Wednesday 13 May 2020

I Blame Society #8: Enter the Dragon (1973)

(I'd warn you about spoilers, but hey, you've probably seen this already. You may already know that there's a lot in this film that's, eh, the sort of stuff you see in 70s exploitation films. Make of that what you will.)

Man, you come straight out of a comic book
Growing up, action movies and spy movies were always for me a sort of comfort food. Weirdly, I suppose, the thrills they supplied were sort of comforting, sort of safe, especially the older ones. I always associated these things with weekday evenings; there was always something on the telly after tea, about 6pm on BBC2 and Channel 4: the 60s and 70s spy-fi movies, and TV shows too, things like Battle Beneath the Earth (1967) or Our Man Flint (1966). The endless reruns of shows like Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. only cemented that. For me, the 60s and 70s action movie was inextricably linked to Cool Guys in Grey Suits performing Impossible Exploits, and Women With Amazing Hair and On-Point Eyeliner, and Wealthy Villains with Underground Bases and Uniformed Minions. Polo necks. Gun fights in corridors. Hidden elevators. Secret Plots. Gadgets. Bond was always the expensive, upscale version of that, but in the same way that, perhaps perversely, I harbour a fondness for films like Battle Beyond the Stars over Star Wars, I’ll always prefer the Groovy Spy-Fi Movie, every time. (Footnote: One of the things that so charmed me about Despicable Me (2010) was the way in which it based itself on spy-fi tropes – the hidden elevator, the underground lair, the superweapons, and the army of uniformed minions with the boss's logo on their jumpsuits, which was a joke lost when they got pop culture traction and became capital-M Minions in three more movies.)

I guess that in my head, because my first introduction to old-skool action films was the groovy spy-fi adventure, this became my access point, when I was a bit older, to Enter the Dragon.

Now, Enter the Dragon is a harder, more adult proposition than the boys-with-toys escapades of Derek Flint and Napoleon Solo. There is blood, here. Fists connect with brutal, bruising force and impossibly loud cracking noises. There is sexual exploitation, and the implicit threat of rape. And there is kung fu. Because of course there is kung fu, because this is the most famous film made that stars Bruce Lee, and Bruce Lee, lithe and swift and ripped like you would not believe, was, for all that he was only in four and a half martial arts movies (out of a career going back to early childhood with over 20 other movies in it!) is probably the most famous kung fu movie star in history. Enter the Dragon isn’t just a kung fu movie, it is the kung fu movie that counts, the beginning of kung fu movies in the English language, the end of kung fu movies as an obscure niche, the bottleneck between all the kung fu movies before Enter the Dragon and all the kung fu movies after Enter the Dragon. It doesn't even matter if it is all that good (and there are a lot of people who don’t think it is all that), there is no martial arts movie with as much pop culture influence, and none with the same degree of cultural importance. It matters.
But, in a zen move that Bruce Lee probably appreciated, Enter the Dragon gets to be the quintessential kung fu movie by being something other than a kung fu movie. Because while it is undeniably a martial arts film, it’s also a groovy spy-fi movie, which is how the film grabbed me, aged 16. There is a supervillain, with a private island and an underground fortress full of uniformed minions with the boss's logo on their outfits, and a weirdly convoluted way of undertaking a pretty simple agenda. There's a tip-top spy-fi styled theme composed by Lalo “Mission Impossible” Schifrin.

Our hero, Bruce Lee (playing a guy called Lee) gets hired by British Intelligence to infiltrate a kung-fu tournament held by reclusive criminal mastermind Han (Shih Kien). Han is the power behind a web of kidnap, sex trafficking and heroin, but he also likes kung fu, so he holds a tournament on his island every year, despite this being kind of bad for the whole secrecy and seclusion thing. Later, we'll discover that it's because he wants to find the biggest badasses and offer them jobs, which seems an odd way of going about it, but it makes perfect sense in the context of this movie, I suppose.

