Bruce Lee is rather unceremoniously written-off in Quentin Tarantino’s new film, which I finally saw and thought was otherwise terrific, but it seemed a little counter-argument was necessary for Midnight Screenings this week.
The paramount reason to discuss Enter the Dragon is, of course, breakout star Bruce Lee, who tragically and unfathomably died before he could see the film’s release and its astonishing success in the American market. (A success marking it as a traveling partner of the Blaxploitation films, tearing up the screen for a couple years in the early ‘70s before white America, as it is wont to, lost interest in capitalizing on foregrounded black screen presence for quite a while). At least, that’s the usual thing people talk about when bringing up Enter the Dragon. And although I’m wont to squabble with given assumptions about a film’s value (such assumptions tend to favor screenwriting and acting rather than visual style), in this case, the film’s reputation proceeds it: Enter the Dragon heavily hangs on Lee, one of the great screen finds, and one of the most abnormally effective screen presences in film history.
Lee’s own animalistic charisma is a peculiar combination of natural intuitive screen presence and almost monomaniacally cultivated bodily control, a kind of personal authoritarianism mixed with a sense of fluidity that begs fairly metaphysical questions about what embodying a style actually means. Can one’s relationship to one’s body truly approach the kind of sovereign, total mastery Lee clearly aspires to? Or, conversely, does control of one’s place in the world require a sense of personal plasticity, not mastering the world by stopping its rhythms and melding them to your liking so much as sensing energies in the world and flowing with them, redirecting them to your purposes temporarily with the knowledge that you still don’t “control” them? (This perspective is validated by Lee’s famous comments about making one’s body like water, emphasizing the reactive rather than the active).
While Enter the Dragon doesn’t resolve any of those questions, it’s absolutely magnetic to watch Lee simply exist in the world – one absolutely sees why Nicolas Cage cites Lee as an influence for his personal actorly style (which he’s been known to provocatively and hazily call “shamanistic” for dubious reasons), although Cage is, of course, more inclined to turn his pent-up plasticity outward in near-psychotic effusions of personal disobedience, as if refuting the world by traveling at a tangent to it. One absolutely detects in Lee a certain refusal of screen naturalism that radiates outward to Cage and, more importantly, throughout the screen. His energy bonds together what in Enter the Dragon could otherwise, charitably, be called haphazardly assembled plot threads indiscernibly thrown together without much discretion.
There is, of course, a plot, but it bears reminding that twenty-two years later Mortal Kombat sought fit to launder its non-existent video game narrative by replicating the narrative of Enter the Dragon wholesale. Which is to say, the screenwriters of Mortal Kombat felt that Enter the Dragon’s quasi-narrative was close enough to what would, by the early ‘90s, be video game logic that it would be a natural fit. And it was; Enter the Dragon’s narrative transparently exists as preparation for a series of fight sequences in the second half.
The screenplay even sees fit to throw – I assume because the filmmakers were anxious about the prospect of a film singularly fronted by an Asian actor (even one who had spent most of his life in the United States) – two other protagonists or player characters into the mix, especially for the first half: the white Roper (John Saxon), on the run from gangsters, and the African-American Williams (Jim Kelly), on the run from America, both of whom are old Vietnam buddies and both of whom have joined the same martial arts tournament Bruce Lee’s character Lee has. Located on the outskirts of Hong Kong, and hosted by the Bondian megalomaniac Han (Shih Kien), the tournament is also an obvious front for Han’s less legitimate businesses, and Lee has been hired by the British government to expose Han. This is fitting for Lee, who is also seeking revenge on one of Han’s chief henchmen for attacking and trying to rape his sister, which led to her defensive suicide.
That’s an efficient set-up, but Enter the Dragon, as directed by Robert Clouse, is (fairly remarkably) disinclined to keep it efficient, at least for the first half, which rather dubiously doubles down on the Bondian aspects of the production (and Lee’s spying on Han) to little avail. Once the film does go and get around to three men on an island, it also isn’t particularly inclined to structure its relationships to its characters in any especially evocative way. It just sort of cuts between them when it seems to want to check up on someone else, fearful that the audience will lose interest in the chosen character, none of whom are exactly characterized by more than their bodily motion.
