Enter The Dragon (retrospective)

“Finally! What the hell took you so long?”

I can tell the wait has distressed you.

Enter The Dragon! One of the most famous, beloved, iconic kung fu flicks of all time. Starring Bruce Lee, the man who, via a combination of superb skill, airy philosophizing, fiery charisma and a tragically early death, did more than any one man to bring chop-socky action to the wider world.

Is it a great movie? Good grief, no. It’s strange and choppy and at many times laughable. But is it a great action movie? Well… not entirely. It’s unevenly paced and there’s little suspense, given that the majority of the fights are so uneven. Indeed, this is the failing of most Lee movies: typically, his character’s arc goes from most fights where he is in no danger whatsoever, to the final fight(s), where he is in moderate danger. This is a type of action that’s meant to be enjoyed less for the suspense or excitement, and more as simply a showcase for the godlike physicality (and absolutely magnetic personality) of its lead. The Raid, this is not.

Again, this flick is just packed with fights, many of them small or inconsequential, so we’ll look at it as a retrospective and give each battle a light touch.

1) Lee vs Fat Guy

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Still way less homoerotic than Top Gun.

Enter The Dragon certainly wastes no time getting down to business. Before the title appears and barely after the production company logos have faded, the audience is taken to an open-air duel between two men. Surrounded by Shaolin monks, the pair are for some reason dressed in nothing but speedos, shoes, knee-high socks and light boxing gloves.

The camera immediately and purposefully zooms in on Bruce Lee’s character (simply known as “Lee,” because why not), capturing his focused intensity. Of course even amongst perceived equals Bruce’s physique and persona would stand out, but here he’s faced off against a very unimpressive opponent. Visibly overweight, unimposing and never seeming particularly skilled, Lee’s unnamed foe is laughably doomed from the start. (Apparently this hapless opponent is a very young Sammo Hung, a contemporary/close friend of Jackie Chan and someone who would go on to become a Hong Kong legend both on and off the screen. All of which makes his non-entity appearance here more puzzling.)

As could be easily predicted, Lee wipes the floor with Sammo, taking him down multiple times with quick, powerful blows and skillfully evading all his counter-strikes. Hung performs a nice backflip evasion at one point (one of his career trademarks is how spry he is for such a large man), but he’s no match for the star. In the end, Lee defeats him by curling him up into a wrestling hold and making him tap out.

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“Matte!”

Again, this is all too easy for Lee. It’s also fairly cheesy, full of the HK exaggerated sound effects that defined the genre at the time. Still, there’s a loose, unpredictable energy here that distinguishes the battle from the kind of action both sides of the ocean had been used to, and that’s all due to Lee and “Jeet Kune Do”– the actor’s self-created martial art/philosophy which mandated improvisation and adaptability, rather than other rigidly traditional Chinese disciplines and their limited move sets. (Many argue that Lee essentially created what is now modern mixed martial arts.) You can even see some of JKD’s more explicit influence, such as the wrestling-like move he finishes with, and a foot-punch he pulls off early in the match.

All in all, not a bad introduction.

2) and 3) Williams and Roper

Bunching these two together for brevity’s sake. They’re our secondary protagonists. Before they even got to the villain’s island, we already saw both of them in some quick defensive bits that are too simple to feature here, but very telling as to their characters: Roper beat up some loan sharks on a golf course because he’s a reckless gambler, while Williams knocked out a couple racist cops because he’s an awesome 70s black dude who doesn’t have time for Whitey’s bullshit.

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As you can see, he doesn’t have time for this guy’s face, either.

Williams is played by the late Jim Kelly, a genuine karate champion who parlayed his role in this movie into a healthy stint as a blacksploitation star. Roper is played by John Saxon, apparently another black belt, who would later go on to be better known for his appearances in the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Both are apparently world-class martial artists, and have been invited to Han’s secluded island tournament. After a brief demo with spear-fighting, the first match is of Williams against an unnamed western fighter. Williams blocks all the man’s blows with ease, and puts him down twice, the second time for good. Afterwards, he gets some money from Roper, the two friends having an agreement to bet on each other with other viewers and then split the winnings.

