In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee infiltrates a gangland chieftain's kung fu tournament. It's actually an audition for potential thugs to fill an underworld army, but Lee doesn't need military help. He's an old-fashioned Chinese individualist; his body makes him super-self-sufficient. The new print of Enter the Dragon restores three minutes of dialogue explaining Lee's belief that the height of technique is "to have no technique." We see lessons that could be gassy or dangerous become concrete and admirable. Even without traditional martial arts weaponry, Lee creates a circle of iron; he plants his left leg like a protractor as he fights rings around his opponents. He puts value back into the phrase "creating space."
Enter the Dragon is basically a revenge fantasy: The henchmen of Lee's mobster-enemy (Shih Kien) hounded Lee's sister to her death. But along with its tension (and its camp), the film is suffused with sympathy for outcasts and underdogs. One of Lee's allies is an African-American (Jim Kelly) -- a Black Power black belt -- who escapes to the kung fu match after practicing on a pair of racist cops. (When crossing the Hong Kong harbor he mutters, "Ghettos are the same all over the world -- they stink.") Add a debt-ridden white gambler (John Saxon), who fought alongside Kelly in 'Nam, and you've got a three-man shock troop for the Rainbow Coalition. When the film premiered, extremists were telling slum kids to get their hands on guns; Lee's message was that angry young men of all colors possess "the fire next time" within.
Lee died six weeks before this $600,000 kitsch epic debuted and went on to gross $150 million -- in 1973! It's a gaudy, gimcrack construction that's also a whirling piece of legendry. Lee coined his own action-film iconography out of flying fists and feet. Twenty-five years later he still excites the audience from the moment he appears, in wrestling briefs that drape his buttocks like the cheekiest, chicest Calvin Kleins. It's less a matter of sexual attraction than transcendent awe. He's reed-thin and feather-delicate, and when he goes on the attack there's no macho cool about him. He vibrates with concentrated energy, like a spindle. You fear his intensity will crack your skull. He takes you so far into his gladiator's psyche that you feel his moves and countermoves even when he gyrates too quickly for you to understand them. He could be giving himself whiplash as he shakes his head clear for the next step; more than thinking on his feet, he thinks on his bobbing toes. Because he was so incredibly quick and light, I once called him the Fred Astaire of kung fu, making martial arts look easy. But you could say he's the Baryshnikov, exercising midair scissors cuts as complex as Balanchine ballets, or the Savion Glover, conjuring improvisational dance from his rattling kinetic rhythm.
The opening match in Enter the Dragon is a warm-up for novice martial arts fans: Chop Sockey 101. Lee wins it with ease and without preening. Of course, he choreographed all the fights. But he makes them appear spontaneous -- no, inspired -- and as selfless as the work of a completely engaged athlete. Lee fills the movie with acrobatic wonders. Vaulting into a tree he appears to be reversing gravity; more than in any Superman film, you believe a man can fly.
Still, Lee's triumph here is one of personality and vision, not just physical performance. His slightness, his piping timbre, and his unlined features are disarmingly boyish. Lee also has a boy's furtive cunning. He has as much control over his facial muscles as he does over his biceps -- we know that his occasional blankness is an act of will, a camouflage against prying eyes. At sport he doesn't pander to sadistic fantasies; he plays by strict, fair rules. But in a grudge match, his very being alters. His lungs expand like bellows, filling his body with new weight. His muscles ripple like electrified barbed wire. And his face takes on the aspect of a demon. It's tantamount to seeing the Incredible Hulk emerge without special effects.
Lee communicates instantly with teen-agers and children because he seems to have just straddled adolescence himself. Most of the time, he's stoic, but when his family honor is at stake, and his private essence challenged, he allows himself to go tantrum-crazy. In his Hulk act he lets loose a primal scream. Lee refutes the notion that we grow up and out of youthful sentiments, jettisoning them in stages, like rockets. Lee holds them in equipoise -- and assumes a suave, wry maturity. He shows that childish emotions need not be retrogressive; they can be downright restorative for adults.
You can't predict how Lee will react from moment to moment, yet his personality hangs together. His shifts in accent from the slurred and breathy to the ultradeliberate and Mr. Moto-esque ("con me" becomes "khan me") somehow merge to seem pleasing and refined. His mystique is magnetic. He's never just "an inscrutable Oriental." He betrays enough of his inner workings to compel our curiosity. The Lee figure is a rebel without a portfolio. But he does have a cause, which is nothing less than authenticity. Near the beginning of Enter the Dragon, he urges a boy at the Shaolin Temple to kick him with "emotional content." The boy holds back, reluctant to attack an understanding older-brother figure. Lee doesn't condescend or coddle; instead, he slaps the kid repeatedly, catalyzing fighting passion. What Lee is trying to teach isn't a bag of tricks or an ethereal ritual but an organic discipline. He's putting flesh on the Force. He wants us to be so attuned to our emotions and abilities that we can set them loose in controlled torrents -- floods of feeling coursing through physical floodgates.
In the 1979 kung fu movie Circle of Iron, made from a script Lee was developing at the time of his death, TV's martial arts master, David Carradine, taught a surly neophyte Lee's special Spartan strain of Zen. Carradine instructed the boy to distrust abstract religious values, and to respect justice -- not arbitrary rules. The overriding theme was "Know Thyself"; when Carradine led his tutee to the Book of Enlightenment, each page was a mirror. Idealistic though it sounds, the saturnine Carradine and his reluctant disciple (Jeff Cooper) made Lee's philosophy seem like an excuse for breaking nonbelievers' bones. It reduced Lee's legacy to a brutal kind of macho self-help.
But in Enter the Dragon, Lee's integrity surrounds him like an invisible shield. His presence is so un-self-conscious and sure, he's less a beacon of selfhood than a paragon of honesty and wholeness. In the last quarter-century, Jackie Chan has brought his own unique form of martial arts comedy to international movies. But as a heroic ideal, no one has filled Lee's fighting shoes. No one's even invaded his space.