12/03/2017

Enter The Dragon - Fight Focus

Thoughts On: Enter The Dragon (1973)

For honour, country and family, Lee must enter a deadly fighting competition.


Terrible sound design. Awful acting. Clunky writing. Mediocre direction. Amazing movie.

Enter The Dragon is little more than an undeniably great movie, and though it is formally dated, it maintains some sense of power as a fun picture. This is a result of its approach to the image - one that is focused on icons, spectacle and 'the cool'. But, whilst this is the resounding strength of Enter The Dragon, it does come with a lot of down-sides. In searching for visionary imagery, everyone working on this film loses a coherent sense of control. This means that the directors, Bruce Lee and Robert Clouse, do not manage their cinematic space or mise-en-scène with much dexterity. With his camera movement and framing, Clouse doesn't consistently convey clear continuity or the actual surroundings in which action occurs. This leaves scenes confusing and juddering as there's often too many close-ups and not enough fluid wide shots. Moreover, the cinematic language used in many scenes is not very impactful as it doesn't always put across emotion, weight, power or tangibility (which is key in action movies). Lee's direction and choreography of the fight sequences also lacks continuity, fluidity and a musical sense of rhythm that can be seen in later martial arts pictures. Granted, this is an early martial arts film, however, that famous staccato approach to movie action that Lee has isn't incredibly convincing, nor is it as awe-inspiring as it must have been 45 years ago. Added to this, Allin, the screenwriter, has written a very bland script that does well in its management of character, but is simply cliched and, at some points, laughable.

But, despite this criticism, Enter The Dragon tips the scales with all it does well. This is because, in the simplest words, this is a cool movie - one of the coolest ever made.

The history of action movies is a pretty thin one that gives away to diverging genres until we reach the 60s. In the silent era and early talky period, action films were primarily swashbuckling pictures like Fairbanks' Robin Hood and The Mark Of Zorro or Errol Flynn's Robin Hood and Captain Blood.

      

Added to this, there has always been Westerns - from The Great Train Robbery to The Iron Horse to Stagecoach to High Noon to The Searchers.

        

And, of course, there has also always been war movies; Intolerance, Battleship Potempkin, Napoleon, All Quiet On The Western Front, Hell's Angels... ect.

        

But, as will be clear to anyone, none of these action movies are anything like Bruce Lee's films - nor martial arts movies in general. This is because Hong Kong martial arts films did what few other action movies ever had; they let the fights become the spectacle. This is what separates films like Enter The Dragon from war movies, westerns and even mob pictures with a focus on guns and violence. Said movies all used fights in broad strokes or as plot points...



... or, as in swashbuckling pictures, other genres would be incorporated into the story, genres such as romance and adventure...



... and in such, we saw spectacle and drama born out of a use of violence, not a focus on it. The reason for this was primarily censorship. Movies would have to use violence 'sensibly' otherwise they'd be considered gratuitous and never given a release. This was until the 60s, however, when the studio system in Hollywood dissolved and let loose films without the codes, rules and standards of the classical era. This is what eventually lead to the first major, big budget co-production between America and Hong Kong...


What this film emphasised was the 'art' of a fight. I believe this focus is what lies at the core of the success of this movie and the genre of the martial arts film. These movies resonate with people because we all have hands...


... and we all have feet...


Conversely, guns...


... tanks...


... swords...


... and historical contexts...


... are often alien to the average person - especially those with the most imagination: kids. This leaves war/adventure films, gangster/western movies and historical pictures on a back foot in comparison to movies where guys are just punching and kicking. There are no gadgets, there are no armies, there are no weapons, there are no secret organisations, there is no historical ambiguity or disconnect. This all means that it's easier to dream that you're Bruce Lee than it is to dream that you're John Wayne or Errol Flynn because martial arts as a basic concept is so much more accessible.

This must have been what the marketers for Enter The Dragon understood as they offered free karate classes and produced a whole array of products and media surrounding this picture before it was ever released. The fruits of this was the huge martial arts craze of the 70s, and what must have added to this was not only the accessibility of martial arts, but of the story and production showcased in the film. What I mean to reference here are the racial undertones of Enter The Dragon. It not only explores oriental culture, but has elements of blaxploitation with Jim Kelly...


Enter The Dragon is even seen as a film with connections to the Black Power movement - as would be evident in the police scene. All of this gives Enter The Dragon an appeal to any and everyone who has that something in them that draws them to action, fighting and standing up to the man.

All of this is what encompasses the idea that this is a cool movie. Cool can mean suave, smooth and unshakable...


... but, more poignantly, cool can simultaneously mean righteously powerful...


It's these cuts and Lee's clenched fists that then represent a new focus on what it is to fight in action movie; it's all about the individual hero physically overcoming adversity with nothing but his body. This is why there's beauty and tremendous weight to be found in martial arts movies - we are in awe of the raw struggle.

It's this new focus in Enter The Dragon that acts as the overwhelming substance of the story and film; a substance and essence that overwhelms formal and aesthetic problems with the narrative and picture. And it's this that is the cause of the excited buzzing sensation you get when watching a Bruce Lee film. With sheer emotive force, the martial arts film hits deep, it took a while for cinematic language to communicate this, but it has always been there - just watch Enter The Dragon if you don't believe me.

In the end, what are your thoughts? What are your favourite kind of action films?





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