Say what you want about the appeal of the martial arts or "chop socky" movie, but its impact on modern American genre filmmaking is immeasurable. And no actor is more closely associated with the movement as to be virtually synonymous with the words "martial arts" as Bruce Lee. Without him, we wouldn't have had Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Yun-Fat Chow or Jet Li. Still not impressed? Then consider as Exhibit A, Lee's perhaps finest effort and certainly his most well-known film, 'Enter the Dragon.' Without this cult classic we probably would never had such modern films as 'The Matrix' trilogy, 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' and just about every comic book movie of the past two decades, not to mention the complete cinematic oeuvre of genre auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and John Carpenter. Okay, perhaps I'm overstating my case just a little bit, but it is hard to imagine these films and filmmakers working in the quite same way had it not been for the visual style and action aesthetic Lee pioneered in the early '70s.
Watching 'Enter the Dragon' today, over 30 years since it first debuted in 1973, I'm guessing that some younger moviegoers unfamiliar with cinema history may simply shrug their shoulders at the bad dubbing, cheap effects and CGI-less action sequences. But as a cinema child of the late '70s, let me tell you that Lee's over-the-top, physically amazing stunts in 'Enter the Dragon' were truly ground-breaking at the time. Lee didn't just jump, kick, slice and grunt -- he was a showman, a physical technician of balletic movement with an amazing prowess in front of the camera. Back then, Lee and his fellow actors and filmmakers had to figure out how to do this stuff live in front of the camera and without a safety net (this was before the days of blu-screen and CGI). That gives 'Enter the Dragon' a verisimilitude that even today's most technologically-adept filmmakers have trouble matching.
'Enter the Dragon' ended up being Lee's biggest hit, but tragically he wasn't alive to see it -- he died shortly after the film's completion but before its massive success turned him into a household name. Only 32 years-old, he was found dead under mysterious circumstances in his lover's apartment during pre-production on what would have been his next film, the unfortunately-titled 'Game of Death.' Granted, the film itself is a bit cheesy -- the plot ultimately means little (though the filmmakers and cast do take it seriously), the characters are fairly one-dimensional and the narrative often comes to a dead stop whenever another action scene is needed. But regardless, 'Enter the Dragon' remains a seminal work -- and as the last film in a promising career cut short, a signpost of what could have been. 'Enter the Dragon' will always be Bruce Lee's epitaph, and it is hard to imagine a more fitting one.
Warner Home Video has released 'Enter the Dragon' no less than four times on standard DVD. (If that doesn't set some sort of a record for the number of re-releases of the same film from a major studio, you certainly can't blame them for trying.) Though the bare bones original release is best forgotten, Warner then issued the film three times in various "Commemorative" editions, with the latest in particular delivering impressive video quality. This first-ever HD DVD release looks minted from that same master (even the minor instances of print artifacts all appear in the same spots) and it is always a pleasure to see that a film so old can look this good.
With 'Enter the Dragon' already having past its silver anniversary, its elements have held up surprisingly well. Like most films produced in the 1970s, this one has a slightly dark cast to it, which is especially noticeable on faces and in darkly-lit interiors, where shadow delineation is lacking compared to a modern release. Still, what a clean print this is: while a small amount of grain is present and appropriate to the source material, I've seen films from the '80s and even '90s look far worse. Colors are also surprisingly robust and exceed the clarity and smoothness on even the most recent standard DVD release. Detail and sharpness are also strong, with the film achieving a level of depth in spots that is striking for a film of this vintage. However, this transfer does suffer from a bit of fading in the blacks and colors in some shots (especially any involving the use of special effects mattes) but nothing unexpected.
(Note: Some readers have reported noticeable stairstepping artifacts on 'Enter the Dragon.' It appears the transfer may be another Warner HD DVD release that has been upconverted to 1080p from a 1080i master, like the recent 'The Fugitive' and 'Full Metal Jacket' which can result in artifacts if de-interlacing is not done correctly. However, in my subsequent direct comparison between 'Enter the Dragon' and both 'The Fugitive' and 'Full Metal Jacket,' I did find notice some sporadic stairstepping on 'Enter the Dragon' only if I shortened my viewing distance to my 65" HP Pavilion HDTV to about 6 feet or less (my normal viewing distance is about 12 feet). However, I found the artifacts far less apparent than on 'The Fugitive' and 'Full Metal Jacket.' I also switched between 1080i and 1080p display modes on and the situation seemed to improve at 1080p. Hopefully, Warner will cease releasing HD DVD titles in the future that are upconverted from 1080i masters. Until then, some readers, especially those with sufficiently larger screen sizes, may find this stairstepping problem unacceptable and wish to hold off on a purchase until if and when Warner decides to remaster these early titles from true 1080p source material.)
