Part Two of my Enter the Dragon review, originally posted on Facebook in July. This is the post-recap discussion where I talk, for perhaps too long, about my reactions to the movie.
ENTER THE DRAGON Review, by Pat Sponaugle (that would be moi)
(PART TWO – In PART ONE, I basically wrote a (long) recap of the 1973 martial arts movie with a few observations and several promises of “I’ll Talk More About This Later.” Well, now it’s later.)
Okay, I owe the Internet some thoughts on Enter the Dragon as a movie, now that I’ve recapped it. I’ve already enthusiastically urged everyone to see it, so if I begin to criticize the movie, it’s from a position of crazy unconditional co-dependent Love.
I love the movie despite the warts. But I’m not blind to the warts. I’m going to talk about the movie from the perspective of the 70s (or I’ll attempt to) but also from a modern context, more or less if it was remade today, would things be changed.
It’s a 70s movie. There’s a 70s soundtrack, with an interesting funky Chinese influenced score. (Someone once tried to explain to me the difference between score and soundtrack, so I deliberately used both in the above sentence to guarantee I was wrong in some level. You’re welcome.)
The acting is not bad. John Saxon is actually pretty good. I mean, he is an actor. As an aside, I’m having a hard time shaking the idea that Zac Efron is his clone. Thanks to having a daughter, I have had to watch High School Musical and its ilk. And I remember seeing Efron and thinking “Who does he remind me of, and why do I want a fight to break out?” (Other than it being High School Musical and a fight would be awesome…)
Back on track.
Jim Kelly is not that great an actor, at least not in Enter the Dragon. I feel that I’ve seen him in something else, and he certainly might have improved, but his delivery in the film (I think it was his debut) was pretty much a straightforward “this is the line I need to be saying” type of delivery. But not all of the time. Because occasionally, his character Williams gets to say a line that’s just as cool as hell, and he delivers it like a guy who happens to be even cooler than the line.
Example: Han notices Williams’ discomfort over watching Bolo execute a bunch of guards that Lee attacked the night before. There’s a twinge of guilt on Williams because Han has chided the group for a breaking of curfew which lead up to the slaughter of the guards. (And he had broke curfew…)
Han: Are you shocked, Mr. Williams?
Williams: Only how sloppy your man works.
I’ll come back to Jim Kelly’s character in a moment (and not in a PART THREE, I promise.)
The star of the movie (although he has to share top billing with Saxon which was no doubt a measure to appease the Hollywood execs) is Bruce Lee, and he carries the movie almost entirely on his physicality and expressiveness. He doesn’t have a lot of dialog, but there are scenes where he communicates a great deal silently.
The film is entirely in English (except for maybe background discussions that are otherwise inaudible) and that’s a shame. I prefer movies that feature multiple languages to employ subtitles. I’m okay in a movie where we’re supposed to understand that everyone is, oh, German and even though they are speaking English with a British accent, they are figuratively speaking German. Just pretend.
But it’d be weird if half of the cast was actually speaking German and some speaking English, and the actual German dialog is overdubbed with slightly out-of-sync-to-the-lips English.
Much of the movie has that dissonance. Lee has several scenes in conversations with people speaking Chinese (I assume Cantonese.) There’s no reason for them to be speaking English. The actor who played the villainous Han reportedly could not and did not speak English, Keye Luke was the voice talent used to dub Han’s lines. I would have greatly enjoyed an authentic language scene with subtitles. Throughout.
So, if there’s an Enter the Dragon remake…
1) Cast Zac Efron as John Saxon’s character Roper.
2) Use subtitles.
Is Lee a good actor, when speaking English? He’s not bad. He’s not necessarily great. His expressions are excellent though.
I mentioned that I wanted to talk more about Jim Kelly, which leads into topics of sexism and racism. Since this is the Internet, talking about charged topics like these can lead to all kinds of negativity, and I’m hoping not to generate a lot of heat. But I’ll take responsibility up front for what I say, and if I offend someone, I encourage them to let me know, so I can either clarify my point, or have a chance to re-think my position, or explain why I think the way that I do and own what I’ve said responsibly.
Still with me? Cool?
By way of a flashback, we see that Kelly’s character Williams has come directly from the States, after fighting with the police and commandeering a police car (which presumably helped get him to the airport.)
To recap the scene, Williams has visited the Kenpo Karate dojo where presumably he trains, pays respects to a man who I assume is his instructor or peer. This is not expressed explicitly, I could entirely be wrong, but my assumption was that Williams had been invited to participate at the tournament and the dojo had helped finance his flight. Again, I have zero evidence of that, but that’s my gut. It’s not really relevant, I just wanted to give you my impressions.
