When any Asian action star finds a certain level of fame abroad, it’s practically inevitable that he (or, in a few cases, she) will eventually make the trip to Hollywood. It doesn’t always work out. In the last few years, Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais have made some small inroads. Jackie Chan became a huge crossover star, but only on his second attempt, in the mid-’90s; his first try, with 1980’s The Big Brawl, was a resounding flop. Jet Li did pretty well for himself. Donnie Yen has mostly stayed away, other than some smaller, more exploratory roles. Takeshi Kitano made a movie with Omar Epps. Chow Yun-Fat was reduced to mustache-twirling in the worst Pirates Of The Caribbean movie.
Enter The Dragon came before all of that. Bruce Lee’s fourth and final movie as a kung fu star was the only one he made in English, with an American director and American stars. It’s still, at least partially, a Hong Kong movie, with the whole thing being filmed in Hong Kong and Golden Harvest boss Raymond Chow serving as co-producer. But it’s very much a Western take on the kung fu movie, which was then a genre in its infancy. Lee had only been a movie star for two years, and the craze-starting The Chinese Boxer was just three years old. And so Enter The Dragon qualifies as a fascinating experiment, an attempt to see whether this new foreign subgenre will work in a more American context. Even though the movie was, in a lot of ways, a glorious mess, it turned out to be a huge success on just about every level.
Lee wasn’t exactly the auteur behind Enter The Dragon, the way he was with The Way Of The Dragon, the movie he made immediately beforehand. He ceded the director’s chair to Robert Clouse, who’d only made a few movies and who would never make anything anywhere near this iconic again. But Lee was still the primary creative force behind the movie. He co-wrote it, put together its great action scenes, and made sure to put his personality in there whenever possible. Early in the movie, there’s a weird scene in which Lee, talking to a young student, insists that the kid put “real emotional content” into his kicks, and then Lee spends the rest of the movie trying to show us what a kick with real emotional content looks like.
The whole movie is designed as a Lee vehicle. He gets to talk a bit about philosophy, about his idea of “the art of fighting without fighting.” He gets all the best scenes and coolest moments. He plays a character named “Lee,” and it feels less like a character and more like the man himself. Lee, of course, understood what he’d need to do in a movie for American audiences. He’d lived much of his life in the U.S., played Kato on American TV, and played small roles in a few American movies. He knew what he was doing. And with American production values, as well as an ice-cold funky score from the great Lalo Schifrin, Lee ended up looking cooler than he ever had before. (Schifrin was one of the MVPs of early action cinemas. I’ve written five of these columns thus far, and three of them are for movies with Schifrin scores.)
But even with Lee dominating the movie, there is some typical American-studio fumbling in there. When Lee and the movie’s other fighters arrive at the evil-mastermind fortress where they’re having their death tournament, they all sit down for a banquet in a room full of generic stereotypical Asian touches: acrobats, sumo wrestlers, a Chinese New Year dragon. The bad guy, Han, is practically a parody of the scheming Bond villain; he pets a fluffy cat and says stuff like, “We are investing in corruption.” And the movie dedicates a baffling portion of its running time to two heroes who are pointedly not Bruce Lee.
Honestly, though, Enter The Dragon got pretty lucky with those two heroes. One was John Saxon, an American character actor whose face will be familiar if you’ve watched enough old movies. Saxon had been working for years; he was playing juvenile delinquents in the ’50s. And he’d keep working for years afterwards, playing Nancy’s police-chief father in A Nightmare On Elm Street. Saxon had fun playing a gambling-addicted international-playboy type, and his screen fighting was better than anyone could’ve reasonably expected; it’s a bit weird he didn’t stick with kung fu movies after this. Meanwhile, the towering, beautiful, magnificently Afroed karate champion, Jim Kelly, who had never been in a movie before, was a total find. Kelly’s character was a black-power archetype, not really a character at all, but he had the charisma to carry it off, and I love the scene where, when offered a night with a prostitute, he picks four of them and then apologizes for not picking more. Kelly’s screen fighting was pretty impressive, as well.
Still, Saxon and Kelly were no match for Lee, in terms of screen presence or screen-fighting ability, and nobody watches a Bruce Lee movie to see the other guys in it. When we do get to see Lee at work, he’s at his absolute peak, taking out hordes of henchmen in an underground lair or fighting nasty, competitive one-on-one bouts against assorted heavies. The final fight scene, in which he takes on the intensely eyebrowed wuxia-movie veteran Shih Kien, is a hallucinatory wonder, with its hall-of-mirrors effects and with Shih putting increasingly dangerous stabbing weapons where his fake hand used to be. But Lee’s best fight is probably a brutal throw-down with the lanky American bodyguard Bob Wall.
Watching that scene, it’s a crime that Lee never got to fight the movie’s best henchman, the scarily muscled Bolo Yeung. (Yeung ended up losing, not remotely credibly, to Saxon.) Still, it’s not like you can watch Enter The Dragon and feel cheated by the fight scenes. Lee goes all the way in whenever he gets a chance, and the long brawl against the random henchmen includes many, many neck-snapping sound effects.
The plot, of course, is ridiculous. Lee is a Shaolin standout who, at the behest of some international police organization or other, takes part in Han’s island-fortress fighting tournament—all a front to recruit more people into his nefarious enterprises. Nobody uses guns, simply because Han doesn’t like them, though really because guns wouldn’t allow for those great fight scenes. We know Han is evil because he’s trafficking drug-addicted sex slaves and because he disgraced the Shaolin Temple and because his men tried to rape Lee’s sister, leading to her death. But Lee had the ability to sell all this absurdity with just his eyes. If he’d survived, he could’ve elevated so many otherwise-dumb action movies.
But even though Enter The Dragon was Lee’s last movie, it still offered plenty of clues where action movies would go in the years ahead. Jim Kelly would go on to blaxploitation stardom, kicking ass in movies like Black Belt Jones and Three The Hard Way. In Enter The Dragon’s opening scene, Lee fights a husky-but-nimble Shaolin fighter played by Sammo Hung, another guy who would find stardom in the years ahead. And in that long underground-lair fight, one of the many henchman who Lee kills is played by a very young Jackie Chan.
Other noteworthy 1973 action movies: The runner-up is the mean, bloody hicksploitation romp Walking Tall, which would make an icon out of the image of Joe Don Baker swaggering into a backwoods shit-kicker bar with a two-by-four in his hand and mean intentions in his eye. Its crusading-Southern-sheriff story would capture the national imagination and lay the groundwork for more Southern-targeted action movies in the years ahead.
Coffy and Cleopatra Jones introduced snarling female archetypes into the annals of blaxploitation film, and Coffy made a star out of Pam Grier, one of the flat-out toughest screen presences of the decade. Live And Let Die introduced a new James Bond, Roger Moore, and did its best to work in some blaxploitation touches. The Seven-Ups, a gritty New York cop movie, had one great chase scene, and it served as a sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection. White Lightning had a lot of good chase scenes, and it helped establish Burt Reynolds’ persona as a devil-may-care rebel yokel. Charley Varrick, a truly great crime movie, somehow made an action hero out of the perpetually hangdog Walter Matthau. Magnum Force brought back Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan character, this time correcting course by pitting him against some right-wing vigilante cops even scarier than he was. And Westworld was more a Western/sci-fi fusion than an action movie, but it did help introduce the idea of a killer gun-toting, human-looking robot, an idea that would power The Terminator a decade later.
Next time: Charles Bronson turns a vigilante murderer into a national hero in Death Wish, inadvertently inventing the Punisher in the process.