Nov 18, 2012

Enter the Dragon

Bruce Lee had a small body of work -- The Green Hornet, a few other tv appearances, a handful of movies (only four released in the U.S., all after his death). Yet that -- and the force of his personality -- was enough to introduce martial arts cinema to the U.S. and to popularize Chinese martial arts as a real-life sport (and really, popularize all things Chinese -- the number of Asian Studies majors soared).  He also worked to change the stereotype of the Asian as soft and passive, a sidekick or an elderly sage.

During the late 1970s, nearly every heterosexual boy I knew had a crush on Bruce Lee.  They admired his quiet strength and dauntless courage, his toughness, his cool kung fu moves.

Gay boys found him a kindred spirit.

1. Although he was heterosexual in real life, Bruce was comfortable in gay circles. He got his first acting job in the U.S. through his friend Jay Sebring (gay), his first costar was the hunky Van Williams (rumored to be gay), and he became friends with John Saxon (rumored to be gay) and Sal Mineo (gay).

2. He was not a man-mountain, though he helped inspire the genre;  his body was slim, tight, and sculpted in marble, a work of art as well as a tool.  And he knew it.  He was on display constantly, semi-nude amid a throng of martial arts students in thick, heavy gis, shirtless amid fully-clothed peers.  At the beginning of Enter the Dragon, Lee (Bruce Lee) is competing with other students at his martial arts school.  He wears only a black fundoshi that bulges in the front and lays his backside nearly bare.  We are expected to feel not only admiration, but desire.

3. The martial arts movie is a male-only preserve.  A murdered girlfriend or defiled sister may provide a motive for vengeance, a prostitute or hench-woman may provide a distraction, but the story is about men caring, competing, cooperating with each other.

Enter the Dragon is nothing less than a romance between Lee and young playboy Roper (John Saxon).

Lee goes undercover to a martial arts competition to investigate allegations that the mysterious Han (Shih Kien) is using his island to manufacture and sell drugs. He has a "meet cute" moment with Roper on the boat en route to the island, when they're both betting on a praying mantis match.

Later, at dinner, Lee and Roper talk -- their eyes bulging with unstated attraction.  When Roper leaves, Lee keeps his eyes fixed on him, pointedly ignoring the attractive woman walking by at the same time.

Lee discovers that Han's organization is involved in human trafficking as well as opium production, so he rips his shirt off to go rescue the prisoners.  He is captured instead.  Han orders Roper to fight him, assuming that the seasoned martial artist will kill the less-experienced Lee.  But Roper refuses to fight.

Fine.  Han orders Lee to fight the man-mountain Bolo instead.  Roper places his hand flat on Lee's chest for a long moment and then offers to fight Bolo himself, a touching Damon-and-Pythias scene. (For some reason, Lee fails to mention that he doesn't need rescuing, he could easily annihilate a dozen man-mountains.  Maybe he wants to be the one rescued, for a change).

When Roper defeats Bolo, Han in a rage orders his entire martial arts army to kill them both.  A lengthy battle ensues -- while Roper and some of the human trafficking victims subdue the army, Lee chases Han into a hall of mirrors and finally kills him.  He returns to the battlefield, looks anxiously around the many fallen martial artists for Roper.  Roper, meanwhile, is anxiously scanning the fallen martial artists for Lee.  They see each other, smile weakly, and thumb-up as the movie ends.  I guess a hug would be too much to ask for.

See also: A Beefcake Tour of Eastern Europe (Mostar, Bosnia has erected a statue in Bruce's honor.)