Although the included Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack is not as impressive as the video transfer, it does stand tall among other films of its vintage and type. Warner also recently remastered the sound (again) for the latest standard DVD release, which boasted slight if noticeable improvements over past incarnations. Any limitations the Dolby Digital-Plus track here exhibits are all due to the dated source material.
As you would expect on a '70s-era soundtrack, dynamic range is often lacking. High end sounds cramped and inorganic, with harshness commonplace (especially on all those fake chop-socky sound effects and of course the hilarious dubbing, which sound endearingly phony) and midrange is also constrained. However, low end is a bit more robust than on past versions of 'Enter the Dragon,' which gives the flick some much-needed heft even if this is a far cry from 'The Matrix.' However, on the plus side, the film's score sounds better than it ever has with a more natural and pleasing presence and some nice stereo effects. Surround use remains flat, though, with the rears hardly emanating much in the way of truly discrete sounds save for the spare effect and bleed from the score. Imaging is also poor and generally obvious, though admittedly it only adds to the movie's retro charms. Certainly, it is hard to imagine 'Enter the Dragon' will ever sound much better than this.
Since Warner has already had four tries to get this one right, 'Enter the Dragon' comes fully loaded with extras on HD DVD. In fact, I found the supplements more satisfying than the film itself, partially because the extensive documentaries and featurettes included go far beyond the movie to examine Bruce Lee's life, times and legacy, which is fascinating.
The heart of the extras are two-full length documentaries that are an embarrassment of riches -- just one of these alone would have made this release a must-have for fans. Though the 87-minute "Curse of the Dragon," narrated by 'Star Trek's George Takai, could at times get a bit tabloid-y for my taste, it is still a very comprehensive look at the all-too-short life of the late actor. Of course it examines in-depth the supposed "curse" that befell both Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee (who was accidentally shot and killed on the set of 1993's 'The Crow'), though I felt it was a tad stronger when it examined the impact the film's martial arts style and aesthetic has had on modern cinema. So I give the edge to the second documentary on the disc, "Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey," produced in 2000. More personal and passionate on Lee's most unique cinematic career, it achieves a genuine touching resonance by the end of its 99-minutes, and also contains much rare footage from Lee's final, unfinished production "The Game of Death." Another piece of essential viewing.
Funny enough, of the main extras I found the screen-specific audio commentary with producer Paul Heller and screenwriter Michael Allin (by way of speakerphone) perhaps the weakest of the bunch. Granted, Heller and Allin have a rather large burden to carry; with both Lee and director Robert Clouse both having since passed, and they indeed do an admirable job of filling us in on a wealth of great production info. But alas, the track is a bit dry after a while and I found it a tough slog near the end. Especially as the extensive extras do such a great job of filling us in on the importance of 'Enter the Dragon' in a much more visual manner. (Note that for some reason Warner has not advertised the commentary on the back of the HD DVD box, but it is indeed included on the disc.)
The remaining video-based supplements are a collection of shorter retrospective and vintage featurettes and interviews. "Blood and Steel: Making of 'Enter the Dragon'" was produced in 1998 and runs 30 minutes. Featuring then-new interviews with Heller, co-producer Fred Weintraub and the late James Coburn, it is a nice digest-like version of the audio commentary but with plenty of behind-the-scenes making-of material. "Bruce Lee: In His Own Words" was also assembled in 1998 but of course features only black & white archival footage of Lee shot before his death. Nicely illuminating, it is great to see how personable and humble a man Lee really was. Finally, Lee's widow contributes the 16-minute "An Interview with Linda Lee Cadwell," which is divided into ten vignettes. Offering a sometimes moving perspective on the actor's experiences filming 'Enter the Dragon' and then-burgeoning fame, this is another piece well worth watching.
Rounding out the extras are some promo items. "Lair Of The Dragon" features both the original 1973 10-minute promo featurette on the making of the movie, as well as a short 2-minute video clip of Lee working out in preparation for the film. There are also no less than four theatrical trailers and nine TV spots. Some of these are priceless retro gems and boy, has the art of marketing movies come a long way.
The influence of Bruce Lee and 'Enter the Dragon' is so great that the film is above film criticism -- simply put, it's a martial arts classic. As they did on the HD DVD edition last summer, Warner Home Entertainment has done Bruce Lee proud on Blu-ray, with strong video and audio, and enough extras that the hours of materials here may take you days to watch. For only $28.95 list, this disc is well worth the investment for Bruce Lee fans. Sure, I would have liked one of those bonus "In-Movie Experience" features (certainly, this film deserves it more than 'The Dukes of Hazzard'), but for a fair $28.95 list price this is well worth the investment for Bruce Lee fans.