Enter The Dragon [retro review]

“It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

The Scoop: 1973 R, Directed by Robert Clouse and starring Bruce Lee, John Saxon and Jim Kelly

Tagline: The first American produced martial arts spectacular!

Summary Capsule: Three fighters with different motives meet up during an island tournament held by the mysterious Mr. Han. When the tournament is exposed as a cover for a crime syndicate, they band together to fight against Han’s criminal empire.

Al’s Rating: So, they gave that Kato guy his own movie. Who knew?

Al’s Review: Well, here it is. The big one. The one that sent kids all over the world karate chopping through their backyards screaming “Hoooooooooo-waaaaaaaaaaaah!” It launched an entire genre of motion picture in America. It inspired a young Carl Douglas to pen the phrase “Those cats were fast as lightning!” It has had more influence on pop culture than any other film of its kind. And, of course, it holds the unique place as the movie that finally introduced the world at large to that fresh-faced rising star of martial arts cinema, John Saxon. In case you missed the giant title banner, I’m talking about Enter the Dragon.

I’m usually leery of a review that starts of with “What else is there to say…” because that means I’m in for five paragraphs of filler material, but in this case, seriously, what else is there to say about Enter the Dragon that hasn’t been said already? Like Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, it is frequently cited as the greatest martial arts movie of the 70’s, if not of all time, and that’s tough to argue. I mean, it’s Enter the Dragon. The fights are incomparable classics. The nuggets of Jeet Kun Do philosophy are memorable and thoughtful without being intrusive. The ‘tournament-covering-for-a-drug-cartel spy adventure’ thing reeks of James Bond-lite cheese, but the pace is brisk and energetic enough to gloss over anything you may want to split hairs about. It’s not the be-all end-all of martial arts movies like some say (the haircuts alone see to that) but it is nonetheless an experience that succeeds on every level.

First and foremost, Bruce Lee has never looked better. He used to say he did not act onscreen, he just did his thing, so like every other role he played prior to his death, most of Enter the Dragon is spent scowling intensely — which he does well — or exploding in his enemies’ faces — which he does very well — and he’s as effective as any “real” actor who’s trudged through the methods of Stanislavsky or Strasberg. The man had a magnetism that was comforting when he was calm and downright terrifying when he was riled. As an undercover martial artist, conveniently named Lee, his poise and intensity are just unreal and more than a little unnerving.

Since the singlemindedness of Bruce’s character can prove somewhat tiring after a while, the producers wisely thought to include some partners for him in the form of John Saxon and Jim Kelly. John Saxon (aka Heather Langenkamp’s dad from A Nightmare on Elm Street) displays an unexpected modicum of acting ability as Roper, a gambler who owes money to the mob and heads to the tournament in order to lay low. Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones himself) is Williams, the likeable black guy that, as in all 70s movies, they kill off halfway through. Kelly was the 1971 International Middleweight Karate Champion and, as such, is clearly having a lot of fun in the few fights he is given before being pushed aside for people with higher billing. Saxon doesn’t actually appear to have any actual martial arts talent himself aside from a single jump kick move he does at least three times, but ambles through Enter the Dragon with the help of several stunt doubles and by punching and kicking into a first person camera. He’s laughable next to Bruce Lee, of course, but that’s the price you pay for enlisting the kind of name recognition that the John Saxon brand can offer.

Large, impressive set pieces and excellent little exchanges are all over the place in this movie. Han’s warriors training in the open air arenas of the island. The technique of fighting without fighting. O’Harra getting sidekicked straight out of the ring and right through the audience. Williams selecting his ‘female companionship’ for the evening. The crazy opium den with the drugged-out prostitutes. Roper betting with his ‘easy mark’ on the tournament. Debating how much you trust a man who puts your head in a guillotine. Bruce making film history with nothing more than a pair of nunchucks.

I could rattle off great moments from this film all day, because that’s basically what Enter the Dragon is: two hours of great moments unfolding one after another. The few minor rough patches, like the sluggish pace of the first half-hour and some awkwardly placed flashbacks, will more than likely give a new viewer some pause, but these melt away almost immediately when Enter the Dragon hits its stride. It’s simply one of the best of all time. The best? I think I’ll let it fight it out with Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber. But it is certainly the pinnacle of Bruce Lee’s film legacy and an inarguable piece of history. Check it out.

"Oh that tears it. Wolverine is DEAD!"

Intermission!

