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Enter the Dragon (HD DVD)

Warner Bros. // R // July 11, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 23, 2006 | E-mail the Author
With as pervasive as the influence of Chinese culture has been on film and television over the past thirty years, it's difficult to believe that it really wasn't all that long ago that Chinese actors struggled against discrimination and were relegated to stock roles of one or two stereotypes. Bruce Lee changed all that in 1973 with Enter the Dragon -- Hollywood's first attempt at bringing the Hong Kong martial arts film to the U.S. -- although in a cruel twist of fate, Lee passed away before ever having the chance to see how immensely popular and deeply influential his film would be.

The plot itself is a standard spy caper: the enigmatic Han (Kien Shih) is an opium and prostitution kingpin holed up in a remote, untouchable island fortress. The island is completely self-sufficient, and the reclusive, paranoid Han's only direct contact with the outside world is in the triennial fighting tournament hosted by his martial arts school. A British intelligence agency wants to shut down Han's operation, but they lack the necessary proof to justify an attack, and even though they've been able to sneak an operative onto the island, smuggling in weaponry has proven impossible. Lee is among the fighters Han has recruited for the tournament, along with penniless gambler Roper (John Saxon) and afroed fugitive Williams (Jim Kelly), and this unnamed intelligence agency seeks Lee's assistance in infiltrating Han's facility and obtaining the evidence they need to mount an assault.

Bruce Lee wanted Enter the Dragon to be more than just an hour and a half of formulaic chop socky; he wanted to imbue the film with his own personal philosophies, and much of the first twenty minutes or so are heavy on Lee-influenced dialogue as well as flashbacks establishing the backstories of the central characters. These are the most tedious moments of the film, but viewers who can trudge through until Roper, Williams, and Lee set foot on Han's island fortress are rewarded with dozens upon dozens of Han's minions being mauled into submission. The Bond-inspired premise is endearingly ridiculous and occasionally scatterbrained, introducing elements like Han's inner circle of daughters and undercover operative Mei Ling without bothering to do anything with either of them. The movie's earnest and unaware how silly and dated it is, but that's part of the appeal. Of course, the greatest draw is Bruce Lee, who, even all these years later, still has a commanding presence on-screen. The fight choreography never fails to impress, and Enter the Dragon wisely avoids having too much time pass between brawls. Lee singlehandedly fends off waves and waves of Han's minions, both with his fists of fury and the then-obscure nunchaku, and the climactic battle in the hall of mirrors against Han and his razor-edged left hand remains perhaps the most memorable of any martial arts-driven film.

Enter the Dragon may not be a great film in the conventional sense, but it is tremendously entertaining once the movie gets underway, and it's such a pop culture touchstone that it deserves to be seen at least once.

Video: I've read gripes on several message boards that Enter the Dragon suffers from the same compromised, aliased appearance as a handful of other Warner HD DVD titles. This may very well be true, but no such problems were apparent from my standard viewing distance. The 2.40:1 high definition presentation isn't quite the revelation that Blazing Saddles was, but it is further proof for the naysayers that a thirty year old-plus film still benefits greatly from the increased resolution HD DVD offers.

Enter the Dragon exceeded my expectations in nearly every way. The image is predominately smooth and clean, with only a handful of tiny white flecks creeping onto the screen. The level of film grain present appears natural and unintrusive, and neither it nor any other element of the image resulted in any hiccups in the compression. The presentation is somewhat inconsistent -- contrast, color saturation, and detail can vary somewhat from shot to shot -- but considering the producers' comments about the filthy Hong Kong lab that developed the film, this may have been unavoidable. A handful of shots look as if they could've been filmed last Thursday, the most visually disappointing moments make up a nearly negligible percentage of the movie, and the remainder falls anywhere between "good" and "very good". Viewers who go in with realistic expectations ought to be pleased.

Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix sounds about as good as I imagine it ever will, given the age of the movie, the questionable looping of dialogue, and the stock sound effects. Fidelity and dynamic range are a bit better than I thought they'd be, and there's infrequently some decent imaging, most notably as the camera flits around in the banquet sequence. Understandably dated but fine.

The original monaural audio is absent, although dubs in Spanish and French are also provided alongside subtitles in all three languages.