Lee agrees because he has two separate backstories. He's after Han because his master has asked him to: Han has dishonoured the Shaolin Temple by, you know, getting women strung out on heroin and making millions selling them as sex slaves. But he's also out for revenge, since Han's lieutenant, Oharra (Bob Wall) brought about the death of Lee's sister, Su Lin (Angela Mao), who only avoided being raped, kidnapped and probably murdered by Oharra by killing herself, and only then after righteously kicking the asses of most of Han's goons, as depicted in a flashback.

Meanwhile, international playboy Roper (John Saxon) is entering Han's tournament to gain some cash for his gambling debts. Roper is an adventurer, a rogue with a heart of gold and a terrible eye for odds. He's a pulp standard, a classic adventure story antihero. Which means that Enter the Dragon is also a pulp adventure movie.
And then there's the kung fu master from the street, Williams (Jim Kelly), who is here to raise cash for the people in the movement, notwithstanding the brutal attention of the cops back home. Roper and Williams are buddies: they served together in 'Nam, which is a useful shorthand way of getting two guys from opposite sides of the tracks to be loyal pals in a seventies movie, if only because you need (and in fact get) a single line of dialogue to establish a history in brotherhood.

Jim Kelly, effortlessly cool in whatever he wears, and sporting a glorious, flawless afro, brings in a fourth strand to the film, making Enter the Dragon a blaxploitation movie as well. Although of course, as he is not the protagonist, and this is 50% a Hollywood action movie, his fate is what you'd expect. Having said this, this may be 50% a Hollywood action movie, but it's also 50% a Hong Kong action movie and that means it becomes a Hollywood action movie where the Asian guy has a higher billing than the white guy, and who is better than the white guy, and survives, and wins. It's impossible to express fully how important a moment this is, culturally speaking. 

While Saxon and Kelly both get to show off some epic fighting moves, they're always playing second fiddle to the Dragon himself. But nonetheless, they make Enter the Dragon more than a kung fu movie, or even a pulp spy-fi blaxploitation kung fu movie. It's the pulp spy-fi blaxploitation kung fu movie. It's the only pulp spy-fi blaxploitation kung fu movie. It's a better kung fu movie because it admits other sorts of movie, drawing on the other action traditions to make something richer and fuller and better, and all of these other subgenres support the kung fu, because they all inevitably lead to the balletic rearrangement of an awful lot of faces.
Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory
So I read a review of Enter the Dragon that kept saying things like “although the fight scene with Su Lin and the goons is an amazingly choreographed piece of martial arts cinema, that whole sequence slows the plot down and doesn't seem to have a point” and I sort of saw stars in front of my eyes trying to get my head around the failure of comprehension here because no, there is no although here. The amazingly choreographed piece of martial arts cinema is the point. The whole point of Han holding a tournament to find the baddest, er, arse in the kung fu world is so that we get to see Jim Kelly, John Saxon and most of all Bruce Lee dazzling us with their ability to dismantle intimidating guys with practiced skill. The whole flashback with Su Lin exists so that Angela Mao, a star of martial arts movies in her own right, can guest with some quality moves. The spy plot is so you can have Bruce Lee sneaking around an underground base and beating the hell out of Han's minions. Han blew his hand off with a gun in backstory so he can have interchangeable Deadly Hand Attachments. He's got a hall of mirrors so you can have a breathtaking final battle in a hall of mirrors. He's got cages full of random guys he picked up in bars so they can be let out in the big chaotic “everyone gets to have some kung fu” battle at the end.

This is not to say that the plot, such as it is, is entirely without meaning, or that we don't get to see the characters at work being characters (especially Roper and Williams; Lee is on the other hand less about who is than about what he does). It is to say that the plot is here to illuminate and set up the amazing, bone-crunching fight scenes.

