Can a film this aesthetically pleasing be considered good?
Seriously, watching Bruce Lee’s final film is like going on an all night bender. It is fun. It may be memorable depending on how much you consume. But you feel bad about enjoying it. Surely, you could have been doing something better. Can something like this really be so rewarding?
Yes, in this case. When a film does everything right, we can, perhaps, forgive it for not being deep. This is as entertaining as any of the old James Bond films. In fact, it does many things better. In addition, the influence this film has had on Hollywood (how many times has this plot been reused?) is pronounced. This is not pure cinema. This is a pure movie though; one that has rarely been equaled.
Yes, you now the plot. A monk gets invited to a private island in which he will be trained in martial arts. This monk, Lee (yes, Bruce Lee’s character is named Lee) is seeking revenge against the man who killed his mother and sister. The owner of the island, Han, is also a drug smuggler and arms dealer. Other people, including Roeper and a blaxploitation figure named Williams are looking for evidence of this. Really though, this is filler. It all comes down to a final fight in which Han and Lee face off.
The film does contain a degree of self awareness. “You come straight out of a comic book” Williams says of Han. And the finale, based on the mirror scene in The Lady of Shanghai. Perhaps this is what the film was attempting to do-take the western influence on Asian cinema and turn it back on us. Akira Kurosawa would not exist without John Ford. This influence actually allowed a resurgence in Asian cinema’s popularity in the west. Even the kung fu films that this film works to outdo were becoming cult items in the U.S. Including a scene based on a famous American film only emphasized the circular nature of influence.
OK, so maybe the film is more artistically satisfying than I thought. But that does not mean that the film is an art film. It is still a Hollywood release. And frankly, I am not sure why I (or so many, many others) enjoy it as much as I do. Maybe it has to do with the performances. Everyone in the film plays their roles with a sort of earnest seriousness that never devolves into camp. They are playing stereotypes, of course. Broke playboy, tough black man from the streets, monk, salacious villain, by the book federal agents-all are accounted for. Yet the actors still play the roles to the best of their abilities. They do what is required to for the roles-nothing more (which would have been camp) and nothing less (which would have devolved the film into Z grade schlock). It finds the right tone.
Everything about the movie is just fun. You can see the film being made-cameras set up, rehearsals shot, film rolled. And throughout it all, it is possible to see everyone involved smiling. That sort of energy is no longer present in major Hollywood productions. At the very least, this film is a time capsule of a time when Hollywood cared about actually entertaining the masses.