The next match, in fact, is more dragged-out gambling joke than an actual fight. The “chump” these two pals are stringing along is a goofy-looking, middle-aged Asian man who inexplicably has a Hitler mustache. In addition to being a big gambler he’s also the most oblivious person alive because he fails to miss the painfully obvious collaboration Roper & Williams are doing right in front of his freaking face.

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“Hey Williams, don’t forget to tell me when I can op-stay owing-thray the ight-fay.”

Basically, the plan is that Roper takes enough punishment to the point where their sucker agrees to tilt the odds/payout ratio heavily against Roper. I don’t really gamble so I don’t know, but this doesn’t strike me as standard betting procedure or even common sense– can you really change the odds in the middle of the contest, and if someone was offering to do that for you when it looks like they’ll lose, wouldn’t you suspect something? Anyway, Asian Hitler doesn’t, and after Roper gets battered enough, he finally goes along with Roper’s hoped-upon 8/3 odds. At a completely un-subtle hand gesture from Williams, Roper gets up and knocks his erstwhile tormentor out with one punch.

Which reminds me: I might have missed something but the rules of this tournament don’t seem really clear. You would think they have a “best of X falls” system, because when any fighter goes down, they both stop fighting and then line up against each other to start the next round. But so far the fights only end when one party is unconscious. Meanwhile, Roper hits the dirt a total of three times before he wins, so if there’s any TKO, it’s some time after three falls. Say what you will about Bloodsport, at least it established some firm rules.

Anyway, of these back-to-back sequences giving us a fuller introduction to our secondary heroes, Williams undoubtedly comes out better. Saxon is indeed enjoyable and his character has a certain lazy charm, but he pales (ahem) in comparison to Kelly’s size, power, and cool-guy attitude. Williams also gets the only thing resembling a real fight, whereas Roper’s is more of a comedy routine (which, arguably, pulls the “rake joke” trick of going so far past tiresome it actually comes back around to amusing).

4) Bolo vs Unlucky Guards

Uh oh. This guy look familiar?

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He’s hard to forget.

Yep, our old pal Bolo Yeung had an early role in Enter The Dragon. Like Bruce, his character has one name but it’s actually not the same as his real name. Yeung was born Yang Sze and is credited that way in this movie; in a strange case of life imitating art, enough people started giving him the nickname “Bolo” because it’s the name of his character in this movie, and eventually it stuck.

Whatever his name is, young Bolo (see what I did there) is just as enormous and creepy as he would later be in Bloodsport, though so smooth-skinned and young-looking he seems almost boyish, like an embryonic Chong Li. But there’s nothing boyish about his hulking physique and the occasionally manic grimaces we’ve come to expect from before, though his rictus grins are more like a rough draft of what we’d eventually see in the Van Damme film.

Anyway, Bolo is introduced in this scene to dispense some very public punishment to four hapless guards who failed to stop an unidentified post-curfew prowler the previous evening (the culprit was Lee, skulking about doing recon, who knocked out or evaded all guards before they could identify him). Han shows he means business by having Bolo basically execute these chumps in front of the tournament crowd.

And an execution is definitely what it is. One at a time, Bolo calmly approaches and dismantles the terrified, smaller men. They try to fight back but their blows are either quickly blocked or calmly absorbed by the quiet killing machine. Bolo tosses one man casually over his head as if he were a rag doll (showing off that crazy strength) and then steps on his face, apparently fatally. After knocking the second opponent face-down to the ground, Bolo pulls back hard on his head from behind until his neck snaps from the pressure. Conspicuously, the third doesn’t seem to receive any killing blow, just a very painful-looking knee to the nuts.

But the final victim gets it worst of all: after being knocked around by the giant villain, he’s cradled in Bolo’s mighty arms almost like a child, and Bolo pushes him together until his spine breaks– he literally folds the man in half. Holy shit.

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Is… is this even possible? Holy shit.