The dialogue exchanges with the most serious meaning come before the credits. First, Lee tells his master about how a good fight is “like a small play, played seriously”. And of course the theatrics of this whole thing matter. Then, Lee is in the middle of a briefing with the British Intelligence guy and he breaks off to say, “sorry, gotta go, being a kung fu master” and walks off to give a teenage pupil a five minute tutorial. And this scene is really inserted into the script so that Bruce Lee can supply some of his own fighting philosophy. But it also serves as a programmatic statement for the movie. Lee demands “emotional content” from his pupil, and then he closes by saying:
Lee: It is like a finger, pointing the way to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.
I interacted with someone recently who said that they'd found this a useful general life lesson growing up, and, well, I can't fault that. It's pretty great advice, if you think about it. But it's also pretty solidly the only advice you need to bear in mind if at any point you get hung up on the plot of Enter the Dragon. The plot is only a finger pointing to the heavenly glory of Bruce Lee's abs, and a display of practical martial arts, devoid of wires or effects that may not be unmatched, exactly, in the history of martial arts cinema – I mean, I'm not an expert, this is well out of my comfort zone – but which people who know better than me do honestly put somewhere near the top (want to see Bruce Lee kill Jackie Chan? Here's your film). Personally I can't stop thinking about the moment where he's just destroyed a horde of goons, and he's standing, like he's made of springs and pistons, and this one last mook tries to jump him and Lee just flexes his elbow and decks out the guy as he comes up behind him without even turning round. It's possibly one of the most memorable moments in a movie full of memorable moments, so much so that even Disney got in there and homaged it, in The Lion King (1994), of all things.

The fights are the central truth of this movie. They are the point of the thing. Plot is an illusion.
You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple
So after a while lot of talk about none of this peripheral stuff really mattering, I guess we'll talk about the women. So Han's entire financial model seems to be built on getting women strung out on drugs and selling them as sex slaves to millionaires. Lee's sister – although capable of epic kung fu moves – shivs herself with a big piece of broken glass rather than let this happen to her. And Han's got this harem of drugged up beauties, and a dungeon full of women in various stages of being broken. And on the first night they're on the island, the guys get offered the loan of a complimentary sex slave, when Han's madam (Ahna Capri, who's called Tania in the credits but never named in the film) comes around to all their rooms with a bevy of nubile beauties and asks if they want one: Williams takes four (he says he'd have more, but he's a bit tired); and Lee asks specifically for Mei Ling (Betty Chung) who he's got no intention of sleeping with, because she's his British Intelligence contact, and this is the only way to touch base without raising suspicion; and Roper, who's a little older, says, “how about it?” to Tania, who is the one woman here's who's actually a sex worker rather than a sex slave and signified as the nearest thing to an age appropriate partner for him, and who also gets the option of turning him down. And she doesn't, but it's her call.

The only agency women in this film are offered is the agency of how they respond to the prospect of sexual intercourse, forced or consensual. Which is odd when literally the only sex scene in the film is the good one, the consensual, fun one, and even then, it's not actually a sex and kissing scene, it's a “scantily clad Ahna Capri giving John Saxon a massage by standing on his back” scene. We see Han's harem room, but only as the background for a fight.
So you have a film that has stakes explicitly based on women being used and violated (and an attempt by men to stop that happening), but which is weirdly chaste. And again, this, I guess, is a "don't concentrate on the finger" thing, because if there was an actual sex scene that mattered, that might draw our attention from the fight scenes, the glorious, wince-inducing brutality of it all. Especially since our guys don't get to rescue the women. Mei Ling gets out OK, but she doesn't need rescuing. Tania dies, pointlessly and offscreen, in the final battle, with Roper gazing aghast at her forlorn corpse in the distance. And the women don't get let out, just the random guys in the dungeon. Our heroes aren't here to rescue anyone. They're here for revenge. Williams is here to avenge wider injustices – and he doesn't, but then that's how wider injustices work – and Roper ends up avenging Williams. And Lee's revenge is encapsulated in the seemingly bland statement, “You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple.” It's the last spoken line of the film. After this, there is only kung fu, and the silent aftermath of kung fu.

(Note: when I first saw Enter the Dragon, my dad told me that Bruce Lee had himself offended the Shaolin Temple, and that was why he'd died, like it was fact. Lee's biographer has a different story though.)

There's a bit where Han shows Roper his operation and he's got this room full of young women, only they're not his slaves this time, they're his daughters, and he says they're trained to be an elite corps of assassins, and realistically we expect that to pay off, and that they'll be there as a credible second-level final boss at the end, because this is a credibly exciting martial arts movie idea. Except that Han's Killer Girls are nowhere to be seen, because let's face it, they might be one of the most memorable things in the film if they really got to show their moves, and this film's point is that the most memorable thing in the film is poor, doomed Bruce Lee proving to the West that he had what it took to be a star, or would have had, if he hadn't died tragically and pointlessly a month before his breakout movie even got released.