On leaving, Williams is walking with his luggage in the darkness, a police car comes up and he is detained and questioned. He initially does not react, the situation escalates into a fight where he defeats the two nightstick wielding policemen, and he escapes.
The cops from the first moment made it clear that their goal was to intimidate and harass, treating him equivalent to a known criminal. On discovering that he had a ticket to Hong Kong via Hawaii, they were outraged by that fact. (Again, this is my take on the scene. I would be interested in hearing others thoughts, but it seemed pretty clear.)
When I first saw that scene years ago, I thought “wow those cops are jerks. It’s unlucky for Williams to have run into them.”
In the years since, I’d read about the Watts riot of the mid 60s, and the role that an alleged institutionalized policy of harassment and intimidation by the police in Los Angeles towards young black men had lead to a boiling point of resentment, sparking the riot.
To be clear, I use the word “alleged” not to imply that there was not such a policy of intimidation. Because I honestly don’t know. My primary source: Wikipedia, has a “citation needed” warning around that assertion. For my discussion of Enter the Dragon and Jim Kelly’s character Williams, I allow myself to imagine that the cops were not just anomalous jerks, but representative of the police in Williams’ world.
I think it’s fair to say that Williams’ backstory was informed by the topical events of the Watts riots, or at least the heated civil rights issues of the times. Talking about the movie in a modern context, had Enter the Dragon been made more or less the same and released this year, the character of Williams and his encounter with the police would certainly have invited comparisons to Zimmerman and Martin.
I’m not trying to make direct comparisons, I’m just saying that I was struck watching this scene with the thought that concerns being expressed about race and racial profiling in 1973 are still being echoed in 2013. I really don’t know if I can examine the issue more closely from my perspective, or add constructively to that debate. I wanted to tell you what I took away from that scene watching it this weekend, as opposed to years ago.
It does establish Williams’ character who understands harassment and intimidation from people in power. And that’s something that leads me into the next hot topic of sexism.
When Lee is being briefed by the presumed British Intelligence officer Braithwaite (I never mentioned him in my recap. Old British guy with a dossier, now you’re up to speed), it was made clear that Han was suspected of abducting women, getting them addicted to heroin, then selling them into sexual slavery.
TOPIC WARNING: SEXISM I’m not going to be graphic, but I am going to talk about some very disturbing realities in the next few paragraphs. If you want to skip it, skip down to the END WARNING label and keep reading. I’ll provide an incredibly shallow summary of what I talked about.
SKIP DOWN NOW IF THAT’S YOUR WISH.
One of the phrases describing the practice of abducting or misleading and transporting young people for coercion into the sex trade is “Human Trafficking.”
I don’t work directly for the Department of Defense, but I work in a related effort that requires my colleagues and I to take nearly all the training that gets mandated to DoD personnel. (Not basic training, not combat, not stuff like that. I’m talking Human Resource level training. Sexual Harassment training. Sensitivity Training. That stuff.)
Young servicemen are often deployed overseas. These oversea deployments are often in locales where there are no laws against prostitution or the laws are not strictly enforced. Without a doubt, the sex industries overseas in developing nations are staffed with people who are coerced into this situation against their will, with little recourse.
The DoD mandates that their staff and personnel take routine training about the realities of human trafficking, in the hopes that they will not participate. There’s always the additional hope that when discovered, it can be reported and pressure applied to prevent it, but at the very least that Americans not promote the practice with their participation.
So, all you businessmen going to Thailand. I know that what Happens in Bangkok Stays in Bangkok, but to quote Wil Wheaton… Don’t Be A Dick.
The first night after the welcome feast, one of Han’s assistants, a beautiful blond named Tania, leads over half a dozen women into Williams’ room for him as a selection of sexual partners for him to choose from.
Williams is charming, he selects four women for a “menage a cinq”, and apologizes to the rest that he meant no disrespect in not selecting them as well, but it had been a long day and he was tired.
I am sure that when I first saw Enter the Dragon, I found the scene great. Williams was so cool. He was charming to the ladies. He got laid! Yay. Isn’t that what every dude wants, to be treated like royalty and then have sex with a partner that wants to have sex too? Ah, and that’s the issue.
There’s no reason to believe that the women want to have sex. It’s quite likely that they have been abducted, or dependent on Han’s heroin, or come from situations influenced by Han (say, threats to their family if they don’t comply) and they have no choice in their sexual destiny.
I have no problem with Williams having sex with a dozen women. Or men for that matter. As long as the sex is consensual. And if there is anything I’ve learned from taking the DoD course on Human Trafficking, in analogous situations , it’s doubtful the sex is truly consensual.