Not very exciting, of course; just a nice bit of focused cruelty. Even young, rookie Bolo Yeung is plenty entertaining, even if his move set isn’t much more complicated than what we saw in the rather simplistic Bloodsport fights. But this is all a lot less stiff.

5) Lee vs O’Hara

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Finally, Lee shows up to work his mojo. (It only took, what? A little over an hour?) His designated opponent is one of Han’s top men, O’Hara, played by martial artist and veteran actor/stunt coordinator Robert Wall. The fight is a personal one for Lee, since it was O’Hara’s pursuit of Lee’s sister (who had been investigating Han) which ended with her killing herself to avoid capture. He got that ugly scar in the same encounter.

Lee simply gives one of his trademark smoldering glares, but his opponent opts for a more ostentatious approach, smashing a wooden board he’d brought along just for show. Lee is not impressed, uttering his famous “boards don’t fight back,” maxim. They line up, wrist to wrist, for the opening blow, and Lee scores it immediately, his fist striking out with blinding speed and intensity to hit O’Hara in the face and send him to his knees. Then he does the exact same thing again. The third time, his foe is able to block a bit, but Lee still gets him on the follow-up. (Again, any kind of “points” system in these matches and what indicates when they will take breaks from the fight to line up again is quite opaque.)

Eventually, O’Hara gets unhinged and desperate. He tries to grab Lee’s foot from the ground, which only earns him a backflipping kick in the face. When he tries to charge in with a powerful jumping kick, Lee simply ducks underneath him and puts his foot right where O’Hara’s nuts will land.

owowowowowowowowowow...

owowowowowowowowowow….

Rather improbably for a man whose genitals just had an unfortunate encounter with Bruce Lee and gravity, O’Hara can still continues to fight, though he only gets sloppier. Lee, however, only gets more worked up: at the beginning of the fight, he only moved to attack, but soon enough he’s bouncing around energetically, bobbing & weaving in the combat space.

Lee repeatedly puts O’Hara down with strong, single strikes, to the point where the audience even stops applauding since it’s not even a contest anymore. Lee puts O’Hara down harder with a strong kick to the chest he executes from very close, sending him into the audience.

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Ooooooh that’s a lot of straightening for his leg to do.

It certainly seems like a finishing move– it’s even in slow motion and everything– but O’Hara can’t seem to get enough. Over Han’s objections, he breaks two random glass bottles nearby him and tries to take Lee out, barfight style. Lee doesn’t exactly say “wow, seriously?” but it’s implied. He easily disarms O’Hara and knocks him on his back. He ensures it’s the last time when he leaps onto the man’s (not shown on camera) body with a look of deranged intensity.

Some sort of doctor confirms it afterward: he’s dead, Jim.

This is an improvement from a lot of what we’ve seen before, but still not too great. For all his stature and build-up as the villain’s right-hand man, O’Hara is reduced to a stumbling ox for Lee’s swift, flawless strikes– basically a walking punching bag. Bruce is, as ever, fantastic and graceful in his almost-too-quick-to-see attacks, but this barely seems like a workout for him.

6) Williams vs Han

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Having been shamed by O’Hara’s disgraceful behavior, Han cancels the rest of the day’s matches, and calls Williams in to his office for a private meeting. Han, played by longtime Hong Kong star Shih Kien (and whose voice was dubbed by Keye Luke), is a major criminal mastermind and drug trafficker. He holds these tournaments every three years as a covert way to find new talent and connections for his organization. He’s pretty much a straight-up supervillain, “right out of a comic book,” as Williams himself says in this scene. Dude even has a white pet cat he carries around sometimes.

He tries to get Williams to play ball by asking him who he saw snooping around last night, but Williams doesn’t have time for that jive crap. The confrontation turns ugly and Han calls in several guards, who the hero of course defeats easily.

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Once Williams has awesomely dispatched those punks, Han springs into action personally. The American is immediately caught off-guard when his opening strike gets blocked by what turns out to be a heavy iron prosthetic replacing his left hand. Besides that, Han turns out to be a surprisingly agile and canny fighter in his own right, dodging most of Williams’ attacks and making excellent use of his handy (heh) advantage.

