmed in the end. So off goes Lee to pay his respects and then to obtain some revenge.

He's ferried over from Hong Kong to Han's island with the rest of the key names who have been invited to the tournament and we learn their backgrounds in flashbacks. John Saxon is Roper, who is more than happy to get out of the States because he's in serious trouble with the mob, given that he owes Freddie $175,000 by Monday but has only $63.43 in the bank. Freddie's men ambush him on a golf course and explain that they need the money now or they have to break something. Of course he breaks something instead but promptly leaves before having to deal with the consequences. Jim Kelly is Williams and presumably on the run from the cops, given that this was made around the beginning of the blaxploitation era and so the Man has it in for him, in the form of a couple of racist cops picking on the token jig.
So as far as characterisation goes, this is pretty basic, very much in keeping with the James Bond type plot which is pandered to all the way down to the arch villain stroking his white cat. There are scenes where eastern culture is highlighted but mostly the story betrays the film's status as the first eastern martial arts movie produced by Hollywood, albeit in association with Golden Harvest and Lee's own production company, Concord. So the Chinese guy is a philosophical Shaolin monk, the white guy is a womaniser and inveterate gambler who's in trouble with the mob and the black guy is tough but still oppressed by the Man. Oh, and the other guy's an idiot. There's also a Kiwi called Parsons who's something of a bully, picking on the kids on the boat apparently just for fun. Then he makes the mistake nobody should ever make: he picks on Bruce Lee. We're not ready for the real kung fu yet though, so Lee demonstrates his art of fighting without fighting and gets the best of that little skirmish with comedic effect. This is hardly the height of sophisticated character development, but with this cast, we can't complain too much.

It would be easy to complain about much more, because there are some major conveniences taken for the benefit of keeping the story running and keeping the names in the cast. Roper bets on everything, down to and including a praying mantis fight on the boat to Han's island, but even he wouldn't have put money on John Saxon in a fight with Bolo Yeung, the Chinese Hercules. He wouldn't have bet on the random black shirted waterfront trash in a melée fight with Han's trained martial artists either, but without these conveniences we wouldn't have an ending or much point for Saxon to be there. I don't care if he has a black belt in karate or not, he looks as comfortable in matchups with these guys as these guys are with Bruce Lee. When O'Hara shows off before his matchup with Lee by punching a board to pieces, Lee just looks at him and explains, 'Boards don't hit back.' It's impossible to imagine him phased by facing anyone or anything, being utterly in a league of his own.

I should point out that much of what most viewers coming to the film today would complain about wouldn't be particularly valid. Enter the Dragon has so influenced not just the kung fu and action genres, but popular culture as a whole, that it almost feels like one long collection of clichés, but it has a fair claim to being the original that everything else copied for most of those component parts. I'm not enough of an expert on martial arts cinema to prove or disprove that claim (are you reading this, Ric?) but it's certainly the film that springs to mind when thinking of so many iconic setups, whether it be scary Eastern food that westerners don't want to touch, use of the deathmatch concept or Han having a string of gorgeous female bodyguards who can hit flying apples with darts at will; or perhaps O'Hara having sticks broken over his body to prove his toughness, layered gardens full of synchronised students practicing kung fu moves or the mirrored room that hosts our finalé.

There's the demonstration of how tough the host is. When four of his guards fail to stop Lee in his investigations the first night, he gives them to Bolo to play with in front of everyone. It's like feeding them to Mongo. There's even the house courtesy of offering delectable young ladies to the guests, which is still the template for every example to come. Williams only picks four of the ladies Tania brings to his room because it's been a long day and he's a little tired, a joke that I saw as recently as 2009's Black Dynamite. Lee doesn't pick any of them, instead asking for the one who hit his apple with a dart, naturally Mae Ling, the British undercover agent. Roper declines the bevy of beauties too, instead picking Tania herself, of course. Like anyone didn't see that coming.

And of course there's the martial arts, which after all is the point of the film. Bruce Lee was the fight choreographer, as well as performing much of the work himself. In fact this is his film to the degree that the presence of Robert Clouse's name as the director is really a misnomer. Lee directed many sections of the film himself and rewrote a good part of it too. It's amazing to realise that this film is over 35 years old, because while much of it looks like a product of the time, Lee's martial arts work is as fresh as ever. I don't care how much the experts can work out how fighter X has a faster punch or fighter Y has a quicker roundhouse, nobody looks as fast as Bruce Lee and nobody has yet come close to matching his physical perfection.

He wasn't a muscleman in the traditional meaning of the word but it's tough to believe that there was anything on his body that wasn't a muscle. He's still the epitome of the lean, mean fighting machine and while all the other martial artists in the film may fight hard, he doesn't need to. He doesn't even seem to be trying, but not through bad acting or choreography, it's that he just doesn't have to try. He is so at ease that it's almost like he simply walks through the fighting arenas and the tunnels within Han's island, swatting aside whatever human obstacles try to block his path.

Bolo Yeung, a weightlifter as well as a martial artist, has enough of a physical presence to intimidate anyone, but you just can't look at him while Lee is on the screen. Bob Wall is a huge beast of a man and yet Lee dances around him like a hummingbird. Some of those Chuck Norris jokes actually ring true when describing Lee: it's like everyone else has 24 frames per second to move in but Lee has 96. He was a revelation from the moment they let him play the star, in The Big Boss, Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon. This may not even be his best film, a couple of those predecessors being purer but this is more iconic. Really though the key is surely that however much I watch Bruce Lee I never cease to be amazed. That's his truest legacy.

2 comments:

teddy crescendo said...

Hal, whats your favorite line from this film?, i`m always torn between "YOUR SKILL IS EXTRA-ORDINARY AND I WAS GOING TO ASK YOU TO JOIN US" and "YOU HAVE OFFENDED MY FAMILY AND YOU HAVE OFFENDED A SHOALIN TEMPLE".

Hal C F Astell said...

There are so many to choose from.

I love how slowly and carefully Bruce says 'You have offended my family and you have offended a Shaolin temple.'

'Boards don't hit back' is a justifiably legendary line, but there are others... Williams probably gets the best of them:

'It's been a big day. I'm a little tired.'

'I'll be too busy looking good.'

And probably my favourite, 'Bullshit, Mr Han Man...'