  • The story of Bruce Lee’s life and early death is pretty well documented, so I won’t rehash it here. I just wanted to share some neat facts about his almost unreal physical abilities:
  1. Lee’s striking speed from 3 feet with his hands down by his side reached five hundredths of a second.
  2. Lee could cause 235 lb opponents to fly and crash 15 feet away with a one inch punch.
  3. Lee’s combat movements were so fast, it often could not be captured on film at 24fps, so many scenes were shot in 32fps to put Lee in slow motion. Normally martial arts films are sped up.
  4. Lee was so quick he could snatch a dime off a person’s open palm before they could close it, and leave a penny behind.
  5. Lee could perform push ups using only his thumbs.
  6. Lee would hold an elevated v-sit position for 30 minutes or longer.
  7. Lee could throw grains of rice up into the air and then catch them in mid-flight using chopsticks.
  8. Lee performed one-hand push-ups using only the thumb and index finger
  9. Lee performed 50 reps of 1 arm chin-ups.
  10. From a standing position, Lee could hold a 125lb barbell straight out.
  11. Lee could break wooden boards 6 inches thick.
  12. Lee performed a side kick while training with James Coburn and broke a 150-pound punching bag
  13. Lee could cause a 300-lb bag fly towards and thump the ceiling with a side kick.
  14. Lee could perform leg lifts with only his shoulder blades resting on the edge of a bench and suspend his legs and torso perfectly horizontal midair.
  15. Lee could thrust his fingers through unopened cans of Coca Cola, at a time before cans were made of the softer aluminum metal.
  16. Lee would use one finger to leave indentations on pine wood.
  • Kien Shih, who played Han, did not speak English; he just simply mouthed the lines as best as he could. Chinese-American actor Keye Luke overdubbed his dialogue.
  • During the fight scene with O’Harra (Bob Wall), Bruce Lee sidekicked Wall so hard that the extra positioned to catch Wall received a broken arm.
  • Over 8,000 mirrors were used to setup the “Hall of Mirrors” where the climactic duel takes place. At no point can you see a camera reflected.
  • Warner Brothers wanted to release the film under the title ‘Han’s Island’ as they thought international audiences would be confused by an action film titled ‘Enter The Dragon’ (which refers to Bruce Lee himself). ‘ The Deadly Three’, a title referring to the Bruce Lee, John Saxon and Jim Kelly characters, was also considered as an alternate title for the film, as well as ‘Blood and Steel.’
  • Check out the omnipresent waka-jawaka!
  • A young Sammo Hung is Bruce Lee’s opponent in the opening exhibition.
  • A pre-fame Jackie Chan is one of the guards Lee fights off in the underground cavern.  Lee grabs him by the hair and holds him in front of the camera for a while before breaking his neck offscreen.  In fact, Lee actually struck Chan in the face with one of the fighting sticks he used.  Lee immediately apologized and insisted that Jackie would work on all of his movies after that, but died before he could keep the promise.
  • During the praying-mantis fights on the boat, Falcons’ quarterback Michael Vick is the visible in the background. (Kidding, kidding.)
  • Bruce’s technique of ‘fighting without fighting’ is classic.
  • Bolo Yeung (Chong Li from Bloodsport) plays the Muscular Asian Bad Guy role?
  • The guys dipping their hands in hot coals?  Awesome.
  • Check out the skeletal hand in the trophy room.

Groovy Quotes:

Lee: Kick me.

Teacher: What is the highest technique you hope to achieve?
Lee: To have no technique.

Lee: A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit—it hits all by itself.

Lee: Don’t think. Feel. It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.

Lee: Never take your eyes off your opponent… even when you bow.

[looking out over the poor areas of Hong Kong]
Williams: Ghettos are the same all over the world. They stink.

Parsons: What’s your style?
Lee: My style? You could call it the art of fighting without fighting.

Han: I look forward to a tournament of truly epic proportions. We are unique, gentlemen, in that we create ourselves. Through long years of rigorous training, sacrifice, denial, pain, we forge our bodies in the fire of our will.

Roper: I have a funny feeling we’re being fattened up for the kill…

[as he selects island girls to stay with him for the night]
Williams: For me? You shouldn’t have. But—I’ll take you, darling. And you. And you. And… you. Please understand, if I missed anyone, it’s been a big day. I’m a little tired.

Han: We are all ready to win, just as we are born knowing only life. It is defeat that you must learn to prepare for.
Williams: Don’t waste my time with it. When it comes, I won’t even notice.
Han: Oh? How so?
Williams: I’ll be too busy looking good.

[As Han surrounds him with henchmen]
Williams: Man, you come straight out of a comic book!

Roper: A man’s strength can be measured by his appetites. Indeed, a man’s strength *flows* from his appetites.

[O’Harra tosses a board in the air and breaks it in two]
Lee: Boards don’t hit back.

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

  • Fist of Fury
  • Black Belt Jones
  • Mortal Kombat
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5 Comments

  1. [Looks at point #2]
    But…but… even allowing for a slight forward momentum by weight shifting during the punching stance you can’t account for the inertia, and besides…

    [Looks at url]

    Oh. Heh. Nevermind, please proceed.

  2. Pingback: Five Deadly Venoms [retro review] « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

  3. On Bruce’s breaking boards six inch thick: more precisely, these would be boards taped together to equal six inches. Then they would dangle from an assistant’s fingers, and Bruce would kick them. He did this on Hong Kong TV, broke five of them as they went flying in the air. As fro his fighting ability, check out James DeMile, one of BL’s earliest students/training partners. He says that even against today opponents BL could beat anyone in the world in a real streetfight.

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