Enter The Dragon 40th Anniversary Edition Review
The MovieEnter The Dragon marked the first and only leading role in a Hollywood movie for martial arts superstar Bruce Lee. He’d had a small role in 1969’s Marlowe and had been on US TV several times, garnering guest spots in hits of the day like Ironside, not to mention his longer running stint as Kato in The Green Hornet. But he knew he was destined for something greater, and after Hornet was cancelled and he missed out on the lead role in Kung Fu, he found the pull of Raymond Chow’s newly formed Golden Harvest studio impossible to resist. Bruce headed to Hong Kong and 1971’s The Big Boss smashed local box office records, as did his next film, Fist Of Fury. That was quickly followed up with his directorial debut The Way Of The Dragon, and Lee was deep into production on his passion-project Game Of Death when Warner Bros. and director Robert Clouse came calling with an idea for their own martial arts epic. Once again, the lure was impossible to resist…
Formerly titled Blood And Steel but renamed as Enter The Dragon, this 1973 Bond-lite exploitation flick had the distinction of being the first martial arts movie bankrolled by a Western studio, and who better for the lead than the hottest box office star in all of Asia? Bruce Lee stars as Lee, a disciple of the Shaolin Temple who is entered into a prestigious martial arts tournament organised by Han, an ex-communicated Shaolin monk. Lee's there on three fronts: one, to confront Han (HK screen veteran Shih Kien) because his criminal ways have disgraced the Shaolin; two, to exact revenge for Han's thugs causing the death of his sister; three, to gather information on that same man for the Hong Kong intelligence service. Lee is joined by several other fighters on Han’s island lair, all of whom have very different reasons for being there. Roper (genre favourite John Saxon) has some gambling debts that need settling and the prize money will come in handy, while Williams (karate champion Jim Kelly) is running from the racist law men back home in the States. But the tournament is merely a front for their villainous host to recruit new enforcers for his evil empire, trafficking drugs and women across the world, and soon enough the deadly trio are forced to fight for their lives to escape Han’s secluded fortress.
So, the question is, does Clouse’s film hold up after four decades? I think it’s still a heck of a lot of fun and it will always be a milestone in kung fu cinema. The pacing of the film is choppy to say the least, and there’s plenty of ‘70s-style cheese on display, but one of the film’s core strengths lies in its roster of charismatic performers. Lee is his usual imperious self, never betraying any hint of self-doubt as he punches, kicks and nunchucks his enemies into submission in his trademark lightning-fast style. John Saxon and the recently deceased Jim Kelly have a wonderful, easy-going rapport which makes for a surprisingly funny double act. The latter gets to show off his karate skills, while the former displays a surprising amount of martial-arts prowess, notably in his fight with the beefy Bolo Yeung who plays one of Han’s henchmen. Shih Kien’s grandfatherly appearance – false hand notwithstanding – is at odds with his character’s ruthlessness, but that makes his performance as Han all the more enjoyable (though his voice was dubbed in by Keye Luke). Bob Wall completes the array of fighters with a small role as Han’s murderous bodyguard Oharra, and Ahna Capri adds a touch of gweilo glamour as Tania, the madam in charge of Han's brothel.
The fight action was choreographed by Lee and it has a pleasing sense of impact and timing. The filmmakers keep the action interesting by varying the visual styles too, ranging from POV to slow motion to the iconic final battle in a hall of mirrors. And it’s always fun to spot the HK stunt stalwarts in amongst the myriad background faces on Han’s fortress - guys like Lam Ching Ying and a very young Jackie Chan - and their contribution undoubtedly helped to give the film a true taste of the East. To that end, this is the slightly longer 1998 version of the film which restores some of Lee’s philosophical musings that were cut from the US theatrical release. But an aspect that is most definitely Western is Lalo Schifrin’s deliciously funky music, coming across like a cleaner, more disciplined version of the dirtier-sounding beats from his Dirty Harry score, though he has put a bit of an Oriental twist on it.
There are better kung fu movies out there, but few are as iconic as Enter The Dragon, not least because it became Bruce Lee's memorial; he finished the film but did not live to see the premiere. He passed away on July 20th 1973 only days before the planned release of the movie, leaving behind his wife Linda, two small children and an indelible legacy of martial arts mastery that will continue to shape our perceptions of Asian cinema for years to come. Let’s hope that Warners have done justice to his final fight with this new Blu-ray release.
The DiscThis region-free Blu-ray is presented in a foil-effect slipcase and comes with a red envelope containing a few extra goodies (but no money, unfortunately), like lobby-card style photo prints and a reproduction of the ‘Deputy of the Dragon’ card handed out at the US premiere. It lacks the rest of the tat from the US version, but seeing as this UK release is much cheaper I won’t be lamenting the loss of an iron-on patch and a motion lenticular.
