Monday, September 10, 2012

"Enter the Dragon" (1973)

Note: I originally wrote this review on Facebook in 2009.  I'm reprinting it here, as I plan to do with a number of other reviews I did before starting this blog.  

Starring Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Kien Shih
Written by: Michael Allin
Directed by: Robert Clouse
Rated R - Violence, brief nudity
Running Time: 98 Minutes

Bruce Lee stars in this 1973 martial arts flick that has become legendary in the Western world. Lee stars as, well, Lee, a martial artist recruited to spy on a mysterious crime lord holding a tournament on his private island near Hong Kong. They suspect he deals in opium, and even slavery, but can't prove it. The martial arts tournament is the perfect way to get someone on the inside, and to contact an operative already in place there. Lee accepts, discovering that the man responsible for his sister's death will also be on the island.

Meanwhile, two US Army buddies, Roper and Williams, each find themselves on the way to the tournament for their own reasons. Roper has vast gambling debts he can't pay, and Williams is a wanted man after defending himself from a couple of racist police officers. These three men each have their individual paths that take them through the rather minimal story, and considerable screentime is given to each.

And the plot is rather thin, here. This is not to say that the film is poorly written, just that the setup is simple. It is the execution of this simple story that brings out so much entertainment. There are some true moments of wit, and a lot of time is spent on following the characters around the island and the various distractions from the tournament that it provides. Lee is singularly focused on his mission, while Roper and Williams find themselves entangled in a culture of excess and luxury.
'Enter the Dragon' is entirely a product of its time - there's no way around it. From the music to the costumes and hair styles, this is absolutely the 1970s. While other films can sometimes feel timeless, 'Enter the Dragon' will always be the 1970s. This provides a good deal of chuckleworthy moments, 30 years down the road, and a lot of the production can seem quaint because of it, but there's one thing that overcomes any limitations and makes the whole exercise worthwhile - Bruce Lee and his fight sequences.

It's simply no wonder this man is such a legend. He has an intensity, a ferocity that is unmatched in this film, and likely anywhere else. The fights in the film are like Lee himself - they happen in short, brutal, quick bursts. The man literally has two speeds: Nothing and Kill. Each and every fight in the film is a joy to behold. They're short, to the point, without a lot of the flair that would become popular in modern films like 'The Matrix' (though, to be fair, those fights were meant to be more of a comic book style). But the moves and the speed are great fun, whether it's the tournament fights, or the outright battle at the film's climax. His vocal mannerisms, though perhaps oft-lampooned, just enhance the viciousness of his attacks.

Lee also displays a natural ease in certain scenes that is disarming. The man knows how to play a joke, and this range allows him to really carry the movie, even if he isn't necessarily given the most lines or even the most screen time of the three main players. For most of the film, though, he remains a steely presence - an iron fist with a singular mind on his mission. But those few moments of warmth and levity shine.

Robert Clouse directs with a steady hand. The fights all look great, and careful use of slow-motion lets of really savor some of the harder hits. The hall of mirrors finale is a suitably tense affair, though I won't lie that I kind of wish I'd seen a bit more of Lee taking on the hordes of Han's army or a couple more opponents that are really up to his level. Still, there's enough martial arts action here to keep me satisfied. On the whole, 'Enter the Dragon' has deservedly become a martial arts classic, and the legend of Bruce Lee is well served and honored in this fine entry.