With Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee was no longer a superstar in Hong Kong, but all over the world. The film represents his return to the Hollywood movie business with this joint venture between America and Hong Kong. It was what he wanted ever since he worked on The Green Hornet. Tragically, he would not live to see its success that he worked so hard for.
I think Enter the Dragon truly represents Lee’s philosophy of adaptability. With this the was able to provide entertainment to both moviegoers in the east and in the west. It’s a great work of compromise that is not compromised. Warner Bros was still it certain though of a Asian man as a lead. Lee was concerned that since the cast was Asian and American, it would be edited to put him back in the sidekick role to John Saxon. So what does Lee do? Goes and shoots the opening scene so that as soon as the film begins you know it’s Bruce Lee’s show.
Structurally, the Enter the Dragon is a James Bond film. You have one man, being sent in to a villain’s island lair. There’s gorgeous settings, beautiful women, henchmen and all the trappings with that franchise. I love the Bond films, but I have to admit Enter the Dragon is the best Bond film of the 1970s. Yes that includes The Spy Who Loved Me. There isn’t much substance to it, but it’s an absolute ride of martial arts action from start to finish. If it had become a franchise, it would have given Bond a run for his money. I watched the theatrical version of the film which moves along swiftly at 99 minutes.
Enter the Dragon remains one of the best films of its genre. It’s quite the testament to Bruce Lee’s spirit and legacy. It’s also strongly bittersweet because his career built to this moment and with his passing, never would get a moment like that again.
Opening with a pseudo-newsreel documenting prison riots across the USA, you would expect Riot in Cell Block 11 to be quite preachy. In fact it’s rather nuanced for a film from the early 1950s. Don Siegel would become known for cynical loners, but here he presents a film with a message.
The crux of the film is the titular riot is caused because the inmates are fed up with the conditions they are kept in. Prisoners are sleeping in hallways due to overcrowding. Others have mental health issues and are not really criminals and require help that a prison is not equipped to give. Guards are sadistic and there is just a general mistreatment. You would expect a film of the 50s to straight up condemn the inmates, but it doesn’t do that. It doesn’t lionize them either. It simply makes the case that these men despite their crimes are still human and deserve to be treated humanly. The film even addressed recidivism because the treatment inside does not help to readjust them to their potential return to society.
I think the film manages to get its point across and one way it does that is by having no big stars to focus on. You get a series of faces and by that measure you aren’t watching John Wayne or Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck. You don’t get to escape with a familiar face. The public is also taken to task because once criminals are locked away we lock them away in our minds. We are free, they are not. Why bother thinking on them? The riot brings the issues to public attention.
Riot In Cell Block 11 is a film whose message reverberates even beyond the 50s. In 2020 these discussions are still being had.
It’s funny how one gets the urge to revisit a series of movies. I currently play Mortal Kombat 11 and with the game’s Aftermath expansion RoboCop was added to the game as a guest character. I’ve had a lot of fun learning his moves and combos and it just got me eager to rewatch the film. I already owned the original on blu-ray and have the remake via digital, but I had to get the second and third films which I did not know had new blu-ray editions from Scream Factory. So placed an order and decided to do a total RoboCop watch. Here are my thoughts on each film.
RoboCop remains a bonafide film classic. It’s been said for years all the layers and themes that Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi/action film touch on. It’s thrilling, it’s brutal, it’s fun, it’s hilarious, it’s touching. The element that has always kept my interest is the man vs machine pieces. I love watching the film and seeing Murphy claw his way out the machine to regain his humanity. Two key parts of the film sell this for me. One is Peter Weller’s performance. For the fact that most of the film has his face obscured, you have to rely on the physical performance. The scene in Murphy’s old house when he smashes the monitor is superb as you see the man working his way back. The other key is Basil Poledouris’ score. There’s a 3 note motif that is soft that represents Murphy and his humanity. Then of course we have the main theme that almost is saying “RoboCop.” The main theme is heavy, mechanical, rousing. Yet it has us root for RoboCop, not so much Murphy. Once we get to the climax, Poledouris manages to merge these themes. You’ll hear the main theme, but there’s a new layer to it. One that indicates that Murphy and RoboCop are almost co-existing in a way. It’s a beautiful score in an amazing piece of filmmaking.
