Criterion Project #35: ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)

Enter the Dragon

Spine #N/A

Year: 1973

Director: Robert Clouse

I believe I’ve reached the first film I ever saw from the Criterion Collection. Certainly not the first Criterion disc I ever watched, but the earliest film that would eventually be released as part of the catalogue. Yes, even before such childhood stalwarts such as The Princess Bride and The Breakfast Club. It started with my dad, who was an admirer of kung-fu megastar Bruce Lee and would regale me with anecdotes of his mythical fighting ability and speed when I was very young. From that basis, I believe Bruce Lee was one of my first cinematic heroes and to this day Enter the Dragon is the greatest martial arts film I’ve ever seen.

Lee plays the role of, well, Mr. Lee, a member of the Shaolin Temple who is recruited by a non-descript agency to spy on the nefarious Han (Kien Shih), who defected from the Shaolin Temple to crown himself as ruler over a remote island fortress. Every three years Han holds a martial arts tournament by inviting the best fighters from around the world to compete. Apart from Lee, we’re introduced to Williams, played by martial arts champion Jim Kelly, and Roper, played by none other than seasoned genre veteran, John Saxon. I’m not going to lie, Saxon playing a role in this always makes me giddy. Not only because I love John Saxon, but because he’s performing in a kung-fu film with the greatest martial arts star the world has ever known. It seems mismatched, except Saxon appears to relish his role and it makes me all kinds of happy.

Each fighter is given a tiny backstory intimating why they’re fighting in the tournament, and why a couple of them might be persuaded to stay on the island to join Han’s seedy clan. Roper is a compulsive gambler in debt to the mob, while Williams is wanted for assaulting some racist cops. However, on top of his covert mission, Lee is out to avenge the death of his sister at the hands of Han’s bodyguard, O’Hara (Robert Wall).

It’s impossible not to note the film’s influence on the film adaptation of Mortal Kombat (1995). In each film a rickety boat shuttles a group of disparate fighters to a mysterious island tournament with an evil overseer. And the look of Mortal Kombat‘s hero, Liu Kang, very closely resembles Lee’s signature appearance in Enter the Dragon and their motivations of vengeance for a murdered sibling are almost identical.

I think my favorite part of the film, aside from Lee’s magnetic presence and the sheer entertainment value, is how much fun it is without sacrificing any of the dramatic elements. While many of the plot elements are one-dimensional and broadly stereotypical, they’re never cheesy or played any way but straight. For instance, the opening scene involves a sparring match between Lee and another member of the Shaolin Temple, which sets the table for the film’s look and style. As the fight is about commence, we get a rapid zoom in on Lee’s chiseled physique in his fighting stance, his eyes locked on his opponent like an eagle ready to strike. I think this a purposeful camera move, as the zoom not only introduces the character but also highlights the most important aspect of Lee and of the film – intense determination. There is no comical whoosh or facetious sound effect attached to the move, it’s resolute in its purpose. This zoom will be repeated multiple times later in the film, which is to the credit of director Robert Clouse who clearly recognized that Lee’s ferocity had the power to cut glass and expertly showcases it time and time again in this film. It lets us know that, while there are several intentionally humorous moments, mostly provided by Saxon, the film, the character, and its star take its content very seriously.

Another minor instance occurs when we’re being introduced to Williams. He’s shown walking through a martial arts school consisting of almost exclusively Black martial arts students and it isn’t scored with ethnic music or stereotypical lingo. It shows this school as a reality, even if only for a few moments, which I can’t imagine being a consistent presence in kung-fu films from the ’70s. Later on, Williams will remark on the state of the Hong Kong ghetto in relation to his own experience in low-income residential areas from back home. As a child I never thought anything about these scenes but watching them now really makes me respect the film and the direction they went (and should have gone further) with the Williams character. Now, as for the fate of Williams? That’s a different story.

Again, there’s nothing hokey about the film aside from some spotty dubbing, though it’s worth noting that this is one of only a couple appearances in which we hear Bruce Lee’s actual voice in one of his films.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the myriad of iconic moments in the film: the opening sparring match, Han’s entrance, Williams’ *ahem* sexual appetite and almost every one of his incredible line readings, Lee taming the cobra, his indelible slow-motion fatality expression at the conclusion of his fight with O’Hara, Bolo and Roper, Han’s Wolverine hand attachment, Lee’s epic fight with the guards featuring all manner of mesmerizingly skilled weaponry, and, of course, the legendary final melee and fight between Lee and Han in the room of mirrors. So many of these scenes and images are seared into my mind from obsessively idolizing Lee and this incredible film from so long ago. Watching it again was somehow both awesomely familiar and still hypnotically engrossing.

One last thing of note I can’t forget about is Lalo Schifrin’s incredible score. I procrastinated quite a bit this week and only managed to watch the film again this afternoon and here I am, several hours later, still bopping around the house with the film’s music in my head. It’s an incredible mix of styles that really sells every little element in the film, whether it’s the riveting drama, the rapturous action, the soothing sexuality, or the haunting presence of danger and death. The finale in the hall of mirrors is shot and scored as much like a horror sequence as any you’ll find in genre cinema. It never fails to give me goosebumps no matter how many times I’ve seen it. An absolute marvel of a musical score.

When discussing this film I’m not sure I could have been more hyperbolic than that. Maybe a little? It had been several years since I popped in Enter the Dragon and part of me was a little afraid it might reveal some warts I hadn’t considered, but I felt like a little kid watching it again. There are so many scenes and moments that stir that joy I experienced when I nearly disintegrated the VHS tape from constant viewings of the film so long ago. Most movies seem to change in my mind as I age farther away from when I first saw it, but this is one of the rare ones that seems to change my age back to a time when my dad first plopped me in front of the tv for what would become a transformative experience. Yeah, this one means a lot to me.

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