Friday, May 25, 2018

Enter The Dragon

The last film Bruce Lee completed in his lifetime — he died three months after the end of production — is by far his best. One of the greatest action movies of all time and certainly the greatest American martial arts film, ENTER THE DRAGON is enormous fun, a mixture of chopsocky and James Bond spyjinks. Released the month after Lee’s July 20, 1973 death at the age of 32, the Warner Brothers release was an immense hit and would have opened a lot of doors in Hollywood to Lee.

Written by Michael Allin (TRUCK TURNER) as a live-action comic book and directed with great energy by Robert Clouse (DARKER THAN AMBER), ENTER THE DRAGON is based around the tried-and-true premise of a martial arts tournament. British Intelligence urges Lee (Lee) to compete as a cover for his true mission: gather evidence against the tournament’s sponsor and owner of the private island upon which it is held. The authorities suspect wealthy Han (Shih Kien), a disgraced former member of Lee’s Shaolin temple, of kidnapping young women, addicting them to heroin, and selling them on the white slavery market.

Joining Lee on his mission, once they discover their host’s corruption, are two more competitors: war buddies Williams (Jim Kelly), on the run from racist cops, and Roper (John Saxon), who needs money to pay gambling debts to the Mob. Though Lee is initially hesitant to use his considerable martial arts ability as a crime fighter, the mission becomes a personal one when he learns his sister (Angela Mao) was a victim of Han’s chief bodyguard Oharra (Bob Wall) three years earlier.

While Clouse’s filmography boasts a handful of decent action movies, it is Lee, who choreographed the fight sequences, who deserves credit for ENTER THE DRAGON’s most exciting moments. The film features one of the most famous action climaxes of all time: a tour de force stalk-and-slash between Han, who wears a four-”fingered” claw on one hand, and Lee in a house of mirrors. Another great moment finds Lee taking on about fifty henchman in an underground corridor (one of them is Jackie Chan; he also fights in other scenes Bolo Yeung and Sammo Hung). Lee’s acting is good too. He’s relaxed and has good chemistry with Saxon (basically a co-lead, to Kelly’s chagrin). And while handing out praise, don’t neglect composer Lalo Schifrin (BULLITT), whose exotic score captures the flavor of Allin’s colorful story and Clouse’s spirited direction.

Before shooting ENTER THE DRAGON, Lee began directing a passion project, which he was unable to complete while alive. Clouse later took over direction using a Lee impersonator, and GAME OF DEATH was released in 1978. It is correctly regarded as an abomination, except for the few fight scenes featuring the real Lee, and is an unfortunate anticlimax to the screen icon’s legend. ENTER THE DRAGON is a masterpiece.

No comments: