Sunday 11 December 2016

1,001 Films: "Enter the Dragon" (1973)

Bruce Lee's English-language debut Enter the Dragon has become renowned as a defining exploitation feature, in spite (or perhaps because) of its funding by a studio: this was Warner Bros. attempting to cash in on kung fu and Bond movies by throwing substantial amounts of money at a hybrid of the two. Lee plays Lee, a Shaolin-trained fighter sent by British intelligence to take part in an international tournament on a remote island owned by Han (Shih Kien), the Blofeld-like criminal mastermind who just so happens to have killed our hero's sister. While there, Lee finds himself paired against American representatives John Saxon (who's trying to pay off gambling debts) and Jim Kelly (a crossover character from the emergent blaxploitation cycle, a Sweet Sweetback type on the run from racist cops). Fumbling through its exposition, the film seems to take an age to get to the opening bouts of the tournament, and after an initial skirmish, Lee - busy playing secret agent - has to wait almost an hour of screen time to get into his first proper punch-up.

Director Robert Clouse, an entirely deaf martial-arts specialist who spent his three decade career churning out video-rental standbys (Black Belt Jones, Game of Death, Gymkata, the China O'Brien series), spends this downtime ticking off various drive-in staples (the love interest is Ahna Capri, one of Russ Meyer's bosom buddies), and taking advantage of the studio backing to deliver hundreds of extras and mucho exotic travelogue footage, held together by Lalo Schifrin's gloriously of-its-moment score. The question remains whether this deluxe padding enhances or detracts from the essential kung fu elements. Lee, as mesmerising in the still before a punch or a kick as he is when in motion, could clearly hold the screen perfectly well by himself, doing his own thing; he spends far too much time here creeping around and wrangling snakes to keep the espionage plot spinning. Like a lot of studio-funded attempts to appropriate hot trash-culture phenomena, it's thus probably not as "pure" as Lee's earlier films; still, it has a great stick insect fight.

Enter the Dragon is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Warner Home Video.

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