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Rather than being just a weak imitation of the crowd-pleasing films Bruce Lee made in China, Enter the Dragon (1973) - his first mainstream American film - captures all the excitement of his previous Hong Kong hits. In fact, it's often called one of the greatest martial arts films ever made and one reason is because people who aren't martial arts fans also enjoy it. By Hollywood standards, the film was a B-movie, yet every aspect of it from the acting to the direction was way above average for an action thriller. And, of course, the fight scenes are mesmerizing and unlike anything previously seen in American films. Enter the Dragon was a huge hit but sadly Lee didn't live to see this, dying just a few weeks before the premiere.
Putting an espionage twist on the familiar revenge theme, Enter the Dragon features Lee as a martial arts expert whose sister was killed by drug smugglers. The smugglers' island is heavily guarded which prevents Lee from easily gaining access until a police agency recruits him for a secret mission there. It turns out that the smugglers' boss is hosting a martial arts contest which allows Lee and two partners to visit the island as contenders in the championship.
The genesis of Enter the Dragon began with producer Fred Weintraub who thought Hollywood could make a good martial arts film. He convinced Warner Brothers to back the project and then hooked up with Bruce Lee's own production company, Concord. Michael Allin was hired as the scenarist (he would later write Truck Turner (1974) and the 1980 Flash Gordon as well as Zarafa, an acclaimed book about the first giraffe brought to Paris). The director was Robert Clouse, a two-time Oscar nominee for Best Live Action Short Subject (The Cadillac (1962), The Legend of Jimmy Blue Eyes, 1964). Supposedly Clouse was the only director who wanted the job. For added box office appeal, the producers signed up perennial B-movie actor John Saxon and karate champion Jim Kelly.
Because it was his first starring role in an American film, Lee felt tremendous pressure to succeed. In fact, he was so nervous that he didn't appear for the first three weeks of shooting. Producer Weintraub told writer Rick Meyers at the time that Lee was feuding with his old boss Raymond Chow and giving him a hard time as well. The first day Lee appeared, his nerves manifested themselves in a facial tic that required 27 takes to get a good shot.
Most of the extras were actual martial arts fighters and some of them couldn't resist the urge to take on the famous Bruce Lee, scuffles that invariably ended in Lee's favor. But Lee knew what he was doing. He staged all the martial arts sequences that made the film so memorable. One of his kicks was actually so fast that it was filmed in slow motion so that viewers could see it wasn't a camera trick; other shots were sped up. After principal photography was completed Lee added the Shaolin Temple scene that places Enter the Dragon in a cultural context, linking it more closely to Chinese traditions. Weintraub recognized Lee's immense talent and was planning to sign him for a second American film at the pay rate of one million dollars.
But Lee died July 20, 1973 of a brain edema. Enter the Dragon was released in the U.S. barely a month later and became a huge hit. Many of Lee's earlier Hong Kong films were then dubbed and released in the U.S. Other Hong Kong martial arts films starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Ti Lung and other Chinese stars began appearing in U.S. theatres, often presented in poorly dubbed and crudely re-edited versions. The Bruce Lee clones appeared as well, featuring names like Bruce Li, Bruce Le and the quite improbable Bronson Lee (sporting a Charles Bronson mustache; he was actually Japanese). It would be years before martial arts films would overcome the negative image created by this flood of third-rate product.
Today, kung fu fans and martial arts film buffs will find plenty of familiar faces in Enter the Dragon. The most famous have two of the smallest parts. At the start of the film Lee spars with Sammo Hung and at the end one of the men in the crowd fighting Lee is Jackie Chan (Lee breaks his neck). Yuen Biao, another friend of Hung and Chan's, also has a small part. You can also spot Chuck Norris, Lam Ching-Ying, the vampire-buster from numerous ghost films, and Yuen Wah, a perennial action star. But even the larger roles feature martial arts stars. Mr. Han was played by Shih Kien, who appeared in numerous films as the legendary Wong Fei-Hong (the same quasi-historical character that Jackie Chan plays in the Drunken Master films, Jet Li in the Once Upon a Time in America series and Donnie Yen in the Iron Monkey films). Angela Mao (as Su Lin) was one of the best-known of the many female martial arts stars and Bolo Yeung (as Bolo) has enjoyed a long career in this genre though the quality of his films can't compare with Bruce Lee's work.
Producer: Paul Heller, Fred Weintraub
Director: Robert Clouse
Screenplay: Michael Allin
Cinematography: Gil Hubbs
Costume Design: Louis Sheng
Film Editing: Kurt Hirschler, George Watters
Original Music: Lalo Schifrin
Stunts: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Robert Wall, Biao Yeun and others.
Cast: Bruce Lee (Lee), John Saxon (Roper), Jim Kelly (Williams), Kien Shih (Han), Ahna Capri (Tania), Robert Wall (Oharra), Angela Mao (Su Lin), Bolo Yeung (Bolo), Marlene Clark (Secretary).
C-98m. Closed captioning.
by Lang Thompson