Action Heroes – Bruce Lee: Enter The Dragon

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OK, we have now made it to a very important moment in Bruce Lee’s film career, as we come to perhaps (and it’s definitely contentious among fans), the crowning glory of Bruce Lee’s dazzling, albeit, tragically short film career. Of course we are talking about seminal 1973 Martial Arts action classic Enter The Dragon.

Now then, before we begin, a quick note: When first discussing the writing of this series of retrospectives with the editor of Filmwerk; It became immediately apparent that the project had the potential to produce retrospectives much longer than than the norm. This has certainly been the case thus far, however. With movie number four; a slightly reigned in approach seemed apt, especially as we knew that the retrospective for Game of Death (which will round out the series of course), would undoubtedly be as epic as they get. Of course, whether we achieve this feat of self restraint, remains to be seen. As I am so fond of saying; I guess we’ll all find out together…I don’t hold out much hope.

Well then, what can one say about this film that has not already been said every which way a thousand times? Pretty much nothing, I would imagine. Enter The Dragon, whether deservedly so on its own merits, or otherwise), has long been the most picked apart, scrutinised, discussed, heralded, lauded, hyped, over-hyped and criticised of all Lee’s completed movies. Right or wrong; It is the movie by which he is most often judged, and the movie for which he is most remembered. It is also the movie that made him an international superstar. If you asked every single person alive today (who knew of Bruce Lee at all), to name a Bruce Lee movie; it would at least be the safest bet to think they would pick Enter the Dragon. I would wager that if you performed this test at any time over the forty years since Bruce so tragically died; the answer would be the same at any point along he way, at least outside of Hong Kong.

A hugely significant film then, whichever way you look at it to be sure, and as I said; one that it has now become my job to at least try and write something worth reading on. So, for what it’s worth, here is my little tuppence-worth on a film most dear.

For want of far less loaded terminology; Fate had a cruel destiny planned out for Bruce Lee, and Enter The Dragon represents a key ingredient in the shaping of it.

For many fans, the movie is at once, magnum opus, breakthrough Hollywood hit, and tragic swan song (although it must be noted that in a much more ‘oddball’ way, Game of Death has a certain ‘last hurrah’ swanny whiff about it too). Unlike that catastrophe of a train wreck, Enter The Dragon benefits from being a complete movie….with Bruce actually in it from beginning to end (although, not without a noticeable amount of him missing in the middle). More on that later.

It may of course be entirely possible to watch and enjoy Enter the Dragon without knowing or concerning oneself with any of the surrounding lore, myth and legend that became immediately attached to it, once it’s star had so cruelly been snuffed out. However, only the most disciplined or uninformed of viewers would be able to maintain this separation for the duration. The problem for most fans, is that the timing of Lee’s death (six days before its Hong Kong release), meant that Enter The Dragon never had a chance to exist in the public domain without such tragic associations. Personally, I find it all but impossible to watch the movie without occasionally falling out of my immersion, and thinking a little about Bruce. Wondering if on any level, when he may have looked out over Tai Tam Bay from the walls of the Palm Villa grounds (the main exterior location for the bulk of the movie, and not actually an island); his thoughts ever strayed to his own mortality, or even that he would never see this movie in theatres. It’s a morbid train of thought, but not an unusual one for those left behind, when people die suddenly. This kind of thing must surely colour one’s appreciation, and objectivity in some way; certainly in terms of assessing the movie on it’s own merits, if nothing else.

The film itself divides opinion among fans, and I think that again, Lee’s fate plays more of a role than it should in that division. However, there are certainly more direct reasons too, which I’ll get to in time.

I will of course be assuming everyone reading this is familiar with the movie (if not, why not?), so let’s jump straight in, and as usual, remind ourselves what it’s all about.