The movie is presented in 2.40 widescreen, which is entirely appropriate for this anamorphic 35mm show, though it has been framed tighter than the old Blu-ray encode. This is a brand new transfer, so the ‘jaggies’ seen on the original Blu-ray (caused by the HD master lacking at least a quarter of the horizontal resolution it should’ve had) have been banished. The image lacks the finest clarity and depth, but this is not unexpected for a 40-year-old anamorphic movie. There are a lot of opticals, especially in Roper’s and Williams’ respective flashbacks which look very soft and dupey, and have probably had a dab of DNR to level out the grain. Things do improve when we get away from the dupes, allowing us to see every bead of sweat on Lee’s glistening body, but from start to finish it’s got an oddly indistinct appearance that's reminiscent of a print, i.e. something several generations away from the negative. Whether it is or not remains to be seen, but thankfully Warners resisted the temptation to add a load of sharpening to jazz it up.
The colour has been given a tweak, with the flat palette on the old transfer making way for brighter, bolder primaries and orangey looking skin tones. There is a renewed sense of variation and texture to skin and clothing, aided by the patina of grain, but the tango’d faces take a little getting used to and the timing can still change from shot to shot. Contrast has also been increased, resulting in deeper blacks and punchier whites - though this isn’t some blown-out atrocity. Skies retain their overcast pall whilst shadow detail naturally varies. I didn’t catch any problems with the AVC encoding, though if a shot stays still for long enough I can glimpse an odd vertical artefact; it’s not a scratch as such, but it may be the result of some form of scratch removal. I get the feeling that the source materials weren’t in the best of condition, but the image is otherwise spotless, with no dirt or marks visible.
The audio is the same 5.1 mix as before, given lossless DTS-HD Master Audio treatment. I don’t have the original mono to compare it to, but the 5.1 upgrade has always seemed fairly restrained and respectful to me. There is the occasional burst of surround directionality, like the plane that flies overhead in the title sequence, but the rears mainly provide a bit of reverb for Lalo Schifrin’s score. As with so many remixes of this kind, it’s the music that comes off best because it was recorded in stereo to begin with, sounding clear and sharp, and it’s spread nicely across the fronts. The various stock impact sounds are surprisingly crisp, though I wish the same could be said of the dialogue. In keeping with the HK production the movie wasn’t shot with sync sound, so the dubbed dialogue has a typically flat, inert quality to it and the lipsync isn't too great either. To be fair it's always been like this, and not even lossless can rectify that.
This mix is somewhat lean sounding, with minimal LFE support, but it's free from any hiss or pops. Remixes like this always have to tread that tightrope of changing so much that they're not the same movie that you love, OR doing so little that you wonder why they bothered. Enter The Dragon juggles those demands fairly well, and in lieu of the original audio (Warners rarely provide it) I’d much rather have a remix that does too little instead of too much.
Bonus features are mix of old and new, with some stuff omitted just for good measure. The new extras comprise of three features. No Way As Way examines Bruce's philosophy using excerpts of the well-worn TV interview with Pierre Berton, interspersed with new comments from random celebrities who have little or no connection to Lee. It's directed by Shannon Lee and is a bit pretentious, and it takes nearly 20 of its 26 minutes to get these people to actually talk about the guy whose image is hanging on the wall behind them. The Return To Han’s Island is a 10-minute comparison of the Hong Kong locations then and now, narrated by John Little. Little also produced Wing Chun: The Art That Introduced Kung Fu to Bruce Lee, a snappily-titled 20-minute peek at the close quarters fighting style that started Lee on the road to immortality, with input and demonstrations from several modern-day Wing Chun sifu. (Interesting factoid: this documentary references the scene with the abbott from the beginning of the movie, only it's got Bruce's original dialogue recording instead of John Little's impersonation as heard in the film. It's a pity that Warners didn't feel the need to reintegrate it into the movie proper.)
John Little's excellent documentary A Warrior’s Journey was excised from later pressings of the original Blu-ray and is also absent here, but it is available to buy separately on DVD (and comes with its own special features) so I’m not pining for it. The stilted audio commentary from producer Paul Heller and screenwriter Michael Allin (via a telephone conversation!) is still there, as is the half-hour ‘making of’ titled Blood and Steel. The Interview Gallery with Linda Lee Cadwell makes another appearance, along with Bruce’s all-too-brief Backyard Workout and the vintage Location: Hong Kong featurette. Bruce Lee: In His Own Words is another John Little piece that recycles Lee's interview with Berton, and Curse of the Dragon is an interesting but tremendously cheesy 1993 documentary about Bruce's life. Rounding off the holdovers from the prior releases are 4 theatrical trailers and 7 TV spots, all looking the worse for wear. Sadly the isolated score from the 1998 DVD and Linda Lee's introduction are nowhere to be found. Still, it's a pretty substantial line-up.
OverallEnter The Dragon is the martial arts classic that finally gave Bruce Lee the American success that he so badly craved, albeit posthumously. Warners’ 40th Anniversary Blu-ray does what it can with the source material, the picture quality looking good but not great, and the audio is a restrained remix of the original. The healthy selection of extras retains a lot of existing material and adds some new features which shed a little more light on the enduring legend of the ‘Little Dragon’.
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