Enter the Dragon (UK - BD)
Chris Gould takes a belated look at the seminal 70s martial arts flick on Blu-ray
Master martial artist Lee (Bruce Lee) is recruited by an intelligence agency to infiltrate the island fortress of international drug trafficker, Han (Kien Shih). The stakes are further raised by the involvement of Han's bodyguard, O'Hara, in the death of Lee's sister and Han's betrayal of the Shaolin Temple, for which Lee's masters demand retribution. Lee's cover is a triennial martial arts tournament held on Han's island, which is also attended by the two Americans, the charismatic hustler, Roper (John Saxon), and the streetwise idealist, Williams (Jim Kelly). Together the three warriors must survive the perils of the tournament on the road to the ultimate showdown with Han himself.
I don't claim to be the world's most knowledgeable martial arts fan, but I've seen my fair share of genre pictures over the years starting from a young age. When I was a kid the kung fu craze was still in full effect and I have some pretty vivid memories of watching Lee's films on TV in what must have been the relatively early eighties, with very specific memories of Enter the Dragon itself. It might sound a little strange, but my grandmother was a big fan of the film (on account of raising a Lee-obsessed son) and one of my warmest remembrances is of watching it with her on DVD shortly before she passed away. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to share those multi-generational memories and it's for this reason that Enter the Dragon will always have a special place in my heart.
With that said, I'm not above looking t the film critically and truth be told the cracks are starting to show. While the film's cultural significance is undeniable, there have been much better martial arts films in terms of story, performance and action. Hell, this isn't even Bruce Lee's best movie! The film's cliché-ridden plot, hammy acting and racial insensitivity seem anachronistic by today's standards, and Lee himself is sidelined for far too much of the runtime in order to accommodate the presence of the American stars (particularly John Saxon). Lee is such a powerful screen presence that every minute he's away from the camera is a minute spent waiting for his return. The film's fight sequences are also a bit of a disappointment when compared to Lee's Chinese movies and the hyper-kinetic, over-the-top action found in other genre pictures. Of course much of this can be forgiven when you consider that it was the star's first American production, and had he survived I've no doubt he would have gone on to much bigger and better things. Still, I have to ask myself whether Enter the Dragon be viewed with such reverence had it been just the first in a long line of Lee's American martial arts pictures, rather than his swansong. I can't honestly say that it would.
I skipped the previous Blu-ray releases of Enter the Dragon on account of their myriad issues. Poor definition, horrible aliasing artefacts and some seriously screwy colour were all to be found on those discs. When viewing this new 40th Anniversary Edition it dawned on me that it was the first time I'd watched the film since the early part of the new millennium, back when DVD was king and Blu-ray was just a glint in the eyes of a bunch of consumer electronics giants. While not perfect, this Blu-ray is as far-removed from the DVD as it was from the VHS and television broadcast viewings of my childhood.
The first thing that struck me was just how clean the image was compared to previous versions. If there were any film artefacts I honestly didn't spot them, so kudos must go to Warner for the restoration. Thankfully grain hasn't been eliminated, as evidenced by the more than healthy dose on display throughout. There are a few stabilisation issues, not to mention a number of extremely soft and even out of focus scenes, but all of these things can be attributed to the original photography rather than to problems with the transfer. In fact, detail is surprisingly good for the most part, especially in close-ups. Colour is also much richer than previous efforts, with some wonderfully bright primaries on display in everything from the combatants' robes to the Hong Kong countryside. Everything looks more natural this time around, with the unsightly cast that turned white robes into a light blue robes nowhere to be found. Colours do occasionally fluctuate mid-scene and skin tones are perhaps a little too 'hot', but on the whole the changes are welcome ones. Contrast also appears improved, but as the image is a bit darker than previous releases I was initially fearful that detail might be lost to the shadows. However, while it's possible that there's some very minor crush going on it's really nothing to get too worked about. I should probably also mention the framing, which retains the original aspect ratio but is slightly zoomed when compared to older releases. This results in a loss of picture information on all for sides of the image, but to be honest it's probably something you'd notice only if you were making a side-by-side comparison. When you consider the fact that it is a forty year old B-movie Enter the Dragon looks better than it has any right to look. Warner has done a great job with this anniversary edition.
