I don’t give a rat’s behind how many kung fu movies you’ve seen, or how many films over stylize martial arts these days so they look sexy. “Enter the Dragon” is, hands down, the best of them all. Period. End of story.
If only our reviews at Movie Metropolis could be that direct.
Seriously though, don’t fight me on this one. I mean, it’s Bruce Lee! Bruce Lee! Yes, that Bruce Lee! And he actually did his own stunts, and they were badass, and he made everything look easy to the point that you wished you would one day look like half the man he was on screen. Always graceful and slightly off kilter, one could argue that he singlehandedly changed modern American action films, and for the better.
Landing on Blu-ray this week from Warner Bros. is the 40th anniversary of “Enter the Dragon” in a very sharp looking box set that only makes me enjoy this classic story more than ever. And when you’re already enamored by a man, his ability, his art and the influence he’s had, that’s a mighty tall order to make go up even further.
“Enter the Dragon” is the final film that Lee appeared in prior to his death in July 1973. It is also the very first Chinese martial arts film to have been produced by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.) In 2004, “Enter the Dragon” was added to the National Film Registry, and still, 40 years after it hit theaters in Hong Kong and the United States, this is a fun ride. In fact, it’s really the only martial arts film I truly respect as a movie first, and an exhibition of strength, grace and power second.
Lee (Lee) is a Hong Kong martial artist who gets invited to a competition held on an isolated island by Mr. Han (Shih Kien), a banished fighter his teacher dismissed years ago for disobeying his oath. Lee gets approached by a British intelligence agent and is solicited to bring back some information on Han, who many believe is guilty of drug trafficking and prostitution. On his way to Han’s island, Lee encounters Roper (John Saxon), a slick-talking American gambler who has entered Han’s tournament for the financial potential, and Williams (Jim Kelly), a skilled Black activist who put down a few cops in self-defense.
As the tournament begins, Lee encounters an informant named Mei Ling (Betty Chung). When he learns she can’t help much due to constant supervision and drugging, he explores the place himself, only to discover a hidden warehouse where Han’s drugs are made. Things spiral a bit from there, with Williams having to account for disobeying Han’s strict curfew, Roper being offered but refusing a chance at leading Han’s illegal operations in the United States, and Lee kicking virtually everyone’s butt as he calls for help, dismantles the drug operation and avenges a family member’s death.
I realize I may have made “Enter the Dragon” sound more complicated than it actually is. Its simplicity is by far one of its best qualities. At 98 minutes, things move quickly enough to keep you interested but not so fast that you can’t follow what’s taking place. The film works hard to establish its characters early on so you will be able to better develop a relationship with them as they navigate their journey, and it’s not hard to see where the lines are drawn before anyone arrives on Han’s island.
Make no mistake: this is Bruce Lee’s movie first, and everyone else’s second. I’m not making this statement because Lee is a camera hog who wants to steal the spotlight from all around him, but rather because his performance is one of the best physically and emotionally charged approaches I’ve ever encountered. He operates with the greatest comfort level on camera, yet doesn’t overact when setting the tone for where “Enter the Dragon” is going to take its audience. He also manages to score some really good one liners during the film, perhaps the most famous of which was “Boards don’t hit back.” The next time someone goes out of his or her way to mess with you, just look at them and say that.
The supporting roles are pretty well executed, too. Saxon is a natural in fitting in with the tournament’s awkward structure. He’s unorthodox enough to make the role work in conjunction with Lee’s, but also displays his own humanity by the time “Enter the Dragon” ends. Kelly was a relatively unknown martial artist and actor prior to “Enter the Dragon,” but he was able to offset Lee’s discipline and patience with a more rugged and less conventional approach that lent the title important balance and perspective. As a trio, these three are well versed and lend one another critical traits that make the others around them better on screen. They fill their roles in “Enter the Dragon” rather well, especially for a film that really has its star buried in his skills above all else.
Of course, the action sequences are what many think of when they hear the title. And the combat is very, very well choreographed. It’s among the most authentic work I’ve seen, and that’s probably because so much of it was real. Remember, this was 1973. Long before “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Matrix,” “Enter the Dragon” had to do it the old fashioned way, and it succeeded. The timing between fights is also solid, as it allows the story to develop just enough so you can’t forget it, but not so much that you forget the reason you sat down to begin with.
Sure, compared to what we’re used to seeing in the 21st century, “Enter the Dragon” isn’t very flashy or modern. But who cares? It stands out, in my mind, because its action and its story are so good and work so well together. Now, don’t get me wrong, it really, really helps that Bruce Lee was on board for this. In fact, I doubt “Enter the Dragon” would have come anywhere close to where it is today without his influence. Thankfully, it was graced with his passion, skill and brute strength before his all too early passing.
“Enter the Dragon” remains one of the best action films ever made. It’s dynamic, simple and thoroughly effective. This special anniversary edition is a delight to fans who were looking for greater detail than ever before available, and from my perspective, it somehow makes a great film even better.
Given the fact that “Enter the Dragon” is turning 40 years old, the Warner Bros. transfer is quite good. During the film’s slow motion scenes, you can more or less count the beads of sweat dripping down Lee’s face. I suppose you could count the muscles in his arms, back and chest too, but since most of us will never come close to that physical prowess, and to avoid depressing, you may as well not. There are moments where the film’s clarity is questionable, but more of it is bright than dark, and the coloration holds pretty true throughout. The fighters all wear colorfully varying uniforms that pop from start to finish, and it’s fun to watch them maneuver through Han’s island in pursuit of a combat victory. The film’s 2.40:1 1080p High Definition video transfer is a vast improvement over the standard definition DVD special edition that I have buried in a cardboard box somewhere, and it’s a pleasure to see a film that relies on its visuals as much as this one have such a strong transfer to rely on.
You can imagine how important sound is in a martial arts film, and this one is no exception. Every yell, body part crunch and glass shattering noise rains through your speakers with excellent clarity thanks to the film’s English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack. There is more dialogue in “Enter the Dragon” than I remember from my most recent viewing (probably at least 2 or 3 years ago, I’m sorry to say), but like the fighting, it all comes through (some of it is a bit more consistent than others, but it gets better as the run time passes). I also feel the film’s music is very well placed, especially during its combat scenes, further adding to the important tense atmosphere director Robert Clouse sought to generate. More audio options are available, of course, including Dolby Digital selections for French (1.0) and Spanish (both Castillian 1.0 and Latin 2S). Subtitle choices are English, Spanish and French.
There are many featurettes detailing the film’s production, Bruce Lee’s emphasis on the mood and theme, an interview with Lee’s former wife Linda Lee Cadwell, a look at the filming location, a workout routing with Lee, an audio commentary and many production still postcards. Especially cool are the hologram that features Lee flinging nun chucks, an iron on “Enter the Dragon” patch and a limited edtion “Deputy of the Dragon” card handed out at the film’s premiere. It’s all cool stuff this time around!
A Final Word:
In case you haven’t noticed yet, I’m a big fan of “Enter the Dragon” and think it’s just dandy. It has more than its share of good things to put forward, and if you’ve ever heard the name Bruce Lee, you owe “Enter the Dragon” a (re)viewing. This is action filmmaking at its best, and the result is a title that has only gotten better with age.