RoboCop 2 (1990)
I don’t know if this was intentional, but the creation of the RoboCop 2 program within the film RoboCop 2 feels very meta. It’s a creature made of just various parts and realizes that Alex Murphy was something special that made it work. You couldn’t replicate the RoboCop program and you can’t replicate the magic of the 1987 RoboCop film. That being said, this is off the wall fun. It almost feels that it’s a little self-aware and just takes advantage of the world that was created in the first film. I don’t know if this is because of director Irvin Kershner who knows how to operate in blockbuster franchises having worked in Star Wars and James Bond (albeit an unofficial Bond film) or Frank Miller’s writing. Based on my knowledge, I’m going to assume Kershner. It feels like going from Batman to Batman Returns where things get a little bit more absurd, it really shouldn’t work, but it does. Yet what helps soften the blow is the return of Peter Weller and Nancy Allen. Sadly we don’t get a score by Basil Poledouris but music from Star Trek IV composer Leonard Roseman. It’s not bad, but it’s not Basil. Cool moments include a nice parallel where RoboCop is tortured and disassembled much as Murphy was tortured in the first film. Also there’s a touching scene earlier where RoboCop comes face to face with his widow. It’s another great moment of Murphy digging out of the machine. One wonders if his severing the emotional ties was a human decision or the software. Still it’s a bonkers film with more of the ultra violence, crazed cult leaders, designer drugs, more critiques of society and corporate America. RoboCop 2 is a sequel that once you accept nothing is going to measure up to Verhoeven’s film, it’s much easier to digest.
RoboCop 3 (1993)
RoboCop 3 is quite fine. It’s RoboCop mixed with a splash of Terminator (minus the violence since this is PG-13). It most reminds me of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. That also is a 3rd film that went a little more family friendly and would be maligned. RoboCop 3 isn’t trying to be the point of discussion that it’s 1987 predecessor was. However it does an admirable job of attempting to close out the story Murphy and this version of Detroit. I had no idea we’d get a final battle of the people vs OCP, but watching the films back to back to back you see it sort of building to that point. Having a group of freedom fighters taking on a corporate army was quite a finale I was not expecting. The big drawback is no Peter Weller. I was not cool with Robert Burke’s Murphy, however that is balanced out by the return of Basil Poledouris on the score. It makes it feel like a RoboCop film again. RoboCop 3 I feel is honest in just being a movie to enjoy. I don’t see it as an affront to the legacy of the original, I never bought into that idea that lesser sequels dilute the original.
No we did not need a remake. Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film remains just as effective as it did during its release. This remake/reboot was going to have an uphill climb no matter what. I think that director Jose Padilha was aware of that during production. Just like my first watch this version of Robocop does indeed try its best to strike out on its own and tries to not make you think about its more successful predecessor.
The 2014 version still uses the general ideas present in Verhoeven’s film, yet it lacks the playfulness in which the 87 film applies them. Again I feel Padilha knows this probably wouldn’t compete with a classic and also it was shoehorned into a PG-13 standard action film. The ultra violence was part of the narrative in the original. So in these areas the film falters because in a way it’s cynical like Michael Keaton’s Raymond Sellars trying to sell a product to the people, or specifically an idea of Robocop. Fans of that film are not simply fans of an intellectual property, but what that film brought to the table. You can’t fool people with just a name.
Those are my reasons for the film’s shortcomings. Now here is why I find it worthwhile for me to revisit. I like the way the film deals with Alex Murphy. In Verhoeven’s film, Alex is declared dead. His body donated to science, yet this Frankenstein’s monster fights to dig his humanity back out of the machine. In Padilha’s film, Alex is badly injured and is aware of what has happened to him. Instead of crawling his way back to rediscover his humanity, he has to contend with outside forces attempting to take that away from him because they built a machine body and everyone insists the machine overtake the man. I think the best scene is when Murphy takes on a bunch of machines in training and it’s discovered that Gary Oldman’s Dr. Norton configured things so that the software takes over when Alex is in combat giving Alex the illusion that he is in control. Unfortunately, it’s an amazing idea that isn’t given a whole lot of room to run because this is a 2010s action film and we have to get to the shootout. It also looks into corruption like the original, but again not given much headway. I mean in this day and age, the whole film is the militarization of police. It’s not that I think Padilha wasn’t up to the task, I just think that the industry’s ideals for films at that time wasn’t going to allow him to try that hard. However, this film tries way harder than the remake of Total Recall which is definitely a pointless remake.
The 2014 Robocop is a film that actually has my respect. It tries to be its own kind of special because it knows it can’t win one on one with the 1987 film. It attempts to asks different questions but sadly it couldn’t get let off the leash to fully answer them.
In closing, is the RoboCop franchise a great one? I’d say no. However even though there’s only one truly great film here, I strongly feel it’s sequels and remake are actually more consistent with what is put forth with the original film than given credit for. And at least for me, they are flawed, but still quite entertaining.
The Big Boss is a film that gives meaning to the phrase, “you can always go home.” After co-starring in the television series The Green Hornet, Bruce Lee’s Hollywood experience was not going the way he hoped. Studios were reluctant to cast an Asian actor as a lead in anything. Lee was experiencing financial issues so he returned to Hong Kong where he signed on to film The Big Boss. By returning home, The Big Boss would prove to be the breakthrough Lee had been searching for and would launch him to movie immortality.
