|Enter the Dragon|
|HD DVD Martial Arts|
|Written by Darren Gross|
|Friday, 01 September 2006|
Lee (Lee), an adept martial artist at the Shaolin temple is given a mission by British agents: enter an exclusive martial arts tournament on a remote island run by the nefarious Han (Kien), and while there infiltrate his compound and find evidence of his heroin operation. Lee’s determination to undo Han is set when one of the Shaolin monks reveals that Han’s men are responsible for the death of Lee’s sister. Lee is joined on the island by dozens of competitors, among them Roper (John Saxon), a gambler in trouble with the mob, and his friend, fellow Viet-Nam vet Williams, (Jim Kelly).
“Enter the Dragon” is classic 70’s drive-in/grindhouse fare featuring a simple plot designed to feature as much butt-kicking, ultra-violent martial arts action as possible. The film, released 3 months after Bruce Lee’s tragic death, launched Lee into the stratosphere as a legend and pop-culture icon. Essentially, it’s a riff on the James Bond formula, particularly “Dr. No,” and is ably abetted in this goal by exotic Hong Kong settings, a script that gives the lead actors’ sexual achievements equal screen-time (except for Lee who remains chaste throughout), and a funky, entertaining John Barry-esque score by Lalo Schifrin. While it features three Americans in the lead roles, and while the Asian actors are speaking their lines phonetically in English, everyone, including Lee and the American leads were all post-synched as well. Apart from the monk in the opening sequence, the film doesn’t feature the terrible dubbing typical of American releases of Asian films, but the totally re-looped soundtrack gives the film an odd, artificial quality.
What’s particularly interesting about “Enter the Dragon” is how easily John Saxon and Jim Kelly steal the film from Bruce Lee. Lee’s presence on-screen during the fight scenes (the combination of his rabbit-fast combat style and wild animalistic and over-the-top facial expressions is breathtaking) his dramatic scenes are a bit flat. In the long build-up to Lee’s combat sequences, his character drops out of the narrative and the dramatic emphasis is shifted onto Kelly and Saxon’s storyline. Whether this is due to cuts made to the film in editing (which seems likely) or the script itself is unknown, but the result is that Kelly and Saxon become the leads by the middle of the film, with Lee falling into a support function until the climax. What’s also a surprise is how exceptionally talented and convincing Saxon and Kelly are in their fight sequences. Kelly was a karate champion who went on to star in several hit “blaxploitation” films, but at this stage he was largely unknown. Contemporary audiences must have been quite surprised to see Saxon (a longtime black belt—who knew?), later an exploitation great, and relative unknown Kelly hold their own in their fight sequences. While no masterpiece, it’s a very entertaining film, and though somewhat hobbled by an unengaging build-up and erratic story development, it boasts some top-notch fight sequences and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The HD DVD image transfer is near-perfect. The razor sharp clarity visible during the majority of the film reveals pin-sharp levels of detail and visual information. Facial close-ups and sweaty skin tend to look extremely sharp and near three-dimensional in HD DVD and there’s plenty of both constantly on display in this film. A few wide shots appear somewhat softer than the close-ups, but since it’s mostly at during shots that zoom-out, this is most likely an indication that focus was slightly off during shooting, or the zoom lens had faulty focus at wider focal length setting. Again, one of the chief benefits of this format, in regard to this title, is the sense that we’re seeing everything as it was filmed—warts and all. As such, one notices when focus is off. For example, when Lee’s sister is trapped in the warehouse, as her enemies close in on her, you can tell she’s not quite in focus by just a hair. The presentation for a film of this kind is a real treat. The theatrical prints, especially once they hit the grindhouses must have looked grainy in the extreme with that sour Eastmancolor look, typical of exploitation films of the era. Warner’s HD DVD has been transferred and timed with pumped up, vibrant colors, that make the film much more visually appealing- the saturated reds, rich browns of the boats and the vibrant yellow robes have a distinct visual pop to them.
The sound has been remixed into 5.1 and is fine, though naturally lacking in the punch and surround separation of modern mixes. Originally released in mono, the remix displays the limits of the original sound effects. The mix is crisp and has more dynamic range than expected, but it doesn’t have much bass or surround presence. The music, on the other hand, sounds phenomenal and is given a great foregrounded presence. The surround mix of the music gives the movie a bit of a kick and raises the thrill-level whenever it appears.
Warner’s HD DVD release wisely includes all the content from 2004’s 2-disc DVD edition. It’s a definitive collection of supplements, featuring two feature-length documentaries on Bruce Lee and his career, several interesting featurettes, and a mountain of trailers and TV spots. Producer Paul Heller’s audio commentary is a hit and miss affair, as his comments are fairly sparse and the track is filled with gaps of silence. A few minutes in, Heller literally calls up the screenwriter Michael Allin in an attempt to include his observations, but both drop in and out with no real sense of regularity. Allin’s comments feel edited in afterward. They do offer a few interesting tidbits not mentioned elsewhere on the disc, but there’s still way too much silence on the track.
The standouts among the other voluminous bonuses are “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey,” a 100-minute overview of Lee’s career that’s an excellent primer and is filled with terrific interviews from relevant participants, fascinating archival footage and as the centerpiece, a welcome reconstruction of the last 30 minutes of “Game of Death.” Filmed, but not completed prior to “Enter the Dragon,” the reconstruction is a bit rough around the edges, but gives you a better feeling for what Lee intended that film to be. “Bruce Lee: The Curse of the Dragon,” (87minutes) focuses on the rumors around Lee’s tragic death in 1973 and the death of his son, Brandon, on the set of “The Crow” in 1993. Despite the seemingly exploitive subject, it’s actually a fairly restrained and thoughtful program, and the participation of Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell and the family’s close friends and associates, turn it into a moving tribute to both the father and the son. The rest of the supplements fill out the Bruce Lee story with fun clips of James Coburn and Lee working out together, great behind-the-scenes footage from “Enter the Dragon” courtesy of a promotional film crew and star Ahna Capri’s Super8 camera, Lee one-on-one interviews and more. It’s a package that’s respectful and well thought out, and provides a solid dimensional portrait of a legendary performer.