Enter the Dragon
The grind house era was a period in the evolution of cinema that peaked in the late seventies. The mainstay of these movies was exploitation flicks, creature features and other cheaply made movies. One genre that was embraced in these movies that kept broken down theaters and drive-ins in business was the martial arts action movies. These movies mostly originated in Hong Kong and featured elaborately choreographed stunts frequently featuring gravity defying feats thanks to their expertise in specialized wire work. While many of the stars eked out a portion of fame within the genre only a handful managed to ascend to the exalted status of cultural icon. There is absolutely no doubt that one man has remained untouched for his true talent in martial arts, Bruce Lee. He was quite literally in show business his entire life with his first on screen appearance as an infant. Through his life he became the undisputed master of several forms of martial arts including founding his own school; Jun Fan Gung Fu. Many in the local martial arts community were extremely unhappy about his sharing the secrets of the arts with westerners. Part of his fame in the States was as Kato in the short lived, camp action TV series, ‘The Green Hornet’. For those of us that remember waiting in line during the original theatrical run it is disconcerting to realize his definitive film, ‘Enter the Dragon’ has just released its fortieth anniversary Blu-ray edition.
This movie is arguably the greatest martial arts film ever made. Considered ‘culturally significant’ it was inducted into United States National Film Registry for preservation. It was the first Chinese movie ever to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, Warner Brothers and remains the gold standard defining the genre. As a concession to the American backing a Hollywood character actor, John Saxon was prominently included in the cast giving it an international appeal not quite achieved by the majority of the movies of this type. Adding to the plethora of distinguishing aspects of the movie it is also one of the early appearances of a martial arts actor with a comic edge, Jackie Chan. Lee also wore the hats of fight coordinator and script doctor proving the extent of his talents. In a tragic turn this film would serve as the capstone of his career and core of his legacy. Bruce Lee died on May 10, 1973 while working on the dibbing for this movie.
Simply enough Lee portrays a martial arts expert in the Shaolin School. He is different from many of the others in his position with his combination of philosophical appreciation of martial arts blending it with the extensive physical prowess demanded to survive the arduous training. Lee was one of the masters who would not separate the mind and body to achieve the heights in martial arts. The foundation of the story is constructed by Lee receiving an invitation to a competition held on an island by a mysterious figure, Mr. Han (Kien Shih). Lee consults with his teacher who informs him that Han was once a Shaolin student but was dismissed with shame form the order. Lee is approached by an agent for British intelligence, Braithwaite (Geoffrey Weeks) who wants to recruit Lee for an undercover assignment. Han is under investigation for being a key player in a major organized crime syndicate specializing in trafficking in drugs, prostitution and other sundry illegal activities. Due to jurisdictional conflicts the case is difficult to nail down. Further hindering traditional methods of investigation Han is ultra-cautious banning firearms from his island. His martial arts school is a training facility for his own personal army used to protect his illegal activities. The Tournaments are held on a regular schedule to cull the field for the best possible candidates for his cadre of henchmen. In a plot device that would become a standard trope in the genre Lee discovers Han’s personal bodyguard, O'Hara (Robert Wall) was complicit in the murder of his sister Su Lin. This adds a now familiar spin on the martial arts films were avenging a sibling overshadows the action. Between this plot-point to infuse the story with a readily identifiable personal motivation that audiences could connect to. Many of the films in this genre that would support the grindhouses replaced a cohesive story with an ephemeral wisp of actual plot. This was not just a great martial arts movie it remains 40 years later as an important contribution to cinema as a means of artistic expression. Another addition to the genre here is the stereotype of the American amateur whose ego is disproportionately bigger than his abilities. This archetype is ideally filled by John Saxon as Roper the American playboy on a gambling losing streak who sees the tournament as his way out. This is especially important considering the sizable debt to the mob he is in no position to repay.
In the attempt to increase the appeal to the main stream American audience the amount of sexualized situations was increased albeit in a tame fashion general found in many of the action movies of the day and pale in comparison to the growing trend of portraying explicit nudity that was part of the seventies in movies. Lee was never lauded for his acting but his performance here was notably better than much of what would follow over the next decade. What sincerely makes this film a classic is the sheer poetry of Lee’s martial arts abilities, his trademark lean, ripped physique was capable of movements that did not require special effects wizardry to accomplish. He made it seem gravity was afraid to interfere with his stylized motion.
This fortieth anniversary high definition edition presents the film the way it should be experienced. The increased definition made possible by 1040p video is stunning. Not only can you marvel at the rippling musculature in flawless detail but the use of shadow and light is magnificent revealing details you would not have noticed no matter how many times you might have seen this movie before. The lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio brings out the power behind every punch and kick. It is well known that the movie was filmed without sound permitting greater latitude for the Foley artists and dubbed dialogue. This was one of the rare movies were Lee’s natural voice was used and now it is clearer than ever. The sound effects take on a crisp, resonating quality that makes listing to the film a visceral experience. This is not only a must have for genre aficionados but mandatory for anyone serious about movies.
Never Before Released Production Art