But the soul of the film really emerges when it commits to being a lean, mean bruiser rather than an artificially elongated, elevated tent-pole. In effect then, while the film’s reputation proceeds it, Enter the Dragon works largely because it doesn’t know that: nothing in the back-half plays like a film freighted with importance or premeditated with intent to change the cinematic landscape. In point of fact, the film is a fairly grubby little thing, the kind of work you’d stumble upon at midnight while flipping channels (assuming people still do that). There’s no monumentality to any of it.
Once on the island, Clouse dispels any sense of ornamental exoticism almost immediately. The generally seedy atmosphere of the island construed not as a play on Asian otherness but as Han’s rather monomaniacally artificial self-styled egotism, a veil of disreputability Han uses to entice combatants and lower their defenses. This unsavory atmosphere bleeds into the generally unassuming vibe of the production. Nothing about the squalid, brutally unbecoming texture of the narrative and style permits the film’s cinematic importance to seep in and ruin the pugnacious vibe of the picture. It’s quite content to rub shoulders with the various B-pictures occupying multiplexes around the time, and it indulges in almost none of the expected fetishization or otherization of Hong Kong, treating the city as a close stylistic counterpart to, say, Shaft’s disaffected capitalist blight known as New York.
For the most part, that’s all she wrote. Michael Allin’s screenplay is almost conspicuously uninterested in trumping up the film’s narrative, and Clouse is no savant behind the camera, although cinematographer Gil Hubbs does compose a few solid geometric combinations with the design elements of the island and the flaring yellow of the outfits, and Lalo Shifrin’s typically fantastic score is one of his sharpest paeans to the early ‘70s cool. It doesn’t exactly amount to anything – Enter the Dragon is grotty and grisly in that order, and little more – but it’s a remarkably effective chronicle of the early ‘70s cinematic self-conception. And the fights – particularly Lee’s tour-de-force showdown against several dozen guards in the bowels of the facility and a feverishly unsettling, perspectivally-chaotic final duel in a hall of mirrors – are thoroughly lacerating early ‘70s cinema.
The final fight best reflects Enter the Dragon’s essence. Avant-garde films frequently mobilize the hall of mirrors to dry attention to perspectival-meditation and the illusory objectivity of cinema, to turn cinema’s gaze back on itself and implode the myth of film as a window into reality. Mirrors mimic the film screen, of our world and viewing it, albeit only through our gaze. They peer beyond the illusory reality of cinema into a realm where film is no longer innocent, or even legitimately able to access anything resembling “the real” at all. Even the recent John Wick films use mirrors to vaguely summon an awareness that cinema is always a con, an illusion, a series of thoroughly unstable, mutable images of a world. Survival can only be ensured (and not even that) for those who are most adept at mediating their own image, riding the chaotic waves of visual instability and uncertainty (rather than transcending that uncertainty) in hopes that one can control the fallibility of sensory experience, rather than being controlled by it.
Enter the Dragon just thinks the mirror would be a good setting for a fight. They have no analogic purpose. The fight works simply because the film makes the case that, yes, in fact, a fight in a hall of mirrors is cinematogaphically interesting, irrespective of its representational qualities. There’s no half-hearted striving for, say, a final duel between hero and villain who, via their visual selves being duplicated, blended, and refracted across so many false images, are “revealed” to be “more alike” than they each thought. There’s no sense that the film is blurring their reality and warping their countenance in service of a thematic point about the instability of their identities. Enter the Dragon isn’t interested in drawing attention to the effortful qualities of cinema, either of watching it or making it (or reminding us that cinema is made, constructed, fabricated, etc). In its breathlessness, and in its sense of inconspicuousness, it simply works, and it makes the case that that’s all it needs to.