Bruce plays ‘Lee’ (a most imaginative name), a well respected Hong Kong Shaolin martial artist, who is invited to participate in a tournament held every three years, by a mysterious recluse called Mr Han on his Island retreat. Along the way, Lee is recruited by British Intelligence to help smash a giant drug and prostitution operation believed to be run from the island; essentially becoming a sort of Kung Fu James Bond. Most of the action revolves around the tournament itself, Lee’s infiltration and investigation of Han’s operation, as well as a subplot involving him avenging the murder of his sister. As already mentioned, Lee’s cover is in the form of participating in an illicit full contact martial arts tournament. As the island doesn’t quite fall wholly into any particular enforcement jurisdiction, Han’s activities are able to fly under the radar (hence British Intelligence need for a covert agent). Naturally, our Bruce is by far, the most gifted fighter present (handy for him). However, convincing menace is provided by the generously proportioned, twitchingly pectoral, and somewhat exuberantly violent Yang Sze as Bolo. Incidentally, years later Sze changed his name to Bolo Yeung in honour of his most famous role. His appearances in Hollywood pictures like Van Damme’s Bloodsport, dined off of Enter the Dragon quite mercilessly (I seem to remember them using the famous “Boards don’t hit back” line in there). Looking at Bolo’s filmography certainly gives us some clue as to just how interesting and indelible the character he brought to the table was.

American support comes in the shape of both John Saxon, and Jim Kelly (Kelly sporting the coolest topiary’d ‘fro and sideboards yet known to man), as fellow tournament combatants; Roper and Williams, respectively. I’ll talk about these guys and the way their characters are significant shortly. The presence of Bob Wall as Han’s high ranking henchman O’Hara (and incidentally, the man responsible for Lee’s sister’s death in flashback), is perhaps a welcome nod to fans of Way of the Dragon, another nod being that as before, he gets his goolies shmushed by Bruce. Big bad über villain ‘Han’ was menacingly realised by the legendary Shih Kien, complete with creepy metal hand, and occasional fluffy white cat (no jokes about Dr. No please). Another nod to the notion that the film had its eyes firmly on US success, was the presence of some ‘western’ eye candy amid the legion of Chinese beauties. Said babe was the very lovely, very gorgeous Ahna Capri, playing Han’s sophisticated assistant (and seemingly, his bordello mistress), Tania. I will expand on all of this later, but I find it Interesting that Capri is written as a love interest for Saxon’s character (Roper), not Bruce’s. Admittedly, the way that the ‘Lee’ character is written, he’s all business and far too cool to indulge in any of that bonking malarkey. We have already discussed how, once Bruce gained enough power of veto in his films, he avoided complicating his character’s motives with ‘love interest’ elements. So you could describe the situation with Capri and Roper as perfectly in keeping with Bruce’s preferred wishes for his character. However, one can also view the whole thing more cynically, and say that perhaps in 1973, Hollywood still wasn’t ready to see a Chinese man in bed with a white woman. Can you imagine this scenario in a contemporary Bond movie? Felix Leiter gets laid, but 007 doesn’t? No, neither can I. Of course, I am potentially reading more into this than is really there, but the thought persists anyway, because I am a cynical old fart.

Anyway, the tournament progresses and Lee, Roper and Williams are all successful and develop their bond (although Lee remains more aloof than the other two men, who already knew each other of course). In the dead of night, and under strict curfew; Lee finds his way in to Han’s secret operation centre, confirming the British intelligence intel regarding what’s going on there. Lee runs into some of Han’s guards but dispatches them so rapidly that he remains unidentified. However, Han knows that ‘someone’ was snooping around, and erroneously believes it to have been Williams (who was seen outside getting some air). When confronted about it the next day, Williams protests his innocence, and indicates to Han that someone else was the guilty party. However, regardless of whether he knows who it is, he doesn’t like Han’s accusatory tone and curtly asks to leave the island. A fight breaks out, and Han is revealed to be a formidable and ruthlessly deadly figure, when he brutally kills Williams in cold blood.

Han invites Roper to view his (quite obviously illegal) operation, and asks him to be his agent in north America (although one gets the impression that he never seriously thinks Roper would accept). He also then shows him Williams’ strung up, bloodied corpse, as if to force his hand one way or another.