And the way women are treated is just careless, really. In the same way as how they've dubbed Antipodean martial artist Peter Archer, playing a New Zealander, with a Cockney accent. Or the way in which in an action movie with a white guy and a black guy, where one of them has to die to raise the stakes, the black guy is toast. This film doesn't care about being lazy and basic with this stuff, because all it cares about – and all it wants us to care about – is Bruce Lee, Bruce Leeing like he'd never done before and would never get to again.

Boards don’t hit back
Having said all this, this isn't to say that the film doesn't have a moral sense, or a sense of right and wrong. The heroes are forced to make moral decisions and make moral statements repeatedly, and the film takes real steps to show you the difference between the goodies and the baddies beyond simple statements.

Inequities matter. In his flashback, Williams is attacked for no reason by some racist cops who picked the wrong African-American to pick on. He declares disgust at the poverty of Hong Kong, and when he dies, it's because he won't snitch on Lee. Roper isn't the most principled guy, but he's the “rogue with a heart of gold” stereotype, and he won't kill a cat, and while he takes Han's tour, he clearly won't take a job from Han, even before he's shown his friend's corpse.

The strong who prey on the helpless are signified as evil. The film has no time for bullies. When Parsons, the New Zealander, picks on ordinary people on the boat, Lee humiliates him without offering him the dignity of throwing a punch. And when Lee faces Oharra, the man produces a small wooden board, and smashes it inches from Lee's face. Without flinching, Lee calmly says, “Boards don't hit back.” And then he takes Oharra to pieces, in seconds. As one who preys on the weak, and one who fights with explicit dishonour, Oharra doesn't deserve to show off his prowess, and proves it by being a fatally bad loser. Roper survives a fight against Han's terrifying killer Bolo (Bolo Yeung) by biting him in the leg, but we've already established that Bolo is the sort of guy who painfully executes people by crushing them to death with his bare hands, and Roper is the sort of guy who wouldn't let a supervillain kill a cute cat to make a point.

In contrast to the endless stream of post 1980s action movies where the goodies exalt their humanity by wasting hordes of bad guys, Lee seems to know he's committing murder. There are a few scenes where Lee ends a guy with a bone cracking move, except the camera focuses on Lee's face each time. And possibly that's a convenient way to avoid showing you that he's not actually killing these guys (because it's, you know, a film), except they don't do this with Bolo, for example. Each time the camera zooms in on Lee's face as he kills a man, he adopts an expression of what always looked to me, aged 16, like horror.

And there's a scene at the start of the movie where Lee visits his mother and sister's graves and talks to his dead mother.
Lee: You will not agree with what I'm going to do. It is contrary to all that you have taught me, and all that Su Lin believed. I must leave. Please try to find a way to forgive me.
The death and violence, then, is framed as an undesirable thing. It is a violation. It is admitted as a moral failure.

Of course, that's protesting a little too much. We are after all entirely here to watch Bruce Lee righteously destroy everyone he comes up against – unlike Roper, who gets into trouble a couple times, and Williams, who loses the fight that matters, Lee gets roughed up, but at no point loses any bout or really faces any significant reversal. He's in no danger until right at the end, and even then, we know that Han is hosed.
We need emotional content
It's sort of fashionable when writing about Enter the Dragon to go, “eh, it's not that great a movie,” but every take that does that misses the whole point. Enter the Dragon is a movie that is laser focused on one thing, and one thing alone: showing you how awesome Bruce Lee is, and how awesome he is at kung fu. If it is in places lazy, or verges on the nonsensical, or if its eye strays from truth, it doesn't matter. Because it is here to make a modern saint, a legendary hero, and by accident all the more legendary because he is dead before he even got to the screen. If it is remembered as, if not necessarily the greatest, nonetheless the most important kung fu movie of all time, this is why.

Do not concentrate on the plot. Or you will miss all that heavenly glory.