Why am I making a big deal about this? Well, besides being a bit too awful now that I have this perspective, it diminishes Williams as a positive character. It might have been better if Williams had been a little less charming, and I’d just expect him to behave this way. It just put me off.
I don’t think it would fly “as is” if the movie was made today. But that might just be me.
If I must, I can imagine Williams as being extremely enlightened. Since he’s known the realities of people of authority wielding their power unfairly over those without, he *might* have recognized the situation and chose to save four girls from having to have sex with, oh, the brutish New Zealander that I didn’t talk about in Part One (I kind of alluded to him.)
So, he picks four girls, and then the five of them just chill out.
I find that scenario Extremely Unlikely. But I wanted to put it out there.
So, bad on you, Williams. I’m not going to try and defend Williams as a product of his time when women were striving for equal rights, or at least to be viewed as people and not as housewives or mistresses. If someone wants to, I’m cool with that and will not argue against you, and I’ll try to moderate if someone engages. But I’m seriously biased against Williams for taking advantage of the sexual partners he’s presented with.
If you skipped, I basically said that Williams is a jerk for having sex. What? That’s right, and I’m not going back on it. You’ve either read what I said above or skipped here, and I have to move on.
On to Roper, the John Saxon character. Who is not that much better.
Roper is on the run from a large gambling debt. He comes to the tournament with enough clothing to I don’t know, feed an army of clothes-eating warriors or something. He seems very materialistic. That in itself isn’t bad, it’s just weird. Dude. It’s a Martial Arts tournament. Ease up on the porters.
John Saxon plays Roper charming enough, and the friendship between Roper and Jim Kelly’s Williams seems very genuine. They have horrible expository dialog when they share their first scene, but from then on it’s like they are a team. I have no idea if the two actors were just as friendly off set as they were on-screen but I would not be surprised (and not just because I’m not sure they could pull it off acting wise if they were not friends.)
Roper, when presented with a collection of women for sex (I’ve really covered this in the SEXISM section above) is at least gallant enough to seduce their madame, the blond and attractive Tania. We’re not given much of a reason for his motivation for making romance with her, or why she’d necessarily be into him, other than he looks like Zac Efron (which is enough for some people, I am sure.) But that’s how it worked out.
So good on you, Roper. (I’m cool if someone has a different interpretation and thinks he’s a tool for any reason regarding his sexual partnering with Tania.)
Han has brought Roper to the island since he wants a representative in the States, and Roper has crushing debt with the mob. This brings up somewhat of a theme. Just as Han was accused by Braithwaite of coercing women into the sex trade (I totally mentioned that before my WARNING section…) Han has leverage on Roper. He can bail out his debt provided he be part of Han’s criminal empire.
During their talk, Roper does have a smarmy moment. On entering a room filled with attractive women, this conversation happens (I am paraphrasing from memory)
Roper: Woohoo! Women for a lifetime. A man’s strength can be measured by his appetite. Indeed, it FLOWS from his appetites.
Han: Dude, these are my *daughters*
So, Roper is a bit of a jerk misidentifying Han’s daughters as Han’s harem. (Although to be fair, I’m pretty sure Han is not their father, and instead referred to his elite female bodyguards as his daughters. But he probably did not use them for sex.)
So, had Roper not been hot for Tania, would he have pulled a Williams and engaged in sex with the available selection? (Again, I go over why this is bad in my WARNING SEXISM section.)
Roper never seems quite gung-ho on joining Han’s organization. But when confronted by Williams’ dead body (quite a disturbing scene seeing Jim Kelly bloody and suspended in chains) he more or less signs up with Han to avoid being killed himself. Had he not joined Han, that seemed like the likely outcome.
Roper’s unwillingness to kill Lee the next day takes him pretty squarely out of Team Han. It appears he was never really a team player to begin with. But probably would have played ball otherwise.
So, Roper and Williams to a greater or lesser degree *seem* to be flawed good guys with perhaps some bad traits. In general, guys who are too good are dull, so at least they weren’t dull.
Which brings up to Bruce Lee. He’s crazy good. Wasn’t going to be part of a criminal enterprise. Wasn’t tempted with sex. Is he dull?
I’m asking you rhetorically, because I’m not going to say anything other than Are You Kidding Me? He’s Awesome!
Unlike Williams and Roper, he’s there on task. Get the goods on Han, get the info out. Job done.
He’s not there to sex it up. He’s not even there to win the tournament (but he would), he’s there to stop Han.
And… to get revenge.
Revenge is the closest thing we get to a flaw in Lee’s character. When told about how Han’s men, and Han’s bodyguard Oharra, directly contributed to his sister’s rape-preventing suicide, Lee goes to his mother’s grave and asks her to forgive him for what he is about to do.