To cut a long story short, Lee infiltrates the underground base again, and sends a message to the British Intelligence guy to come and bust the operation. However, he sets an alarm off in doing so, and all hell breaks loose. He then whoops a legion of Han’s men, but is ultimately captured. The tournament goes pear shaped, and we end up with a mass fight between Han’s men and Roper, Lee and the recently released captives from Han’s underground prison. Lee pursues Han down into his museum and into the famous mirror room for their final confrontation.

Han is eventually vanquished and Lee rejoins Roper who has also survived the battle. He sees Tania’s lifeless body amongst the debris and it is (intentionally I think), not made clear which side of the conflict cut her down, she is after all complicit and conflicted to one degree or another. Both men are weary, beaten and bloodied, and acknowledge each other with a thumbs up, just as military helicopters are descending in response to the message Lee sent previously. No ambiguity here, good guys win, credits role.

The movie brings us something of a regression in terms of the shape of Lee’s character. It feels like the producers and director have taken all the elements they like from Bruce’s three previous Hong Kong movies, and imbued the ‘Lee’ character with them, regardless of whether or not Bruce himself had progressed passed or rejected them. This includes the more murderous traits i.e. Bruce had been in the process of moving away from his characters taking life gratuitously. As we have already discussed in the Way of the Dragon retrospective; there was really only one definite fatality at his hands in that movie (Colt’s death in the Colosseum of course). By contrast, the character of Lee in ‘Enter’ takes human life far more casually, and often in situations where a non lethal action seems like an option.

We also get the rather asexual amoeba approach to women, that had also been established in ‘Way’. My cynical side comes out here, and I think again Warner Bros probably quite liked the idea of being able to completely avoid worrying white American audiences with images of a Chinese man in bed with a beautiful girl or two, let alone the possibility of any of those women being white. Yes, I know I know, cynical Ben strikes again, but it is interesting that this alone among Bruce’s now established character tropes is fully adhered to.

It is also worth noting that much of the deeper philosophy of martial arts in combat that Bruce was so keen on examining in his movies, was not that well served here either. The movie begins with some promise in this respect, and we get Lee’s famous interaction with a young student: “It is like a finger pointing away to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory”. But there’s a lot of ‘situation’ and exposition to set up in terms of sending Lee to Han’s island and the drug/prostitution racket, the British Intelligence guy, the revenge side story etc. Not to mention the supporting characters set-ups too. So once we get to Han’s island; martial arts philosophising is all but absent in favour of straight ahead action. It is only in the final confrontation with Han, that a little of it creeps back in, but it’s very subtle; involving the mirrors themselves being representations of Han’s labyrinthine artifice. On the one level, Lee smashing the mirrors allows him to find Han in a simple straight ahead physical sense. However, the subtext is that by removing the flotsam, the bumph and artifice; all that is left is what’s real, and on the level playing field of ‘emotional content’; Han doesn’t stand a chance. This is good stuff, but it’s slim pickings in terms of the movie’s dedication to it.

This brings me to the aforementioned presence of Williams and Roper. Have you ever wondered why exactly are they there? Have you ever asked yourself? Has it ever felt to you like there was just a little too much screen time given over to the pair of them? I certainly have, and I’m guessing I’m not alone. With the film dividing it’s focus (once we get to Han’s island), between the daytime tournament action, and the illicit nocturnal spy type stuff, why is so much screen time and significance given over to Williams and Roper? I feel their functions within the plot could be perfectly executed without sapping so much screen time away from Bruce, so what’s occurring? Well, to be blunt; I think it’s a case of Warner Bros hedging their bets a little. I suppose one has to cut them a little slack. After all, Enter the Dragon was breaking a lot of new ground for them, and you can’t blame the bean counters for perhaps not having clairvoyance enough to realise that, as a result of this movie, Bruce Lee was going to explode onto the world stage, become a bonafide legend, and usher in a new age of hollywood martial arts movies. After, all, none of this had yet happened, and Bruce was merely a big fish with bigger aspirations, stuck in a very small tank. They obviously felt they couldn’t rest the entire film on Bruce’s shoulders; and by placing Kelly and Saxon in there (not to mention Wall and Capri), they would act as a kind of safety net, or comforter blankie for an American cinema going audience (supposedly), not yet ready to watch a truly amazing Chinese force of nature, do his thing for a couple of hours on his own. In my opinion (and the perspective of forty years of Bruce Lee’s continuing legendary status, of course), It was unnecessary, and perhaps something of a mistake. I am of course aware of the irony in saying this, in the light of the film being massively successful just the way it is. I’m sure you understand my intention however, and I am at least extremely glad of the fact that when deciding to create the double team support act of Roper and Williams; they didn’t just do the classic Hollywood thing, and just hire two white guys. I give a lot of credit for that.