There’s some nice camera work here, such as alternating POV shots as the two trade blows, and a brief view of both characters’ silhouettes as they battle behind a paper screen. And a fun bit of background detail: after a stray blow from Han’s hand breaks open a bird cage, the occupants of which fly around the room and at one point into Williams’ face.

The fight spills through the wall into some kind of disco-themed opium den, where several slave girls baked out of their minds laugh uproariously at everything they see.

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“Talk to the hand!”

An ignoble place to die, and too bad because the fight’s pretty much over for Williams at that point. Increasingly tired and beat up, he admirably continues to rise and gamely fight back, but Han is able to take him down for good with repeated iron blows to his back. Brutal.

This marks the unfortunately too early departure of Williams from the film, leaving us with the less interesting Roper as the sole secondary protagonist (and we all know why). But at least he goes down fighting, and in a scene which proves that the movie isn’t afraid to kill the guy you like halfway through. Not a bad fight, either, especially in the beginning. So long, Jim.

7) Lee vs Everybody

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This is the big one, the centerpiece. The legendary sequence. It was even the centerpiece of this movie’s parody in Kentucky Fried Movie.

But here’s the thing: it’s… not very good. It’s not even the best fight in this movie.

“Dude, what are you talking about?” I inevitably hear when I say this. “It’s awesome! That’s the scene where Bruce Lee fights like 50 guys!” Well, that’s true in only the most technical sense. It’s more accurate to say it’s the scene where about 50 guys run right into Bruce Lee’s fists & legs one or two at a time, and stay down after they’re hit once. Less exciting, but more accurate.

Although one of those 50 guys is Jackie Chan. This one, I believe.

Although one of those 50 guys is Jackie Chan. This one, I believe.

Not once does Lee ever seem like he’s in danger here, not just because the individual guards he attacks (setup: after he Metal Gear Solids his way into Han’s underground lair to find evidence and send a message to his MI6 handlers, someone sets off an alarm and Lee has to fight his way out) pose no threat to him whatsoever, but also because there’s barely any sense of scale to the conflict. Only once toward the very end is there an angle showing a large crowd of thugs at one time; otherwise, both because of poor camera-blocking and because Lee encounters the bad guys in waves, you really have no idea how many foes he’s facing at one time. On several occasions, the camera keeps so tightly on Lee you don’t know there’s anyone else in the room at all until one of the hero’s limbs lances out and strikes someone.

The poor execution mutes the concept of what it should be… and again, Bruce Lee is so perfectly invincible in the world of this movie it probably wouldn’t have been thrilling even if it had been shot better. Look at more recent scenes like the dojo encounter in Jet Li’s Kiss of the Dragon or the famous hammer hallway rumble in Oldboy if you want to see this sort of scenario done right.

As ever, the entertainment value is just in watching Lee’s dazzling speed and power. He strikes with sudden wild ferocity of a coiled snake (incidentally, Lee did use a poisonous cobra as an improvised stealth tool just prior to this scene), taking down each thug with ease. Eventually they start coming in with weapons, but he simply disarms them and uses them himself.

"Great, we just made him MORE dangerous!"

“Great, we just made him MORE dangerous!”

First a bo staff, then two smaller sticks, and finally Lee’s signature nunchaku. Curiously, he spends more time twirling those around to scare a bad guy than he does actually using them to take down opponents. Considering his remarks about O’Hara’s board-related antics, Bruce is oddly hypocritical when it comes to showing off.

The only other bit of interesting incident is when the fight wanders down to where Han’s prisoners/experimental subjects are being held behind bars. They provide Lee with some help by seizing guards who get too close to their cells, but it’s not like he needed it.

The fight ends when Lee is trapped between several slamming steel doors. Lee sits down resignedly to await his fate.

"I just took down like 50 guys and I get defeated by a DOOR?! fml"

“I just took down like 50 guys and I get defeated by a DOOR?! fml”

You always have to wonder about what guys through the minds of henchmen in movies like this: “Hmm, I just saw this unbeatable superman mow through 30 of my colleagues, should I rush in at him too? Sure! One of us HAS to get lucky and it might as well be me!”

8) Roper vs Bolo

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After Han captures Lee, he brings him to the tournament grounds, and demands that Roper– who he’d been courting as an employee– execute him. After some hesitation, the cocky American decides there are limits to his sleaziness, and he refuses. Incensed, Han has Bolo fight Roper, instead.

As the hulking fighter approaches, Lee moves as if to help, but Roper gestures him away, preferring to handle this himself. Pretty gutsy, if not suicidally so.

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“You sure about this? I mean, you can see it’s Bolo Yeung, right?”

Their fight is the most entertaining one so far. They have a very solid back & forth, especially at the beginning. But soon Bolo’s strength advantage puts Roper on the ground, and Bolo pins him in an arm lock. Roper resists but he’s held quite tightly, and it looks like only a matter of time before his arm breaks. However, the plucky gambler takes the unusual step of biting Bolo’s leg, which lies conveniently near his mouth. Considering how much pain it puts Bolo in, and how he’s limping a bit after he finally lets go, Roper might actually have chewed some flesh right off.

But an hour later he was hungry again BECAUSE BOLO IS CHINESE GET IT

but an hour later he was hungry again BECAUSE BOLO IS CHINESE GET IT HA HA

When they both get back up, Roper presses his advantage, but Bolo still comes back strong, at one point throwing him down with an overhead press. Eventually, Roper is able to wear him down with repeated, rapid strikes to the face, and finishes him with a deadly combo ending with a kick to the nuts. Down goes Bolo. Freddy Krueger will avenge him.

This one’s a lot more fun. It’s fairly quick but neither is it too drawn out, and is relatively varied in terms of content. Saxon acquits himself well and all kidding aside, between his performance and the choreography you can actually buy him being able to defeat this massive warrior. Indeed, for most of the fight it seems like either of them really could win at any second– a crucial ingredient in crafting a suspenseful battle.

“Okay, but this is just one of my early roles. Surely I won’t continue to be known as the big hulking kung fu fighter who loses to inferior white guys, right?”

“Okay, but this is just one of my early roles. Surely I won’t continue to be known as the quiet villain who loses to inferior white guys, right?”

Bolo’s boss, obviously, is furious about the outcome, so this segues directly into….

9) Free For All

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Han starts barking out orders and having several students attack Lee and Roper at once. This goes about as well as you’d expect, but Han just keep sending in new ones. Hilariously, he keeps picking out random students by name, when it would be quicker and more likely to succeed if he simply said, “Everyone, attack those two!”

Since the heroes are effortlessly mowing down these goons left & right, this is conceptually similar to the underwhelming sequence of Lee in the dungeons, but it actually works a lot better. The camera pulls back enough so that we get a real sense of the number of enemies the heroes are facing, the takedowns are a bit more complex than just one or two blows, and the whole thing is faster, looser, more fun.

Unfortunately Lee & Roper merely fight as discrete units rather than actively cooperating, though they get the job done just the same. The sheer amount of foes might have overwhelmed the pair eventually, but we’ll never know because early into the encounter, a British mole within Han’s organization springs all the prisoners and sends them to even the odds. Now it’s total chaos.

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A MAAAAAAADHOUSE

The film takes a little bit of time, but not too much, to savor in this free-form carnage. We see Lee & Roper continue to stomp away, but director Robert Clouse also takes the time to highlight a few other moments of combat amongst faceless fighters of either side. It’s pretty darn cool.

Eventually, Han decides it’s time to join in on the action, and he gets his bear claw. Not the pastry, an actual bear claw. His iron hand is detachable and can be replaced with several other alternates, one of which is a bear claw with fur and everything. He and Lee eye each other amid the chaos.

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Bruce Lee making this face at you is a more surefire guarantee of your death than seeing the Grim Reaper with a rocket launcher.

10) Lee vs Han

Wasting little time, the two have a great battle outside for a little while, with Han’s uncanny agility actually giving Lee some trouble at first. After the villain takes a fall and loses his bear claw when a missed swing embeds it in a wooden board, Han hightails it out of there while Lee is briefly distracted by a random goon.