He’s going to kill. And he’s going to kill deliberately. And he knows his mother would not approve. I found that very cool. Quite often, we get revenge stories where the hero is not so reluctant to kill the bad guy who really needed killing. Oh, we’ve had those stories, but I’ve not really encountered them prior to Enter the Dragon. I’m sure people can bring up examples, and I’d like to hear them. I can’t say Enter the Dragon was the first movie to have a person reluctantly planning on killing, even though it is against principles that he holds dear.
Lee clearly (in my mind) kills dudes during his fight with Han’s men. I am sure it would be unavoidable. But I’m talking the calculated deathblow on Oharra, and the death of Han. I’m thinking Lee’s principles would be okay with taking a life in the midst of combat, especially with the numbers against Lee.
I talked in PART ONE of the extended fight between Lee and Han’s minions. Now it’s time for Oharra.
On day two of the tournament, Lee is called to fight Oharra. Oharra, (played by martial artist Bob Wall), tries to intimidate Lee by breaking a board. Dude, my daughter has done that crap. Pack up your bags and leave.
Lee explains why that’s lame. Boards don’t hit back.
They take position, right arms extended and touching. This is something you’ll see in Jeet Kune Do classes, a sensitivity sparring drill. The right arms establish a centerline boundary that needs to be surpassed.
It’s breathtaking how fast Lee can slap aside Oharra’s arm and connect with his face. Yes, I know this is choreographed. But it’s awesome.
Eventually, Oharra freaks out from the beating he is taking, breaks some bottles and Lee disables him, thens leaps on the prone Oharra killing him.
We don’t exactly know what Lee does, but the important things are Lee’s facial expressions. He doesn’t have to kill Oharra. He’s totally outclassed him. But this is revenge. This is revenge on a helpless beaten foe. He has principles against this, and he kills Oharra anyway. And you see a lot of raw emotion, elation and despair on Lee’s face when he kills him.
I totally might be imagining all this. But I’m so biased on this interpretation that it would take the specter of Bruce Lee telling me exactly what he otherwise intended to change my mind. Wanted to get that out there. I’m cool with other interpretations, I’m just telling you how my brain wired itself onto this fact.
That fight takes place pretty much in the middle of the movie, and is the high point emotionally for Lee’s character. Once he dispatches Oharra, he stoics up, is pretty seriously consistent from then on. Once he radios the authorities, it’s just a matter of survival until they come in. That makes for a weird climax, but it is what it is.
Lee’s fight with Han is not really a let down, but after the brilliant onslaught of whoopass between Lee and Han’s men, the fight with Han isn’t that interesting. It’s not bad. Lee’s physicality is beautiful to watch. Kien Shih as Han is not up to par as a sparring partner for Lee. But he has a cool multi-knife hand.
There are occasional less-than-stellar fight sequences. Occasionally people attack the camera as if we the viewers are experiencing the attack, but that just doesn’t work. Ever.
I’ll repeat what I said in PART ONE, and maybe elaborate some… Enter the Dragon ends bitter-sweetly. The good guys have won in the sense that the bad guy is now dead, those under his control are now freed. But Williams is dead (I’ll drum up the cliche of the black guy always dying in the science fiction, action, or kung fu movie), and Roper still owes the mob. Maybe the Brits will bail him out for helping out Lee. And although Lee has his revenge, there is this sense of personal cost. At least that’s my take on it.
Whew. Long two part review.
I will talk just a wee bit more. When the movie came out, I was nine years old and therefore too young to see it (but the two side-boob shots in the movie would have delighted me.) But soon after, I started reading Marvel Comics’ “Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu.”
I started with issue #31, drawn by Paul Gulacy.
You can see the full comic here:
Gulacy’s art style was crazy good (in my opinion) and issue 31 of MoKF had everything I wanted… a criminal madman with an island fortress, a team of guys infiltrating, attractive and dangerous women, and A DUDE WITH RAZOR SWORDS INSTEAD OF HANDS.
Anyway, even though I didn’t see Enter the Dragon until much later, I was certainly influenced by its spiritual successor (so identified as such by me… feel free to argue) in the adventures of complete badass Shang Chi. Who might as well have just been named Bruce Lee.
If you have read this entire review, I salute you in the traditional Kung Fu salute of right fist held in front inches from my sternum, my right arm on a horizontal plane. My left hand cups the fist, indicating that there are no serious issues between us.
(Had my left hand not cupped the fist, but was held in the vertical plane, that means there are issues between us. Prepare.)
(I might have the salutes backwards. How embarrassing for me.)