Indeed, please don’t get me wrong, I really like both Kelly and Saxon, and actually think what they brought to the movie was both appealing, and worthwhile. There’s a great chemistry between the two men, and as well as being very cool, Jim Kelly (being a bonafide champion martial artist), is a surprisingly watchable actor. His character adds a really good looking dash of that oh so funky, and of the moment Blaxploitation flavour to the mix (this was after all, the same year as classic Blaxploitation titles like Coffy, That Man Bolt, and Cleopatra Jones). Kelly’s marvellous swagger, and cool fighting style endears him to the audience immediately. I never liked the way the scene where Han confronts Williams, plays out though. I always felt that given Williams’ actual innocence in the matter at hand, and the fact that he really didn’t see clearly who the ‘human fly’ was the previous night, there should have been a way for diplomacy to have won out. At the very least, there should have been a better way of writing the scene to get to the desired end point. There’s a little part of me that even now, wishes Williams had made it to the end, and this is testament to how good Kelly was, especially as he was a last minute replacement for another actor. Anyway, I digress. In terms of the other half of this supporting duo; John Saxon was a very good actor, and not a bad martial artist for that matter. Amazingly, he had been around since the 50s and brought a solid and reliable presence to the proceedings. We warm to Roper’s slightly wobbly integrity, charm, and humour, and we are all glad that at least, he does make it to the end (even if we are still mourning the loss of Williams, and wondering how the hell he beat Bolo!).

The trouble is, all this great stuff with Williams and Roper, comes at a very high cost i.e. Bruce being sidelined whenever they’re featured. This is a problem because this is supposed to be Bruce Lee’s movie, not an ensemble piece. Bruce’s charisma was electric, and every moment spent away from it, feels on some level to be a terrible waste of time and material. To go back to our Felix Leiter analogy, it would be like a James Bond movie, where Felix gets almost a third of the screen time and dialogue, and is equal pre-title billing with Daniel Craig (as Saxon is with Bruce here). There’s a scene that put this sidelining into a very literal sense, when Roper is asked to fight Lee (who by this time had been captured for his espionage activities). Roper refuses to fight him. Han accepts Roper’s refusal and ranges Bolo against him instead. Now, just so we’re clear; although the mass fighting hasn’t broken out yet, the tournament is a blow out, and this is something altogether looser and more sinister. We already know that Bolo is a brutal killer, and Bruce (being the star, and best martial artist), steps up to take him on (I for one would like to have seen that). Roper gestures to Lee that it’s OK, and he takes a few steps back to allow the combat between Roper and Bolo to play out. Now, I don’t have a problem with this per se, as it kinda makes OK sense within the established narrative, but it is interesting to see Bruce literally being sidelined on-screen, so that both he, and us have to watch John Saxon’s martial arts skills take Bolo down, instead of his…

Now then, I have focused in and around this point for a while, and to be fair it is a major part of this film’s DNA, for better or worse. It is certainly a contributory factor to why the film is not actually the most successful of Lee’s movies in Hong Kong for example. We do need to bear in mind that a lot of it is no doubt fuelled by the tragedy of Bruce’s death too. As I said at the top of the piece; It’s hard to separate the film entirely from the tragedy, and we may imbue the film’s shortcomings with too much significance, merely because of it. It’s certainly fair to say, that had Bruce lived to see Enter the Dragon become internationally successful, and a massive hit for Warner Bros, any follow up Hollywood picture would have almost certainly have been offered to him with 100% confidence that he could carry it alone, without such immense ensemble support. Imagine if Bruce had not died, and there was indeed a Warner Bros Enter the Dragon 2, or Return of the Dragon, or even if they green-lit a movie adaptation of The Warrior perhaps. A string of Hollywood backed movies in which Bruce was the focal point in the way that he is in his Hong Kong movies, and Enter the Dragon merely being the first toe in the water; would we be as concerned about it’s lack of conviction? I think, probably not. We will never know of course, as there were no follow up movies, Bruce died six days before Enter the Dragon was released, and his status moved instantly into legend.

