Sunday, January 5, 2014

Movies I Grew Up With: Enter the Dragon

As a very young boy, I had three famous idols. The first was none other than Muhammad Ali. Back then, I was just taken in by his charisma. As I grew and learned more about him, he became one of the people I most admire. The second was O.J. Simpson. Okay, that one didn’t work out too well. Still, at the time he was a great football player and had a squeaky clean image. Third was the one and only Bruce Lee. He passed away when I was two years old. Two or three years after that is when I became aware of him. This was largely thanks to his most famous movie, Enter the Dragon. Like with my other heroes I knew nothing of the man, but boy did he make some cool movies. This one is the coolest of them all.

Throughout my life I’ve returned to EtD dozens, if not hundreds of times. I know for certain that I’ve watched it at least once almost every year since I was five. I’d gamble that most of those years I watched it several times. During my military days, I found a group of drinking buddies that enjoyed kung-fu flicks. Once a week for a while we’d gather and watch one. You’d be correct in assuming that I made sure this was the feature attraction a time or two. Each of my children had at least one night during their infancy where they were draped across my chest sleeping while Bruce kicked ass in the background. My nieces and nephews who grew up in a house where their mom practically nursed them with Steven Seagal movies were given their first look at a “real” kung-fu movie when they spent the night at Uncle Dell’s house. All the while, I made sure to tell them that Bruce Lee would beat the ponytail off of Seagal. No one was safe.

This past year has seen my son start to become a cinephile in his own right. Aside from the constant rotation of rented, borrowed and streamed movies in my house, I also have a DVD collection of roughly 700 titles. The boy, now sixteen, has started combing his way through them. About two weeks ago, he announced to me he was going to watch all of the Bruce Lee movies. It then dawned on me that I hadn’t watched EtD in 2013. Yes! My son gave me an excuse to keep the streak alive. I gleefully sat down to watch it with him.

If you’re somehow unaware of what this movie, I’ll give you the short version. Mr. Han (Shih Kien) has a private island off the coast of Hong Kong and is hosting a martial arts tournament. “British Intelligence” suspects that Han is also trafficking drugs and running a prostitution ring there. They recruit “Mr. Lee”, Bruce – duh, to go in undercover and investigate. Before actually going though, Mr. Lee finds out that Han’s main henchman, O’Hara (Robert Wall), is responsible for the death of Mr. Lee’s sister. Two big subplots run alongside this main narrative. One is about Roper (John Saxon), a white fighter and playboy type there in part to escape his gambling debts. The other is about Williams (Jim Kelly), a black fighter just there for the tourney. He had to deal with some racist cops before boarding his flight and just happens to be an old friend of Roper’s.

Right from the start, I remember why I keep coming back to this movie. First of all, everything Bruce Lee does is amazing. The opening sequence of him beating the crap out of a very young Sammo Hung just sets the stage for what’s to come. Hung had a pretty successful career as an actor including a starring role on the American cop series Martial Law, which ran for a few seasons beginning in 1998. He is now one of the most revered figures in the history of Chinese cinema and one of the most sought after fight choreographers in the industry. His work on the Ip Man movies is astounding. Lee’s one-on-one battle, if you can call it that, with O’Hara is an epic display of hand speed. The true highlight for me, though, is his battle with the guards. This is the very pinnacle of movie martial arts, only equaled by Bruce’s showdown with Chuck Norris in The Way of the Dragon. Lee choreographed both, by the way. During this scene one of the guards gets his neck broken. You probably won’t even look at his face, let alone realize who he is, but its some teenager named Jackie Chan. He was actually used in a few of Lee’s movies then he did one or two things you might know.

In addition to Bruce, John Saxon and Jim Kelly also shine. They add a sense of style and certainly an American sheen to the proceedings. While our hero is being elevated to a mythical stature, these other two are the guys we can relate to. They bring humor and they still get it done when it’s time to throw hands…and feet. Saxon went on to a long career. Kelly’s career in movies wouldn’t be nearly as long, but he became a Blaxploitation icon. This movie also introduced me to the great Bolo Yeung. He still scares me a little. Finally, Shih Kien as Mr. Han is one of the coolest villains ever. I say this even though I’ve now noticed some inconsistencies with his false left hand. As the movie progresses he switches it out for something sharper and more heinous several times. However, when we think it is just a hand we see him move the fingers.

In the decades since I’ve first seen it, I’ve come to realize that Enter the Dragon is not only a showcase for Bruce Lee’s amazing physical skills, but touches on the philosophies he’s become famous for as well. He waxes poetic on the ways of Jeet Kun Do, the style of martial arts he actually invented. No, in the movie he never calls it this, but if you’re familiar with Bruce’s ideas on fighting you’ll recognize it when he says things like “the greatest technique is to have no technique.”

My son had seen the movie before. He was much younger, and in recent years I haven't forced him to see it whenever I did. It was long enough ago that I covered his eyes during the several naughty parts. I did no such thing this time and we had a grand time watching. For him, the time since he last saw it made this like a first viewing. He is where I once was in regards to this movie. He knows nothing of Bruce Lee’s depth or incredible worldwide impact on martial arts both in the movies and in real life, aside from my blabbing during the film. He doesn’t care that EtD is such an achievement that in 2004 it was deemed “culturally significant” and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. He just knows that this is one cool ass movie. I hope he’ll sit down with me when I watch it again in six months or so.


  1. I loved the wonderful story you had with the experiences of this movie and I find it very cool that you have a movie bonding experience with your nephew when it came to Bruce Lee films. Also, thank you for giving me a link to this wonderful post of yours.

    1. I really appreciate your comment. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.