He flees back up to his office, where Lee quickly catches up to him just as he’s attaching an even more deadly claw: an all-metal one with four knife blades. Lee is unfazed by the Wolverine-wannabe and coldly informs him “You have offended my family, and you have offended a Shaolin temple.” SICK BURN. The melee continues outside unabated but no one else has followed them to this odd little office/trophy room. Now it’s just Lee against Han, solo.

Lee mostly sticks to long-range attacks here and doesn’t follow up most of his successful strikes, in order to stay away from the claw. Still, Han gets in a few slashes on his face and torso, though they’re mostly just on the surface and Lee is clearly the superior. He’s able to pull off this classy move where he doubles Han over, puts him in a headlock, and delivers a scorpion kick to his head. It’s almost as painful as it is insulting.

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He also gives Han a close-up view of his butt. Rude.

Even crazier, Lee executes this wild double-trip thing where he slides his whole body in to attack one of Han’s legs, then, while Han is off-balance, Lee pivots his whole body and kicks Han’s other leg from the other side. It’s completely bonkers and I love it.

Knowing he’s losing, a dazed Han seizes a spear from a nearby statue, but it’s of little use and only ends up embedded in a nearby wall. Said wall turns out to be a revolving door– a hidden entrance to Lee’s private hall of mirrors where their showdown finally ends.

This is the other iconic part of the movie and it’s just so weird. Why does Han even have this place– did he have it built for just such an occasion? If so, that’s amazing. Also, I don’t think I’ve even been to a normal, non-supervillainous, funhouse hall of mirrors– are they as disorienting as the movie makes them seem?

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Yeah, that’s definitely a stuntman as Han and not Shih Kien.

It certainly is plenty disorienting to Lee, almost cartoonishly so. He advances cautiously everywhere he goes, not knowing which Han he’s seeing is real and which is the reflection. The hero’s confusion defies believability at a few points, because he does manage to stumble into the villain a few times and nail him, but then somehow can’t find him again a mere second later. Is Han disappearing into the mirrors somehow, like by magic or something? It almost seems that way.

Also triggering your “come ON!” alarm is the point where Han is able to sneak right up behind Lee and rather than deliver a killing stroke– he really does have him dead to rights– instead opts for a light slash on the back of his shoulder. Maybe next time aim for an artery, dumbass.

As with the big underground brawl, this is a great concept but somewhat underwhelming in execution, not to mention repetitive and overlong. There are only so many times you can watch a dozen refracted images of Lee sidling forward an inch at a time while a dozen refracted Hans sneak up behind him.

The whole thing comes to an end when Lee remembers his master’s advice about an enemy using “illusions” to win battle (a piece of wisdom that seems suspiciously apt for the bizarre uniqueness of this encounter), and he smashes every mirror he can reach. This allows Lee to easily find the Freddy-wannabe and kick him hard enough to impale him on the spear he’d left sticking through the wall.

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Schwarzenegger would have found a great way to make a “seven years’ bad luck” pun here.

Bye bye, Han.

In the end, though Enter The Dragon is highly flawed and disappointing, it’s hard to hold that against it. Since the film was such a breakthrough in so many ways (not the least of which was it being the first Hollywood production of an authentically Chinese martial arts film, a clash which accounts for much of its awkward sensibility), it pioneered a lot of what was to come. Earlier I compared the dungeon fight unfavorably to similar battles in more recent films, but without the success of Enter The Dragon and Bruce Lee’s legacy, it’s doubtful the scale of action would be where it is today. It’s the perfect example of a movie that needs to be seen primarily within the context of its time, and, in what’s recurring lesson here at this site, proof that movies are more than the sum of their parts.

There were no grades given for the ten fights in the movie; it seemed unnecessary. But the top three worth truly singling out are, in order: the final Lee/Han duel, Roper vs Bolo, and the wild brawl which happens between the two. Strangely those happen to be the last three fights to happen– a rare treat for such a succession of excellent bits to happen one after the other. Wataa!

Coming Attractions: It’s time to go back.

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