I could talk more about the film’s production values, or various other scenes both amazing (Lee’s fight with O’Hara), and strangely inert (the nunchaku section of Lee’s fight with Han’s guards), but I set out to try and keep the word count of this retrospective a little lower than the dizzying 4k+ of Way of the Dragon, and have failed miserably already, so will begin the process of winding up, and moving on to the fifth and final film.

Rightly or wrongly, Enter the Dragon cannot help but trade heavily on it’s unique status amongst Lee’s filmography, as well as the tragedy that befell its star. It really is difficult to judge it objectively, on it’s own merits, and perhaps it is folly to try. Yes it has it’s shortcomings, and I think I’ve more than highlighted some of them here. It remains an amazing film nonetheless, and we cannot give it enough credit for changing the landscape in terms of both Hollywood’s investment in martial arts movies, as well as the career kick starts it gave to Jim Kelly, and Bolo Yueng, not to mention in a more abstract way for Samo Hung and Jackie Chan. I have said it before; but Bruce Lee opened a lot of doors that were previously closed and locked to Chinese actors in Hollywood. Through that door walked the likes of Samo and Jackie (particularly Jackie), into the vacuum Bruce left behind. Enter the Dragon owns a lot of that, and we have to be incredibly thankful to it in that respect. It was and is, an amazing achievement, and represents an almost unique movie paradox for me, and I suspect many others. I see the issues with it, but I love it dearly. I bristle at the lack of confidence in Bruce, yet love Jim Kelly and John Saxon’s contributions to it. I wish it had more of Bruce’s philosophy and a deeper narrative weight, but I love the straight ahead action and spirit. I see how derivative of Bond, parts of it were (in particular the drawing of Mr Han), but forgive it all this and more. Sometimes a film just gets under your skin and becomes something way more than the sum of its parts. In this way, Enter the Dragon is very nearly as legendary and untouchable as its star.

John Saxon once said in an interview that he had a daydream where he was approaching his parked car in a lonely midnight car park, and an armed assailant pops out and threatens him with a gun, saying “Gimme those keys..or else i’ll i’ll….” and then lowering the gun, the guy says: “Man, you’re John Saxon. What was it like working with Bruce Lee?” – I love that. Saxon is a veteran of nearly 200 TV and Film projects, and has a career spanning seven decades;  yet he is still remembered by many, as Roper in Enter the Dragon. That’s pretty amazing in and of itself.

So, what’s next? Well, when Enter the Dragon came along, Bruce had been deep in the process of planning, writing and shooting his next Concord Productions movie with Raymond Chow, a movie then known as The Game of Death. As I have mentioned already in previous writing; this film was to be the natural successor to Way of the Dragon, and would have further advanced all of the major philosophies Bruce was so keen to show off. However, it was put on hold while Bruce shot Enter the Dragon, and never finished due to his untimely death. The footage for The Game of Death, that he already had in the can, was put on ice indefinitely, and some of it lost forever.

Bruce Lee’s star status, myth, and legend continued to grow throughout the 70s, and along with legitimate pretenders to his throne like Chan, there was a whole slew of ‘Bruceploitation’ films starring Lee’alikes such as Bruce Li, Dragon Lee, and Brute Lee I kid you not. I even heard of a guy charmingly called Bluce Ree (I do hope this one was a playground myth).

In the midst of all this; what happened next is the stuff of legend, and we will talk (at length), about it next, in our fifth and final retrospective Game of Death.

Ben Pegley

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