Monday, 16 July 2012

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Without being an enthusiast or anything, I more or less get the appeal of kung-fu movies. Kicking ass, fine. Exotic locales, dandy. Bare-chested Bruce Lee, no problem. But as much as I was fully geared to love it, I'm not so sure that Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973) really earns its status as a cult classic.

Bruce Lee's fashion sensibilities are offended by last season's yellow gi.
Enter the Dragon follows the unimaginatively named Lee (Bruce Lee), a Shaolin monk turned detective, as he investigates a drug-trafficking and prostitution ring run by the enigmatic Han (Kien Shih). Han has conveniently decided to hold a martial arts tournament at his island headquarters, so Lee, who is ripped in places I didn't even know people had muscles, has a watertight alibi as a contestant. Lee finds evidence of the drug kingpin's wrongdoings and calls the police. The police come. Lee kills Han, and the day is saved. The End.

The Wikipedia article on Enter the Dragon doesn't even have a section on "plot", which is a good indicator of the kind of film you're getting into. It's kung-fu as porn: things do happen, but they only happen so that we can see as much kung fu as possible, as quickly as possible. Motivations for the characters are halfheartedly supplied, then quickly forgotten about. We never find out what happens to the kidnapped girls Han is trying to sell as sex slaves, despite the fact that it is largely on their behalf that Lee undertook his investigation to begin with. Similarly, backstory about Lee's sister, who committed suicide to avoid being raped by Han's henchman, is squicky not only because it turns the film into a revenge-fantasy-by-proxy but also because it feels emotionally manipulative. "How can we make the audience care? I don't know, let's throw in a sexual assault." Color me bored.

Enter the Dragon gets a 2/5. Required watching if you're into action flicks, but not what I'd call a masterpiece. Nostalgia is a potent drug, but if you lived in 1973 and this movie came out tomorrow, would you love it? Really? I suspect that a large part of Enter the Dragon's lasting fame has to do with Bruce Lee's hypnotic star power combined with the overlap of its release with his mysterious death. As in the equally over-hyped Rebel Without A Cause and The Dark Knight, a killer performer's real-life demise creates powerful, and lasting, box office. Am I a cynic?

Williams knows kung fu like the back of his hand.
SCENE STEALER: When Williams (Jim Kelly) is introduced, Enter the Dragon's vaguely Asian score shifts abruptly into the bass and wah-wah pedals of vintage blaxspoitation. It's a good metaphor for the way Williams -- another competitor in Han's island tournament -- takes over every scene he's in: romancing ladies, kicking racist cop ass, and generally deserving a (better) movie of his own. Williams is eventually dispatched by Han, but not before getting in these famous last words:

HAN: It is defeat that you must learn to prepare for.
WILLIAMS: I don't waste my time with it. When it comes, I won't even notice.
HAN: Oh? How so?
WILLIAMS: I'll be too busy looking good.

I hope when my time's up, I say something so profound.

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