Tuesday, April 26, 2016

ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) - ****


Rated R, for martial arts violence and brief nudity
Running time: 102 min.

1973 was a watershed year in action cinema because it brought Bruce Lee to the mainstream. Unfortunately, we also lost Bruce Lee that same year due to unfortunate circumstances. He brought "kung fu" movies to the mainstream, and what followed was a sincere form of flattery to the master of the genre. Enter the Dragon was supposed to be Bruce Lee stepping out into the world, and this film left an indelible impression.

Enter the Dragon stars Mr. Lee as the appropriately named Lee, a Shaolin martial artist who shares his philosophical and physical knowledge to another young student in the film's opening scenes. He has received an invitation from a mysterious individual known as Han to compete in a martial arts tournament on Han's island. Lee is approached by British intelligence to do undercover work for them, since the British have no jurisdiction over Han's island, and they suspect Han of being involved in the drug trade and require evidence. Lee agrees to do the job, and also learns that one of Han's bodyguards was involved in his own sister's death. So Lee's motivation is two-fold: find evidence of Han's evil mischief and avenge his sister's death.

We also meet two other characters that have been invited to Han's tournament: Roper (John Saxon), who is a gambler in over his head with the mob. He manages to stave off one murder attempt and decides to accept the invitation as a way to get him out of the cross hairs. The other is Williams (Jim Kelly), an African-American activist who defends himself from racist policemen, and then flees the country with his tournament invite. We learn that Roper and Williams are old war buddies, and they decide that they will work together scamming bettors on fight odds.

We get some great scenery of the Chinese waters and the local inhabitants, as our fighters gather on the boat that will take them to Han's island, then Lee gives comeuppance to a bully on the boat in a funny scene. When our cast arrives on the island, there is another colorful scene of a celebration in the fighters' collective honor, with banners and golds and silvers throughout the scene. Then we meet Han (played by Shih Kien) who provides stern warnings about the fighters leaving their rooms at night. To provide distraction, the fighters are offered their choice of women. However, these warnings do nothing to prevent Lee from secretly leaving to do his reconnaissance work, discovering the drug operation as well as prisoners, who are the lab rats.

What follows is a plethora of well-choreographed martial arts action, intrigue and surprising character development in the form of John Saxon's Roper. For an action film, the script by Michael Allin and Bruce Lee was direct and to the point. Director Robert Clouse (with an uncredited assist from Lee) does a great job framing the action of the tournament fight scenes and keeping a brisk pace to the film. Gilbert Hubbs' cinematography is a great complement to Clouse's direction. The big showdown between Lee and Han is held in a room full of mirrors in one of the greatest set pieces in action movie history, and that is attributed to the combined efforts of Clouse and Hubbs. The film was made with no sound, with all dialogue and sound effects added in post-production. You can never tell when watching the film; it's seamless.

Bruce Lee oozed charisma and it's a shame his life ended before this movie was released. In original viewing, I thought Lee came off as somewhat pompous in his scenes but upon additional viewing, that was just his natural confidence shining through. Saxon was adept at taking a potentially unlikeable character in a chronic gambler and playboy and turning him into a sympathetic good guy who we end up rooting for in the end. Jim Kelly was a little wooden in his scenes, but he can be forgiven as it was one of his very first roles, but he showed some promise as an action star in his own right. Shih Kien made a career out of kung fu villainy and he came off as most diabolical and dangerous here.

Enter the Dragon was thoroughly entertaining from the beginning, establishing the characters and the setting and then to the fantastic finale that is one of the more famous scenes in action film memory. Engaging characters, a straightforward plot that doesn't get bogged down in twists and plenty of rousing action. For those that have not seen this film, and are looking to get lost for a while, what are you waiting for?

****

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