'Enter the Dragon': The First Classy Kung Fu Movie
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
August 30, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 35
Getting the thrust of Kung Fu
by William Paul
"ENTER THE DRAGON" is the first classy Kung Fu movie specially designed for Western audiences, and that's not to be confused with first-class. What it does mean is that the casting of the three leads has an ecumenical flavor: one Oriental (Bruce Lee), one Caucasian (John Saxon), one Negro (Jim Kelly), and all of them musclebound male. And that it's filmed directly in English rather than dubbed, which gives you a slightly queasy feeling about lots of American dollars having been siphoned off into needy Hong Kong banks on this more than cheapjack production.
And that it borrows heavily from a half-dozen other round-eye action films, especially "The Lady from Shanghai" with its replicating mirror sequence, the borrowings coming damn close to plagiarism. Or is it all supposed to be parody anyway? In any case, all the sources are kung-fuized with a handful of balletic chop-chop numbers, but never disguised enough so that an audience can't forget how much it enjoyed the originals or even be lulled into thinking that it's enjoying the present derivation.
There's not much more overt sex in "Dragon" than in any James Bond movie, but there are so many sexy overtones that in retrospect they become the film's dominant, a phallic-genital fascination that borders on the clinical. It's not just the phallic connotations of all those rigidly thrusting hands or upward lunging kicks, or even all that moaning and groaning that accompanies every thrust and parry, enough lascivious howling to make the soundtrack of any current porno rage seem sedate. The real clincher comes in the film's countless production numbers which always grind the narrative to a halt and produce a bizarre echo of musical comedy; there's even a Gene Kelly-type credit here of "fight sequences staged by Bruce Lee." The highlight of most of the numbers is the big ball-crusher, that triumphant moment when one of our heroes punches or kicks his opponent in the groin, causing the soundtrack to belch out a loud crunch and proving time and again to anyone stupid enough to trifle with the threatening trio that a fool and his tool are soon parted. "Dragon" is nothing if not consistent, and it's elaborate finale centers on sharp, slicing weapons which make it clear that castration is life's number one fear.
In my most civilized, right-thinking frame of mind, I'd like to dismiss the film as abhorrently grotesque masculine fantasy, but I have to admit that beneath all conscious aspirations to the gentleness of St. Francis, deep down in the most shadowy recesses of my subconscious the fantasy struck a responsive chord. At a time when all conventional sex roles have been called into question, there's an engaging simplicity in the film's insistence on defining character chiefly in terms of sexual function: the men's purpose in life solely to thrust, that of the few women in the film solely to be screwed. It's possible that the current Kung Fu craze, as well as the rash of buddy-buddy love stories, is all a logical backlash reaction to Woman's Lib, which brings me to what I'd really like to know: are there any women who respond to the fantasy of "Enter the Dragon"? How now, NOW, what do you make of this?
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]