One interesting thing about The Big Boss is that while Lee gets top billing, he doesn’t take center stage until the second half. The first half of the film is used as a trial to see who was the more charismatic, Lee or co-star James Tien. The end results of the first half catapult Lee and unleash him. Also of note is how Lee is shown as a sexual being. Almost like Shaft.
I though there were two elements of interest in The Big Boss. One is the focus on Lee as a force to defend the Chinese people against their being taken advantage of, mistreatment and disrespect. The other is how the film steadily builds up the violence in order to fully justify Lee’s character to break his pacifist vows. I wonder is the film trying make that a message? Not necessarily that pacifism is pointless, more so that extremes (whatever they were to Lee’s character) make and break this philosophy.
While entertaining, The Big Boss falters for me with its pacing and length. I think it’s maybe 15 minutes too long. The main conflict in the film is pretty evident and there isn’t too much by way of character development for its low budget leanings. So by that it could have been trimmed a bit.
Still, The Big Boss is a film to be enjoyed and appreciated as being the vehicle that finally allowed Bruce Lee to show the world what he wanted them to see and with it, a superstar was born.
Angels with Dirty Faces, while starring James Cagney as a gangster is more than a gangster film. It’s an examination of media impact. It’s about the construction of mythology. It’s about the effects of charisma.
The mythological aspect of it is shown with the diverging destinies of Rocky and Jerry as young men. Jerry runs just a little faster and is able to jump the fence. Rocky is caught and sent to reform school. The idea is made that time in the system in fact made a criminal out of Rocky as opposed to changing him for the better. Fate has changed life for both men. Once released, Rocky returns to a life of crime while Jerry has become a priest. Rocky’s reputation begins to take hold over a group a young boys. Jerry spends his time during the film to dispel that myth of Rocky. It doesn’t help that as Rocky’s activity increases, the impact of the media plays it up which makes the charismatic effect he has on the youth stronger.
Rocky also has struggles in the film. He gets out of jail to a criminal world that isn’t like what his character dealt with in The Public Enemy. This is world of legalities highlighted by corruption. Lawyers, accountants, politicians are the bosses, not simple bootleggers. These new crime bosses too use power of persuasion and charisma to try to play Rocky but through the story he adapts, he learns the new rules. Just like the new rules also include the media impact which will be here to stay.
Questions have been raised about the death row ending of the film. I never felt Rocky’s end was him genuinely scared, I felt it him doing one last favor for his childhood friend. Rocky’s final act, shakes the myth of him to the young boys and Jerry, in a case of irony as a religious figure, leads the boys to a new truth based on a lie. Despite being about crime, Angels with Dirty Faces is quite the ambiguous film. In The Public Enemy, Tom Powers isn’t really redeemable. With Rocky Sullivan however, the film has to go out of its way to give you a reason that he should die. Cagney May have been typecast a few times with roles like this, but this nuanced performance is one his best.
Angels with Dirty Faces provides some space to genre that always had to stick its morality front and center.
It’s easy to take an initial look at The Public Enemy and assume it’s a stepping stone to larger and greater crime films like The Godfather, Scarface or Goodfellas. However, The Public Enemy is a great piece of crime fiction that not only sets the tone for the genre to come, it pulls its own weight just like those classics I named earlier.
The first positive is obviously James Cagney who provided charisma and menace in equal parts. Originally signed in a secondary role, his screen dominance was so undeniable that Darryl F. Zanuck made the change to have Cagney play the lead. It worked and Cagney’s career was born with us watching the rise and fall of Tom Powers.
The film is directed by William A. Wellman and with it we have some really good direction. Wellman presents things a a sort of documentary of pre-prohibition and the impact of prohibition leading to Tom’s journey. One creative choice I really liked was the off-screen violence. Despite not being seen, Wellman manages to still convey sheer brutality. There are 3 instances of this and they all work due to Cagney’s character seeking vengeance. These scenes are very effective. There is also another beautiful scene of Cagney stumbling through the rain that’s absolutely gorgeous.
The Public Enemy does possess the sort of morality you would expect for a film made in 1931. You have the character of Tom as the bad brother to go against the good brother. Certainly Tom gets his at the end, which is to be expected. I watched it the film twice, the second viewing with commentary by the late Robert Sklar who mentions how Tom is never a character we root for. He never even really had a moment where you can sympathize with him. He’s violent, he assaults women, he’s impetuous. Yet Sklar remarks how the audiences reacted so positively to Tom as a result of Cagney’s performance. The iconic scene of him smashing a grapefruit into a woman’s face elicited laughter in a moment of abuse. We like to point to The Godfather and De Palma’s Scarface as films that romanticize the criminal world, but it seems audiences in the 30s did the same.
With a pseudo-historical visual style combined with an electrifying lead performance amidst a basic morality tale, The Public Enemy is an entertaining crime film. It’s one that deserves to sit comfortably with other classics in the genre.
