Before there were "Crouching Tigers" and "Flying Daggers" and Jet Li's, there was "Enter the Dragon" and Bruce Lee. I'm not sure if the movie was originally meant to be as tongue-in-cheek as it comes off today, but it's certainly as much fun as ever.
"Enter the Dragon" is notable for several reasons. For starters, this 1973 release was martial-artist superstar Bruce Lee's first big-scale, Hollywood-financed venture and his last completed film before his untimely death. Second, it was Lee's most financially successful film. Third, it is the movie most often credited with popularizing the kung-fu cinema craze; that is to say, without Lee we might not have had Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Yun-Fat Chow, Jet Li, and the rest. But most important, it's a darned good action yarn in the James Bond mold.
In other words, "Enter the Dragon" is not just a historical curiosity but a highly watchable and enjoyable commodity. It may not have the glamorous special effects of today's CGI epics, but Lee and his co-stars, John Saxon and Jim Kelly, more than make up for it in personal charisma (lots of it) and action sequences of balletic, if undeniably turbulent, grace.
Warner Bros. have issued "Enter the Dragon" at least five times now on DVD, first in a regular edition, then in a single-disc Twenty-fifth Anniversary Special Edition, then in a Twenty-fifth Anniversary Commemorative Edition, then in a two-disc Special Edition, and now on an HD DVD. Each time, things get better, but the buyer must have to wonder where it will all end. This latest HD edition obviously offers improved picture and sound, plus all of the bonus features found on the last SD edition. If that seems intriguing and you're a serious Bruce Lee fan, the set may of value to you.
The plot is pretty flimsy, but the movie is not about plot or story. Lee, whose name in the film really is Lee, is asked to infiltrate a martial-arts tournament on the island fortress of an evildoer named Han (Shih Kien), a fellow at the head of a drug and slavery empire. Han is a renegade Shaolin monk who has disgraced his and Lee's temple with his heinous behaviour and whose men forced the suicide of Lee's sister, so Lee has a double motive for bringing him to justice. With the help of fellow tournament competitors Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly, the 1971 international middleweight karate champion, looking like he stepped straight out of TV's "Mod Squad" with his period "fro"), Lee beats up an army of bad guys and defeats the evil Han.
The acting is rather stiff, but that, too, is part of the movie's charm. Watch the camera move in on Lee any number of times, while he strikes a pose, stares and glares. Although it's been parodied a hundred times in other movies, it doesn't make watching Lee do it any the less impressive.
Anyway, there isn't much need for great acting when the action is so spectacular. I am not a big fan of kung-fu movies in general, but the fight sequences in this one are as compelling to watch as modern dance. The clothing and hairstyles date the picture, to be sure, but that's of little concern. Like the James Bond series, it's the riveting action and the beautiful settings (most of them shot on location in Hong Kong) that matter. You can find more reflections of the Bond series in the music of Lalo Schifrin and in the villain's artificial, Dr. No-like hand and his Blofeld white cat; and you'll see literal reflections of Orson Welles's "The Lady from Shanghai" in the climactic mirror scene.
Additionally, among the cast are Bob Wall as Han's dastardly bodyguard, Oharra; Yang Sze as the monster martial artist, Bolo; Ahna Capri as Han's chief mistress, Tania; and Betty Chung as the beautiful secret agent, Mei Ling. Look, too, for brief, uncredited appearances by Sammo Hung Kam-Bo and Jackie Chan, and overdubbing of Han's dialogue by Keye Luke.
"Enter the Dragon" was also billed as "Long zheng hu dou," "The Deadly Three," and "Operation Dragon," take your pick. The movie received an R rating at the time of its release for some brief nudity and a good deal of punching and kicking. Today, I doubt it would rate more than a PG-13.
Trivia note: "Lee, high-strung and nervous about his most ambitious screen effort, endlessly rehearsed his kung fu routines. He damaged his hands as well as his ego during the fight with Bob Wall, when the latter came at him with broken bottles (real glass, not Hollywood breakaways); a miscalculated blow resulted in severe cuts that laid him off for a week. He was also accidentally bitten by a devenomed cobra in one scene. Lee's motions were so fast that some of his flying-kick sequences had to be filmed in slow motion so as not to look faked." --John Eastman, "Retakes," Ballantine Books, 1989.