Supplements: The most recent DVD release of Enter the Dragon was a special edition of extraordinary magnitude, containing around six hours of extras that have all been ported over to this HD DVD.

The half-hour "Blood and Steel: The Making of Enter the Dragon" stands out as one of the best DVD documentaries I've watched in the past year, interviewing much of the surviving key cast and crew and incorporating a great deal of vintage, candid footage and production stills. Nearly every conceivable angle is covered, including the project's genesis, casting, set design, struggling with the language barrier and comparatively rudimentary film technique in Hong Kong, creating new sequences on the fly, and crafting the film's immediately distinctive score. It's comprehensive and tightly edited, a description that unfortunately can't be applied to the audio commentary with producer Paul Heller and, less prominently, screenwriter Michael Allin over a muffled speakerphone. The commentary isn't even listed with the rest of the extras on the flipside of the case, and it's really just as well; it's a meek, polite, quiet discussion, most of the highlights are covered elsewhere on this disc, and there's not enough substance to make it worth the time or effort.

Some of the interviews from "Blood and Steel" were culled from Curse of the Dragon, one of two feature length documentaries about the life and legacy of Bruce Lee on this disc. Narrated by George Takei, this 1993 documentary incorporates comments from a wide assortment of Lee's friends, students, and collaborators as well as lengthy excerpts from a number of his films. The documentary is a fairly straightforward look at Lee's life and has little of the sort of dark stickiness suggested by the use of "curse" in the title. The parallels of the life and death of Brandon Lee are also briefly discussed in the last fifteen minutes or so of the film. Although I enjoyed Curse of the Dragon on the whole, the editing is loose and clumsy, and one baffling, profoundly annoying editing choice pervasive throughout the entire documentary is that the interviews overlap, with one speaker fading out as the next fades in.

The other feature-length documentary is the more recent and much more polished Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey. It focuses less on Lee's accomplishments and more on the man in its first half, and the remainder is primarily devoted to his never-properly-completed film, The Game of Death. An extensive amount of rediscovered footage from the film -- topping half an hour in length -- is provided. Not enhanced for widescreen displays but still properly letterboxed, these recently uncovered scenes are wall-to-wall martial arts. The fight choreography is phenomenal, and as Lee's character is pitted against more capable opponents, the contrast between Enter the Dragon -- where Lee quickly dispatches legions of fighters -- and these prolonged, more intimate battles is especially compelling.

The twenty minute documentary "Bruce Lee: In His Own Words" is a compilation of archival interviews with the actor from several different sources, and in cases where accompanying video wasn't available, the audio plays under still photographs and footage from Enter the Dragon. It's primarily Lee discussing his philosophies in life as a martial artist, as an actor, and as a person, offering insight into what a bright, thoughtful man this legendary fighter was.

Linda Lee Cadwell discusses much of the same, as well as offering her late husband's perception of Enter the Dragon and her own experiences on the set, in a series of short interviews. I have no doubt that the sentiment is genuine, although I'm still left with the impression that Cadwell has told these stories so many times over the past thirty years that her comments sound somewhat pre-prepared and over-rehearsed. There are ten segments that run sixteen minutes in total, and they can be viewed individually or played consecutively.

Some vintage promotional material is also provided, including a sparsely narrated seven minute featurette from 1973 and an extensive gallery of repetitive, clunky trailers and TV spots. Take a shot every time you hear "Roper! Williams! And Lee..." Rounding out the extras is a two-minute set of black and white home video footage of Lee working out in his backyard.

Conclusion: The first martial arts movie to break into the American mainstream and still the genre's most defining film, Enter the Dragon has a very pulpy approach that's sure to turn off younger viewers whose idea of a classic action movie is Lethal Weapon III. Although not all of the film has aged gracefully, once Bruce Lee steps foot on Han's island, I'm as thrilled by the action now as I was when I was a bright-eyed kid. Enter the Dragon is a movie that's worth seeing at least once, and the wealth of supplemental material and the overall quality of the presentation makes this HD DVD a worthy purchase. Recommended.

Standard image disclaimer: the pictures scattered around this review were lifted from various promotional stills and don't necessarily reflect the appearance of this HD DVD.
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