Judge Dennis Prince confesses that his gi days are long gone.
You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple.
Inarguably, Enter the Dragon has been the pinnacle of cinematic martial arts experiences ever since its release in 1973. Among fans and other enthusiasts, Bruce Lee's final film is revered as the picture that legitimized the martial arts genre within American borders and properly catapulted the very capable star in what would be a film career tragically cut short.
Now, in proper reverence to this cult and pop-culture classic, Warner Home Video presents Enter the Dragon in a full-featured HD DVD edition, sporting an enhanced quality that will have you flinching at every high-kick.
Facts of the Case
Lee (Bruce Lee) is a Shaolin monk who has been enlisted by an intelligence agency to track down the nefarious Han (Kien Shih, Bastard Kung Fu Master). Joining three other martial arts experts, Lee travels to Han's remote island to participate in a martial arts tournament. The tournament is a ruse that Han utilizes to attract and enlist the best fighters to help perpetuate his drug smuggling affairs. Lee's interest in exposing and accosting Han goes beyond drugs: the drug lord had previously disgraced the Shaolin Temple and was responsible for the death of Lee's own sister. The tournament spans several days, each revealing the incomparable martial arts prowess of the contenders while also resulting in the deaths of those guests who are probing too deeply into Han's covert operations.
Without a doubt, Enter the Dragon is saddled with an undeniable camp value some three decades since its original release. It's rife with overdone sound effects—imagine 1x4 fir strips smacking together whenever fist meets skin—and the perpetual kiai that, while authentic, has been irreverently parodied (usually bastardized into "hiigh-yaahh!") and can elicit unintentional giggles. The mysteriousness of the Shaolin style and the unusual methods of focus and composure exhibited by its practitioners have woefully been misunderstood and perhaps too often played for laughs. This challenges appreciation of Enter the Dragon today: an indiscriminate foe born out of disrespect that would incite ignorance over enlightenment in viewers. Sure, it would be funny until the first snap-kick shatters a shin bone.
Enter the Dragon is definitely dated (as are most films from the 70s) and it suffers from viewers' awareness of its sources of commercial inspiration. It's important that the picture was the first of its genre to be co-produced by American and Hong Kong studios, therefore helping it gain greater release stateside. However, the American penchant to make it "market friendly" is also what hinders. Clearly, the plot appears to have been borrowed from an early draft of the 1967 James Bond entry You Only Live Twice. For Bond aficionados, the various plot elements are practically plagiaristic: the villain's remote island, the underground complex, the martial arts training squad, and even the white Persian cat. Add to this the casting of John Saxon (Blood Beach) as the American martial arts expert, Roper. Oddly enough, his dark features and furrowed brow make him look something akin to a poor man's Sean Connery (right down to the ill-fitted hairpiece). Saxon puts on a suave showing and manages to be relatively competent in his fight sequences, yet the performance is definitely of 70s vintage. A non-Bond twist here (unless you loosely adapt the casting from 1972's Live and Let Die) is the inclusion of Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones) as the other American contestant, Williams. Kelly, with his signature large 'fro, would find follow-on success in the "black martial arts" sub-genre and was properly qualified to add realism to his combat sequences here. Again, more 70s fare that can be difficult for some to look past during a current-day screening.
But when it comes to Bruce Lee, his work has proven to be timeless. Responsible for staging all of the fight sequences in Enter the Dragon, Lee's presence and performance transcend any distractions arising from the film's dated sensibilities and style. Without a doubt, Lee can act and is certainly compelling in his steely-eyed, well-controlled assessments of the situations around him. Utilizing his natural voice in this film, Lee is fun to watch and his cool and confidence lend themselves to some well-handled moments of humor that are sprinkled throughout the film. Lee himself had noted that his intention here was to provide audiences insight into his cultural beliefs and the deeply spiritual aspects of his fighting style ("My style? You could call it the art of fighting without fighting."), properly and responsibly communicating that the martial artist does not seek out conflict and would often prefer to avoid it, sometimes allowing his would-be opponent to essentially "fight himself." This philosophy of Lee's is able to expand beyond the confines of the dated plot and preserves the genuine interest of his art of empty-handed combat. Of course, Enter the Dragon may be most notable for the nunchaku sequence and Lee's effortless wrangling of the then-obscure fighting implement, earning key placement within the film's key art. In all, when the fighting gets going in earnest, it never lets up right up until the still-mesmerizing "hall of mirrors" face off.
