Give us another film like Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.
At one point, early in Bruce Lee’s 1972 karate classic-to-be, Enter the Dragon, British Intelligence recruiter “Braithwaite” offers Lee whiskey, which he refuses as though it contains all the weaknesses of Western culture. Braithwaite’s droopy shrug ‘n gulp response serves to confirm for the audience that one of these two knows some things the other doesn’t.
As Braithwaite reveals more of Enter the Dragon’s cloak-and-dagger intrigue, Lee suggests someone just go in and shoot the bad guy. Initially, the question seems like a no-brainer, but Braithwaite assures Lee that possession of a gun on an island off of Hong Kong is a whopper of a British Colonial no-no: if firearms were suspected, he seems to say, the Queen herself would arrive to tidy things up. Moreover, this particular bad guy, “Han,” suspects he could be assassinated at any moment, so he’s particularly sensitive. “Can’t really blame him,” Braithwaite reasons. “Any bloody fool can pull a trigger.”
That line, delivered by another character in another film or era, could easily have slipped past, unnoticed. But when Enter the Dragon was released in ’73, it changed the world – and I mean overnight. Western audiences, long accustomed to the action movie perspectives of white men with guns and horsies, were suddenly forced to recognize a mainstreaming of Asians and brown people. “Shaft” wasn’t going anywhere, and now he had badass company. A lot of us were ready to hang on Bruce Lee’s every word, especially since the man died strangely just a week before Enter the Dragon was released.
That event itself was a conspiratorial marvel that helped sell thousands of martial arts magazines, all of which promised to fuel the mystique of Lee’s legacy. By the time I was ten, my own stack of Black Belt and Inside Kung Fu magazines was tall enough to stand on – so I could paper my bedroom walls with Bruce Lee posters.
From the pages of one such periodical, I ordered a Game of Death tracksuit, which my folks encouraged, as it was my first run at retail mail-order. I put it on as soon as it arrived and started sweating immediately: it was the scratchiest, lowest grade nylon imaginable, and it was too small. I felt like a sucker, but I buried it. I’d waited too long. Ill-fitting or not, within minutes I was walking right out the front door. And yes, I can still hear the laughter. Even worse were the erupting faces of the kids who held it back.
Yet there was hardly a kid around who didn’t relate, who didn’t engage in the debate over which martial art, artists, schools, and “training products” were the best. Or who could beat Bruce Lee. Plus there was always that linguistic biggie, the proper, “respectful” way to pronounce “numchucks.” That ain’t it, trust me, but you won’t actually get confirmation from the movie; despite its all-powerful use in the film, the weapon is never actually named. Enter the Dragon just isn’t formal or full of itself like that. Knowing head nods serve to highlight connections between the characters, and chins are often popped up to say hello or I get it.
With the exception of Braithwaite, Enter the Dragon’s characters speak in what was then considered loose, California-talk, using words like “faked out,” “man,” and “cat,” as in, “Whaddya know about this Han cat?” Easy Rider got there first, of course, with its vernacular of drug use and road trip freedom, but that was the sort of language more or less expected from a movie about fringe-by-choice fuck ups. Enter the Dragon took us farther. The power of Braithwaite’s disdain for guns was equal to Lee’s contempt for the liquor. “Any bloody fool can pull a trigger,” was vigorously accepted as code by young audiences. Fans picked it apart, and it felt like a higher standard. Even the movie’s grindhouse-esque trailer promises that the human body is more deadly than bullets. Okay-sure, it immediately became a gimmick, but I’ll bet it saved more lives than today’s name calling, finger pointing, foot stomping, and cries for politicians to save us from the second amendment!
When “Williams,” Jim Kelly’s doomed Enter the Dragon character, breaks a racist LAPD cop’s nightstick in half before breaking his face, audiences saw right off the bat just how different this movie was going to be. The diversity in the cheers that followed this mother of all comeuppance karate scenes made ‘em even louder.
Even more importantly, Enter the Dragon helped re-focus Americans’ collective lens on a group ‘til then most commonly referred to as “Orientals.” Stereotypes such as those promoted through the dismissive, chopsocky kitsch of Carl Douglas’ radio hit, “Kung Fu Fighting” were challenged by Lee’s legacy, as well as by his Chinese and Filipino-American colleagues: Dan Inosanto, Sammo Hung, and Jackie Chan. Among others, these were guys who essentially negated everything we thought we knew about Asian cultures. Now, not only did we know more about Asians, we wanted to be more like them.
I couldn’t say why, but the older I got, the more I respected Lee’s refusal of the whiskey. Other admonitions were far quicker to sink in. Hundreds of viewings later, for example, I’m still awed by Angela Mao, playing Lee’s sister, Su Lin. After utterly annihilating a gang of attackers with surgical strikes, Su Lin is finally cornered. As the gang leader catches up, the resignation and dignity in her face is devastating. Su Lin knows what’s coming, and also that none of these shit-stains will get their chance. From that day forward, I understood that real men don’t force themselves on women. My reverence for what I took away from this film as a ten-year-old is difficult to measure.
So even though dorky Braithwaite was the one to blithely dismiss the use of guns, it was clear to us that this was all a part of the same lesson plan, made accessible through slang and story. Each character’s journey seemed dependent on how well he bridged so many cultural and linguistic gaps; it was highly persuasive when they navigated the differences so smoothly. I wanted to be that. Maybe not smooth, but uninhibited by other cultures — and unarmed.
I’ll watch just about any movie where dudes get their heads busted with flying feet, fists, and lead pipes. But my allegiance lies with (now rare) films in which only chickenshits fight with guns. Given the rise in firearm violence in America since the ‘70s, it sounds like we could use another Enter the Dragon.
Tuesday, April 2
Gun violence in America during Easter weekend: 2 of the 25 people shot in Chicago were fatalities. An Ohio man walked into an Easter Sunday church service and fatally shot his father. In Texas a group of men fired wildly into apartments in a revenge attack for shootings and a murder that occurred the day before Easter. Guns seem to be more and more how Americans today are “solving” their problems.