Bruce Lee stood 5' 7 1/2" and weighed 135 pounds. Yet, over three decades later he remains filmdom's premier martial artist. Makes all of us little guys proud.
The previous, standard-edition DVD of the film was mastered in anamorphic widescreen at a fairly high bit rate, producing good color and depth. The picture was really quite lovely to look at, with only a bit too much darkness in facial hues, a small amount of natural film grain, and some tiny line jitters.
The new HD-DVD video can hardly be faulted. The HD screen size measures a ratio about 2.15:1 across my television, close to the same size as WB's edition before last; and the HD picture is quite good in almost every way. Colors are nigh-well perfect; definition and detailing are good; and artifacts are practically zero, excepting the same small amount of film grain as before. In side-by-side comparisons of specific shots, the HD image comes up cleaner, sharper, and better focused in every case, despite the SD image looking about as good it could look in standard definition.
In its very earliest edition, the movie's Dolby Digital 5.1 sound was somewhat harsh, nasal, and constricted, but in later remasterings, including here, the sound blossomed and opened up with a little more smoothness, especially noticeable in the film's music. The HD-DVD's Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 sound is, if anything, slightly clearer than the regular edition's DD 5.1. However, a minor bone of contention may be the mid bass, which played back through my Toshiba A1's 5.1 analogue outs seems tauter but not quite as pronounced as the mid bass on the DD 5.1 disc, a matter of a couple of decibels at most. It's enough that the regular DD 5.1 mid-bass output on the SD disc sounds a touch boomy by comparison. I preferred the DD Plus's better-controlled bass.
Although rear-channel activity and rear-channel separation continue to be restricted compared to most of today's sonic blockbusters, the DD Plus's clearer overall reproduction tends to make what little surround information there is more apparent. Then, too, much of the movie's audio is a tad limited compared to today's best blockbuster soundtracks. While overdubbed voices in DD+ still seem at times too harsh and bright for my taste, the bass seems tighter, and the dynamics seem a bit stronger.
The fact is, neither the older DD 5.1 audio on the SD edition nor the newer DD+ 5.1 audio on the HD-DVD edition entirely satisfies me. The SD track sounds softer and slightly fatter, the HD track a touch harder and leaner. Oh, well. It is not a new movie, after all, so I suppose we must give the sound a degree of slack.
This single-disc HD-DVD contains the same bonus items that appeared on Warner Bros.' most-recent Two-Disc Special Edition. Things start with an audio commentary by producer Paul Heller, who is not the most scintillating speaker of all time but provides some enlightening remembrances. Then, there are several worthy featurettes. There is "Blood and Steel: The Making of Enter the Dragon," thirty minutes long, made in 2003. There is "Bruce Lee: In His Own Words," nineteen minutes, made in 1998. There is a "Linda Lee Cadwell Interview Gallery," about fifteen minutes of relatively new interviews. There is a vintage home movie, "Backyard Workout with Bruce Lee"; and there is a short, 1973 promotional featurette, "Hong Kong with Enter the Dragon."
In addition, there are two fairly comprehensive documentaries. "Bruce Lee: The Curse of the Dragon," 1993, is eighty-seven minutes long and narrated by George Takei. It tackles, among other things, the question of whether there is any connection between Lee's tragic death in his early thirties and his son's mysterious death some twenty years later. The second documentary is "Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey," 2000, ninety-nine minutes long. A lot of this second documentary is taken up with footage from Lee's unfinished production, "The Game of Death." The regular bonuses conclude with four theatrical trailers for "Enter the Dragon" and over half a dozen TV spots.
As always, WB provide plenty of chapter selections, in this case twenty-nine, but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish language tracks; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Pop-up menus, a zoom-and-pan feature, and an Elite Red HD case wrap up the package. Also as usual, the HD-DVD played flawlessly, with nary a skip nor pause.
You might be a little wary of a studio reissuing a film so often, but this time the HD-DVD may be the exception. If you are not a fan of martial-arts films yet feel you need one example of the genre in your film library, "Enter the Dragon" is a good choice. Campy? Maybe. As Williams says to the villain, "Man, you come right out of a comic book." But it's still great entertainment and remains a first-class action thriller in first-class style, presented in the best possible picture obtainable in today's high-definition medium. Lee would have been happy.