Once Upon a Time on Han's Island - The Awesome Cool of ENTER THE DRAGON
So we recently saw the new trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming new opus, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and for all of the incredible 60s imagery and darkly comic moments within the two minutes of footage, my favorite moment of the trailer has to be the brief appearance of Mike Moh as Bruce Lee. Moh not only appears to be the spitting image of the Jeet Kun Doh master, but I love that he seems to have the cadence of Lee’s voice down, which is somehow rare for actors who have tried to portary Lee onscreen in the past. While we’re still going to have to wait and see whether the actor is able to approximate “The Dragon’s” movements as well, it’s electrifying to see a project trying to bring Lee back to life in a way that seems to vivid and spot on.
Now like I said, this isn’t the first time people have portrayed Lee onscreen before, but the actor and martial artist has remained such an enigmatic figure that no one has been able to truly capture the magic of Lee’s presence. The man’s death more than 45 years later is still so mysterious that it manages only to intensify his legend, making his limited screen roles and time in the public eye all the more fascinating. For some, Lee has become an almost Wyatt Earp-like folk hero, as his status within the martial arts and cinematic worlds were about to truly explode like never before, right as he disappeared forever.
So to get back to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the trailer got me so excited solely based on this one sequence that I immediately went home to try and find something that would satiate my wanting to see Bruce Lee in action. While I am a fan of all of Bruce’s films (yes, even Game of Death to some degree), no film for me epitomizes just what was so great about the man as a screen hero and martial artist quite like Enter the Dragon does. Now, while I know that some purists will balk at the idea of ETD being Bruce’s finest moment, mostly preferring his Hong Kong productions and especially Fist of Fury (AKA: The Chinese Connection) in particular, I just can’t get over how much bigger Enter the Dragon feels compared to all of his other works, properly capturing what a mega-star he really was.
Yes, Fist of Fury is a very “classic” Hong Kong –style picture and does have individual sequences that showcase Lee in some of his best onscreen fights, but with its increased budget and the combined studio power of both Eastern and Western heavyweights Golden Harvest and Warner Bros behind it, Enter the Dragon becomes a blockbuster that few Kung Fu films have been able to match for excitement either at the time of the movie’s release or in the susequence years since. The simple fact that the film was co-produced and distributed by Warner Bros is sort of mind blowing in and of itself. Asian characters had a hard time even getting on American televisions at the time, with Lee himself having had to go back to Hong Kong to make his star known. And yet, here was a studio helping to make a giant martial arts film, with a Chinese lead, and widely distributing it in theaters across America and the world.
Of course getting a studio like WB involved also ends up bringing compromises to a film like this as well. For example, while Mr. Lee is undoubtedly the lead of the picture, the film also had to feature white and African American leads to try and appeal to a wider audience. As Roper and Williams respectively, I don’t think anyone would say that John Saxon and Jim Kelly aren’t memorable in their supporting roles, but their presence also seems to take time away from Bruce’s big moment of becoming an international mega-star. Every minute you’re not looking at Bruce Lee is an instance with that character and star that you’ve lost and won’t get back, because the man is simply electric every second he’s in the frame.
On the other hand I don’t want you to get me wrong, as I actually have quite a bit of love for Saxon’s very sardonic turn as the film’s gambling addict, Roper, but his scenes simply come at the sacrifice of much cooler characters. Saxon’s agents even negotiated to have his role increased in the film at the cost of getting more screen time for Jim Kelly’s Williams, and this ends up being a real shame considering how magnetic Kelly comes across in the movie and how important the actor was for African American representation as well in a martial arts cinema.
Kelly’s presence does feed into a big argument for WB’s involvement in the picture, though. One of Enter the Dragon’s biggest strengths is that I don’t feel like it’s a one-dimensional genre piece like so many of the various kung fu films of the period tend to be. With a bigger budget at its disposal thanks to the studio, the film could become so many more things to entice viewers. Not only is this is a movie about a man entering a martial arts tournament to get revenge, but Lee must also infiltrate the island to stop crime lord and shaolin dissident Dr. Han (Shih Kien) from distributing narcotics in order to help the British government. So no longer is Enter the Dragon simply a martial arts or revenge picture, but is now also a spy movie in the grand tradition of 007 pictures, complete with cat-loving psychopath. Jim Kelly’s portions of the film also have a distinct Blaxploitation feel to them, and may have accidentally created a martial arts subgenre within those pictures. John Saxon’s high roller is straight out of a mafia crime picture. So you have all these wonderful elements that shouldn’t necessarily work, but end up adding so much more fuel to the fire that is this movie.
At the center of it all though, is Lee himself. As a sort of coming out party that would have taken him to the stratosphere, Bruce Lee is a supernova of screen charisma and athleticism that martial arts cinema has never been able to replicate. The man commands the screen every instant he’s upon it, and his fight scenes are like no other. While I have a deep, deep love for martial arts cinema and its history, no one was making kung fu films quite like this at the time.
While I love the work of 1970s Golden Harvest such as Last Hurrah for Chivalry and One Armed Boxer, and I adore the iconic pictures of the The Shaw Bros from this period including The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Five Venoms, those films were all so very much influenced by the traditions of The Peking Opera and featured heavily choreographed, dance-like fights. Lee’s sequences in contrast, while balletic and beautiful, still come off as FIGHTS. These are wonderfully photographed and coordinated brawls that feature both superspeed violence and what are almost surrealist slow motion images of intensity and skill. Lee’s limbs seem to have the velocity of .45 magnum bullets and the power of a Mack truck, and you barely see them as they bash a man’s face in. There’s a scene where if you blink you’ll miss the dummy that has replaced Lee’s opponent, and it literally looks like he has killed someone with the most vicious kick ever delivered to another person. It’s only a half second of footage, but I swear it’s one of the most exhilarating moments in the history of action cinema.
I haven’t even mentioned Gilbert Hubbs’ gorgeous cinematography, whose job it was to capture not only Lee’s grace and power, but also the grit and beauty of Hong Kong. The shots on of the wooden boats in the harbor of the city are unforgettable and considering the moderate budget for the film ($850,000), Hubbs and director Robert Clouse make the most of what they have, especially when it comes to depicting the grandeur of Han’s island and underground lair and the depths of “Pearl of the Orient”. These shots go hand in hand with Lalo Schiffrin’s iconic score, which manages to at once capture a sense of 70s funk, martial arts mysticism, and the phantasmagoric quality of so much of the film’s dreamlike imagery.
In the end, Enter the Dragon is a martial arts epic that few have been able to match for grandeur or ferocity in the 45 plus years since its release. With its mixing of genres, that could easily serve as a precursor for what Quentin Tarantino was able to do with his own martial arts opus, Kill Bill, Bruce Lee’s final picture brought so many new flavors to a genre with an already rich tradition, but that had been largely ignored by many international audiences up until this time. Enter the Dragon is not only a landmark for diversity onscreen, but does so by telling a rip roaring tale of honor and revenge. With Hollywood slamming the door on Bruce Lee so many times in the past, here it was finally welcoming him with open arms, only to see his flame go out the moment before his true ascendance.