It's appropriate that Warner Home Video has recognized the importance of Enter the Dragon by making it an early entry in the growing HD DVD library. As with the earlier HD mastering of Blazing Saddles, it is compelling to see how the advanced format can improve a thirty-year-old film. The result is a qualified "very good." Given the original budget and production values of Enter the Dragon, it's foolhardy to expect it to have been suppressing tremendous levels of depth and detail all these decades. Whereas Blazing Saddles proved to be an honest-to-goodness revelation when given the HD treatment, Enter the Dragon is somewhat less consistent in its final result. The picture quality is clearly an improvement over the 2004 two-disc standard definition (SD) release yet it can't quite shake some of the inherent troubles with its source material. Most often, the picture is sharp, deep, and well rendered. The overhead shots of the Hong Kong harbor are quite striking and the final sequences in the hall of mirrors look terrific. Other times, the image softens and the color palette dulls down, obviously a limitation of the source material. This level of inconsistency is never unbearable but you will see the frequent shift as the film runs its course. Nevertheless, the transfer is free of compression artifacts and is presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, natively anamorphic in the HD format.
The audio is presented in the expected Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 mix unique to the HD DVD format. The mix is clean and sharp (especially all those body hits) but the bulk of the content resides within the front three channels. The true beneficiary of the rear channels is Lalo Schifrin's excellent score, its themes also being reminiscent of John Barry's work on some Bond films yet definitely distinct and bearing obvious lineage to Mission: Impossible. The score enjoys an extended soundstage in this mix and adequately compensates for the lack of directional effects in the rear speakers. The LFE channel, however, doesn't get very much of a workout here.
As for extras, Warner Home Video once again shows wisdom by porting over all the bonus material as was delivered in the 2004 Special Edition SD release. This equates to roughly six hours of additional content, many hits but some misses. The audio commentary is provided by co-producer Paul Heller and screenwriter Michael Allin. Both tend to be too reserved in their comments, lapsing into silence too often yet delivering some interesting observations when they decide to perk up. Four documentaries follow, the best of which is Blood and Steel: The Making of Enter the Dragon. This 2003-produced 30-minute backstory delves into the origin of the film, its casting and production design, and the language barriers the accompanied the American/Hong Kong joint venture. Next up is Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey, a 90-minute offering produced in 2000 that spends its first half with Lee the man and its second half with material from his unfinished feature, Game of Death. Another lengthy documentary follows in the form of Bruce Lee: The Curse of the Dragon, narrated by George Takei (Star Trek) and focused on Lee's untimely death and the coincidence that may bear on the likewise premature death of his son twenty years later. Lastly, the documentaries round out with Bruce Lee: In His Own Words, a nineteen minute interview piece produced in 1998. If all of this hasn't satisfied you, there's still more including a 15-minute interview gallery with Lee's wife, Linda Lee Caldwell, the home movies of Lee's backyard workout, an original 1973 featurette from Enter the Dragon and numerous TV spots and theatrical trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
But perhaps you believe the earlier assertions that Enter the Dragon is afflicted by outdated 70's sensibility and style. Fair enough, because, just as this can work against a latter-day screening of a picture, it simultaneously works for the film to infuse an element of nostalgic interest. This doesn't render the film as any sort of "cute throwback" but, rather, reminds us of the film's origin and reestablishes its success in propelling the martial arts genre within the States. It's also a highly important film since it showcases Lee's abilities (martial arts as well as acting) and was instrumental in elevating the late actor to pop-icon status. While there have been many other competent martial arts performers/practitioners since Lee, none have yet usurped his near-mythic standing atop the genre.
Despite its vintage, Enter the Dragon remains an engaging picture that's fun, a bit funky, and largely entertaining. Lee's skills on display, coupled with his subtle-yet-precise acting, make this an enduring feature that belongs in a well-diversified film library. The new HD transfer delivers the best rendition of the film to date and is definitely worth a look. The inclusion of all the features from the Special Edition SD release makes this a high-value purchase for first-time buyers or even double-dippers. A recommended purchase, to be sure.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary: Producer Paul Heller and Screenwriter Michael Allin
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