ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
Only something very special could have halted Bruce Lee in the middle of shooting his second directed film GAME OF DEATH. This was an offer by Warner Brothers to work with director Robert Clouse and producer Fred Weintraub on a lavish (by Hong Kong standards) Hollywood martial arts movie. With a budget of $850,000, this was an unmissable chance to partner with a major western studio to truly go global.
Though it was tricky to shoot using American and Chinese crews on location in Hong Kong, using multiple translators to cover Chinese dialects as much as languages, it was a smooth shoot with some interesting behind-the-scenes stories along the way.
The plot revolves around Lee (his character name here), a senior Shaolin temple martial arts/philosophy instructor who is recruited to infiltrate a secret tournament run by ex-student Mr Han (Shih Kien), whom the authorities know is turning western girls into trafficked junkie sex prisoners amongst other things on his island. Lee’s master reveals that Lee’s sister (played by Okinawa black belt Hapkido champion Angela Mao) was involved and committed suicide rather than face Han’s menacing bodyguard Bob Wall. Lee accepts, seeing an opportunity for personal revenge as well. He must also contact the hidden agent Mai Ling on Han’s staff.
We are then introduced to three of Lee’s tournament opponents by way of concise flashbacks as they sail to the island. Roper (John Saxon, soon to be a genre name himself) is a reckless inveterate gambler who lives beyond his means but can kick ass - as he demonstrates when threatened over a bad debt on a golf course by some hoods. This also exposes some of the clunky dialogue the film suffers from intermittently: “It’s the dough Roper or we gotta break something”.
Williams is an ex Vietnam buddy of Roper and is hassled by racist cops. He is played by middleweight karate champion and future genre star Jim Jones, giving a new touch of Blaxploitation to the mix which he would later parlay into his own run of martial arts vehicles such as BLACK BELT JONES and BLACK SAMURAI. He’s also allowed to a smattering of social commentary by reflecting on the universal poverty shown by the junk families in the harbour: “They don’t live so big over there. Ghettoes are the same all over the world. They stink”.
Parsons, (Australian martial arts champion Peter Archer), is a bully-boy New Zealand competitor and soon falls foul of Lee by spoiling for a fight while they are still on the incoming boat. Lee coolly describes his technique as ‘fighting without fighting’ and playfully proves this by tricking Parsons into boarding a sinking lifeboat which is then pulled behind the ship for the rest of the trip.
Once on the island, the fighters are soon shown the ‘excellent sense of hospitality’ of Mr Han in a lavish banquet where our host makes a brief appearance. Kien makes an excellent James Bond-style villain with his supercilious elegance, white moggie and black leather gloves. These conceal a charming propensity for snap-on weapons, causing Williams to remark in their later fateful duel: “Man, you come right out of a comic book”.
The whole movie has the international gloss and form of a Bond film and benefits enjoyably from that influence. Interestingly, this in turn feeds back; just as LIVE AND LET DIE shrewdly cashed in on the Blaxploitation wave in the same year, the very next Bond film THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN would be inspired to catch the new kung-fu wave with its plot.
During the resulting tournament bouts, Parsons is soon dispatched as is Williams shortly after at the hands of the villain when he won’t play ball. (That’ll teach him for taking so many of the hookers offered as another part of Han’s hospitality). Roper is shown the bowels of Han’s lair where the true workings of the island’s opium factory are revealed. He claims to be on ‘board’ with the evil plan but this is only a tactic.
The momentum now picks up in the lead-in to the climax. In successive bouts Roper defeats the unusually large Asian henchman Bolo (Bolo Yeung), and then Bruce, who’s been somewhat maginalised whilst casing the joint at night, steps in to destroy Bob Wall. This fight is particularly gritty as Wall’s frustration comes over well (and much more effectively than his face-pulling in his locker-room fight with the Bruce stand-in during GAME OF DEATH). Thwarted by his opponent, Wall is so incensed that he shatters two wine bottles and illegally makes to kill Lee with the broken pieces. Bruce stamps him to death and famously portrays spiritual regret in a lingering slow-mo facial expression. Here, the taking of any human life is no cause for triumph no matter how deserving the vanquished may be. Trivia fans may like to know that during this sequence, due to a crew member’s preparation error, Bruce suffered a severe tendon cut between his thumb and forefinger that stopped him filming for several days. (Hong Kong effects technicians didn’t know about sugar glass back then).
All hell breaks loose and a total of 200 students and agents fight it out on the lawns. Amusingly, as Han orders his men by name to rush the heroes, he calls one of them ‘Won Lung’. (And I thought the brilliant ‘Fistful Of Yen’ in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE was the only parody).
Bruce goes underground to battle his way to the big man. Along the way, he makes use of a cobra which again caused a real accident on-set by biting Bruce. Fortunately, the snake had been de-venomed but it still managed a painful bite. Look closely during the henchmen fights and you’ll spot a fledgling appearance by superstar Jackie Chan – he’s the guard whose hair is grabbed and then his neck broken by Bruce near the prison cells.
Eventually, it all boils down to the celebrated mano-a-mano fight between Bruce and Kien in a hall of 8000 mirrors on set (no mean feat in filming due to the need to avoid camera reflections). The villain snaps on a bear claw and later a metallic one to injure Bruce. Our hero suffers from the disorientation caused by the mirrors, but then he hears the sage advice of his mentor from the beginning: “Destroy the image and you will break the enemy”. Bruce shatters many of the reflective surfaces till he impales Han on his own spear against a revolving wall.
In a nice coda, back up top Bruce wearily exchanges a thumbs-up of acknowledgement with Saxon as the authorities arrive to deal with the battlefield of carnage.
One final story that emerged from the shooting and confirms Bruce’s status and respect involves the tournament scenes featuring the many extras (and is told by Linda Lee Caldwell on the Iconic Arts DVD interviews she did for ENTER THE DRAGON). A troublesome supporting artist continually taunted Bruce in front of the others, denigrating him as a soft movie-star rather than a genuinely awesome exponent of martial arts. Whereas Bruce’s development normally rose above the need to prove himself, he was concerned that unless this goading was addressed, he would lose the all-important compliance and respect of the extras needed during their scenes. He chose to bring down the man in front of everyone and within just thirty seconds playfully demonstrated his prowess without loss of face or any injury to either party. Enough said.
Tragically, Bruce Lee never saw the release of ENTER THE DRAGON, the greatest project of his life. He died a month before its release. Leaving aside the demeaning conspiracy theorist musings, his tragic sudden death was due to a cerebral edema triggered by a fatal allergic reaction to a prescribed pain-killer.
Although his earlier GAME OF DEATH fight scenes were released (in butchered form) five years after his death in the horrendously disrespectful cash-in, I preferred to discuss his films for my blog in the order in which he actually filmed his work. I feel this is a much fairer and more truthful tribute to him and allows my retrospective of his amazing contribution to action cinema and Chinese cultural recognition to end on a high note.
I’ll leave the last word to Bruce himself. When asked to compose his own epitaph, he wrote:
IF I SHOULD DIE TOMORROW
I WILL HAVE NO REGRETS
I DID WHAT I WANTED TO DO
YOU CAN’T EXPECT MUCH MORE FROM LIFE