Martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s reputation has lately been taking a major pie in the face due to Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Bruce look-alike actor Mike Moh does an uncanny, hilarious send-up of Lee, ascribing to him a giant, self-involved ego—which it’s actually not hard to imagine Bruce Lee as having had.
But the whole situation took me back ... Imagine, if you will, New York City’s Times Square in 1974—a dangerous red-light district as far as the eye could see: pimps, pickpockets, con men, junkies, winos, ladies of ill-repute. No pooper-scooper laws … fairly hellish.
Will the Real Bruce Stand UpSo who was Bruce Lee, really? Tarantino takes too much leeway in damning Lee’s reputation. Even though, I must admit, I enjoyed the heck out of Mike Moh’s impression.
Lee’s most famous film, 1973’s “Enter the Dragon,” put Chinese kungfu on the American map and started a whole nunchaku craze. Boys made nunchucks by sawing two sticks off a broom handle and connecting them with a chain. They were quickly outlawed.
Everything about Bruce was revelatory. Karate practitioners learn the “kiai”—the vocalizations that enhance striking power. But Lee’s vocalizations were a mix of raptor-like screams, monkey-like howls, and the odd keening growls of tomcats getting ready to rip each other to shreds. Nobody had ever heard anything remotely like it. And all accompanied by a glare the likes of which can only be matched by the most zealous of Maori haka dancers.
Bruce Lee, it can be argued, was the godfather of modern MMA, and it’s definitely mixed martial arts that’s artistically depicted in the opening scene of “Enter the Dragon.”
The movie opens on an MMA match taking place in a Chinese Shaolin temple. But instead of monk robes, Lee’s wearing MMA-style shorts, shin guards, and fingerless MMA-style gloves. In my estimation, this iconic fight started a million martial arts careers. The coolness factor was through the roof, showcasing Bruce’s off-the-charts magnetism, and well as the humor he incorporated in much of his choreography.
Get to the Movie Already“Enter the Dragon” is about a deadly martial arts tournament held on an island near Hong Kong by a renegade Shaolin monk named Han (Kien Shih), who uses the tournament as a cover for his opium and prostitution trade.
Lee (a very original name, played by Bruce Lee) is recruited by an international intelligence agency as a sort of kungfu James Bond to go infiltrate the tournament and sleuth about, in order to discover how Han’s selling drugs. In a dig at Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” which came out two years prior, Bruce’s character says, “Why not take a .45 and, bang, settle it?” Conveniently, no guns are allowed on the island. And as Lee further quips, “Anybody can pull a trigger.”
In addition to Lee, there are two other main characters: Roper (John Saxon) is an inveterate gambler up to his ears in debt to the mob, and Williams (karate champ Jim Kelly) is the nod to the early 1970s “blaxploitation” explosion, as well as the black power movement, rocking a giant afro and matching maroon bellbottoms and jean jacket. He’s on the run from beating the daylights out of two racist cops.
They’re both in need of tournament money, and it turns out, Roper and Williams were in the same Vietnam War platoon. Both highly proficient martial artists, they team up to get con-job side bets going in the tournament. These two, plus Lee, head out on the same Chinese junk to Han’s island.
Competing and SpyingLee’s tournament fight is electrifying, and it introduced the world to his blinding speed.
Lee also sneaks about in the middle of the night, finding hidden passageways and such. The underground maze of tunnels is the staging ground for Lee’s iconic nunchuckery, along with some vehement whacking of Han’s staff via, well, a staff. Apparently, the young Jackie Chan is in one of these guards-versus-Lee showdowns.
At the end, Lee of course goes up against the treacherous ex-Shaolin monk, Han, the blasphemer, who’s got a whole shrine dedicated to the left hand he once lost. It’s like a curated museum showcase for the various lethal attachments he can twist onto his left wrist socket: an iron hand, one that looks like five cutting-block chef knives, a hairy bear claw, etc. And round about is a house of mirrors, and only Han knows how to tell the reflections from the real thing.
Bruce’s LegacyWhile Bruce Lee was not a member of the “27 Club” of rock stars who died at the age of 27, thereby becoming instant legends, Lee’s early death helped cement his legendary status, which was already quite pronounced while he was alive.
Lee’s death produced a host of conspiracy theories, not the least of which was the “vibrating palm” theory. It maintained that Lee, like his adversary Han in “Enter the Dragon,” was a renegade monk of sorts, and the high priests of kungfu were furious with Lee’s self-styled Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Fist), which is basically mixed martial arts.
Shaolin kungfu, like most true Chinese martial arts, is a spiritual enlightenment path, and mixing in techniques from other styles was and is strictly forbidden. The high priests also purportedly felt that Lee breached the rule of all high-level spiritual practices, that of revealing heavenly secrets to everyday people. And so “they” sent out a ninja-like assassin.
Bruce Lee was a legend in his own time, and “Enter the Dragon” is legendary above and beyond its actual, overall merit. It was the first Hollywood-sanctioned kungfu film, and also made a worldwide killing at the box office.
It’s now perceived as the premier chop-socky classic, although with its cheesy disco soundtrack and cheesier 1970s fashion, it inherently contains very little aesthetically that could be considered “classic.” The opening scene, however—along with the fight with O’hara, and the climactic showdown with the many-handed Han—is truly classic.
What “Enter the Dragon” really showcases is Lee’s phenomenal physical-specimen status, and the high-wattage charisma of his groundbreaking personal fighting style. His style was absolutely catlike in its always-land-on-the-feet surefootedness and lightning speed.
Follow UpIf you are renting “Enter the Dragon,” make sure to follow up with “Birth of the Dragon,” about the alleged only fight Bruce Lee lost, to a Shaolin monk sent to teach him a lesson about why martial artists shouldn’t stoop to mixing various martial arts techniques.
As the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has demonstrated, well-rounded fighters who master submission grappling as well as all striking techniques prevail. Traditional martial arts, however, were about transcending the material, and through dedication to improving moral stature, they resulted in the development of supernormal abilities that transcended all physical techniques.
Lastly, in terms of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” while I appreciate his Bruce-spoof, Tarantino really shouldn’t be besmirching Bruce’s legacy in order to contribute to his own.