The quality of the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track here is such that you'd be forgiven for forgetting the film's humble mono origins. Honestly, Warner has done a terrific job of coaxing a multi-channel soundtrack from such a limited source. Much of the action is rooted at the front of the sound-stage, but there's a surprising amount of separation. There isn't a whole lot of front to back panning - only an airliner flyby really comes to mind - but the surrounds are employed for atmospheric purposes in a number of scenes (such as the sounds of chirping birds when Lee visits the graveyard). From what I've read the film was shot without synchronised sound and it really shows. The looped dialogue often pays scant regard to the movement of the actor's mouths, but on the plus side it is extremely well positioned in the mix, never once becoming lost amongst the other elements. Dynamic range is also limited - the zany 70s sound effects sound harsh and there's no real bass to speak of - but this is to be expected given the source. The real star of the show is Lalo Schifrin's fantastically cheesy (by today's standards) score, which is almost ever-present and sounds better than ever. Realistically if you put this up against any modern sound mix it would be destroyed, but as far as respectful remixes that enhance the viewing experience go, it's a great effort.
This release of the film includes an extremely comprehensive collection of bonus material, including one feature-length documentary and three new featurettes. Here's a complete breakdown:
- Audio Commentary: Producer Paul Heller is joined by writer Michael Allin (who dials in via phone) for a rather dry commentary track punctuated by frequent bouts of silence. There are a few interesting titbits of knowledge to be gained here, but time has left both men with limited memories of the shoot. It's definitely not a track to listen to in bed, unless you're actively trying to fall asleep.
- No Way As Way: This featurette focuses on Bruce Lee's philosophy by way of archival footage of the man himself, framed by interviews with Sugar Ray Leonard, George Takei, Steve Aoki, Wren Lee Keasler, and Linda and Shannon Lee, all of whom learned from Lee's example.
- The Return to Han's Island: This is a really great little featurette that revisits the various locations utilised when shooting Enter the Dragon. While some of the locations have given way to modern developments a surprising number have survived relatively unchanged for forty years.
- Wing Chun: The Art That Introduced Kung Fu to Bruce Lee: This featurette examines the history of Wing Chun and includes interviews with David Peterson, Ip Chun, Sam Kowk and Danny Xuan, who also give a number of demonstrations and discuss the Bruce Lee connection.
- Blood and Steel: The Making of Enter the Dragon: This vintage making of featurette runs for over thirty minutes and provides a fairly detailed account of the filmmaking process. It focuses on things like choreography, stunts and performance, and includes interview footage with a number of Bruce's friends and colleagues.
- Bruce Lee: In His Own Words: This featurette includes some rare interview footage with the man himself, but it is marred by the inclusion of too many film clips.
- Linda Lee Cadwell Interviews: Bruce's widow recounts tales of her late husband's various exploits, from his martial arts and acting work, to his role as a husband and father.
- 1973 Archive Featurette: As the name implies, this is a vintage production featurette that will have those of you old enough to remember the fashions and trends of the seventies and early eighties welling up with nostalgia.
- Backyard Workout with Bruce: A short black and white home video that sows Bruce training.
- Curse of the Dragon: This feature-length documentary (narrated by George 'Sulu' Takei) offers a fairly comprehensive look at Lee's death and that of his son, Brandon, who died years later in an accidental shooting on the set of The Crow. It features numerous interviews with many of Lee's friends and colleges, along with behind-the-scenes footage, although the quality of said footage is pretty rough. It makes for pretty interesting viewing, but some poor editing decisions (the fades between interviews are incredibly clumsy) take the shine off of the presentation.
- Trailers and TV Spots: A collection of eight vintage trailers and TV spots from the era when narrators oversold the films and explained most of the plot.
- Ultraviolet Digital Copy: A redeemable code allows you to add the film to you UV library to stream or download to a compatible device.
It would appear that a great many people hold the view that Enter the Dragon is the best martial arts film ever made. I don't subscribe to that particular view - it's been surpassed numerous times when it comes to action, style and sheer filmmaking quality - but I still have a soft spot for it some thirty years after I first saw Bruce tearing up the screen. Lee is a fantastic screen presence and his intensity offsets a lot of the film's shortcomings, and it's a testament to the man's talent that it's still so popular forty years after his death. Whatever my thoughts on the film this Blu-ray release is a fan's dream. It's easily the best the film has ever looked, the remixed soundtrack breathes new life into the action sequences, and the bonus material is both comprehensive and insightful. Simply put, this is the version of the film to own.
* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 22nd July 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Mono French, Dolby Digital Mono German, Dolby Digital Mono Italian, Dolby Digital Mono Castilian Spanish, Dolby Digital Stereo Spanish, Dolby Digital Stereo Polish, Dolby Digital 5.1 Russian
Subtitles: English HoH, French, German HoH, Italian HoH, Castilian Spanish, Korean, Spanish, Greek, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Turkish
Extras: Audio Commentary, Documentary, Featurettes, Interviews, Trailers, TV Spots, UV Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Robert Clouse
Cast: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Kien Shih, Bob Wall, Ahna Capri, Bolo Yeung, Betty Chung, Angela Mao
Length: 98 minutes
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