Da 5 Bloods will certainly be considered as a timely release, however there’s always a time for this type of story to be told. While there are films on the Vietnam war, very few speak on the black perspective. Spike Lee has crafted a compelling human drama and mixing it with a second half that really invokes the vibe of a film like The Wild Bunch.
Four black Vietnam vets reunite to bring home the remains of their fallen comrade and squad leader. The plot is set into motion early, however the journey is one of brotherhood, trauma and heartbreak. Often we talk about how blacks in the military diligently fought for the United States and in Da 5 Bloods we see the aftermath of all these events and how they shape these men going forward. The character we are most attached to for this story is Paul who is played by Delroy Lindo. Lindo gives an amazing performance that deserves every bit of recognition. Paul is the character who is most damaged by these events. The end result you’ll see is the relationship with his son. As the film goes on you’ll see how this trauma can make its down through generations and it be of no fault of anyone but the powers that be. Spike Lee, as always does not hesitate to point out the hypocrisy of America being the land of opportunity, but these soldiers who already fought for an unpopular cause, return to be mistreated even more.
My favorite Spike Lee Joint is Malcolm X and it still is, but Da 5 Bloods off one viewing makes its way into my favorites of his films. It’s 2.5 hour runtime coasts along as it continually peels back layer after layer and reminds us of another element of the black experience in America.
Anchored by a ferocious performance by James Cagney, White Heat is a thrilling peace of post-war cinema. I watched this film back to back to back with The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces and they really tell the story of crime in America. Public Enemy focuses on one man’s rise in crime, Angels with Dirty Faces introduces the new bosses of crime with lawyers and politicians. White Heat brings into focus the overwhelming power of the state in crime prevention.
New social ideals are forming post World War II. In The Public Enemy, Tom Powers represents individualism, the sole criminal in charge of his own destiny. In White Heat the treasury agents represent the idea of conformity that arises. Cody Jarrett represents a deviation from that idea that must be snuffed out. This is timely with the rise of the Cold War.
White Heat also examines the psyche of the American man. Cody Jarrett is a man clearly struggling with his demons. However he knows no way to handle them but to lash out and the only person he can be with where he functions best is with his mother. He is extremely paranoid and doesn’t trust anyone. He has bad relationships with any woman that is not his mother. The one person outside of her that he trusts, is not who he says he is and it just pushes him over the edge.
White Heat may be an old school gangster film, but like others of this era it is extremely layered beyond just cops and robbers.
Rope is easily my second favorite Hitchcock film. Like Psycho it possesses an unease throughout its runtime. Unlike Psycho, which the unease is due to all the information you don’t have, Rope has no mystery. The murder opens the film. We witness the sociopathic activity of a dinner party in which Brandon and Phillip invite family and friends of the deceased to continually showcase their so-called moral superiority.
It’s fitting that Hitchcock chose this particular play to adapt and this particular film adaptation to try something innovative. Rope gives the appearance that it’s one continuous take. It’s not, but the way it’s disguised doesn’t take away from the suspense. A recurring visual motif is that of the string. Showing that one’s time is running out. We see it with Louis Bernard in the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. We see it again with Fry’s sleeve at the end of Saboteur. Hitchcock expands this motif to the visual style of the film. The film is the rope. It tightens metaphorically around the necks of Brandon and Phillip like the physical rope they used on David Kentley. However, movies, like ropes, have ends. And it’s only a matter of time before their lives are over.
Much has been discussed for decades on the film’s homosexual subtext. I’ve seen the film so many times, I’ve come to see it almost as text. At the very least there’s so much sexuality that present just in the opening scene. There’s the murder. Following you have Brandon lighting a cigarette. Phillip asks can they just stay here for just a moment after the act. Phillip asks Brandon at one point how did it make him feel? Brandon responds by saying he couldn’t feel anything at first, but as the victim’s body went limp, he got a sudden rush. I wonder was the film implying Brandon’s impotence? There’s a moment that I think confirms this when he’s stroking the neck of a bottle of champagne and is having trouble getting it open and Phillip takes it an opens it easily. For a film from 1948, Hitchcock really puts these themes on display. I really think people realized it then and just chose not to say anything. It’s really one of his more frank instances of sex in his work other than Psycho and Marnie.
Rope is also a film about class and how easy it is to corrupt a mind when you present ideas that shouldn’t be in public consciousness. David is murdered because Brandon and Phillip took to heart the words of their teacher played by James Stewart. The idea that murder is an art that should be allowed by the few exceptional people in the world. Towards the end we do learn that Stewart’s Rupert Cadell while speaking on it, would not act upon it, but the damage is done. He’s played a role in the death of a young man. During the dinner the characters get into a heated argument about this theory. The sensible reasoning comes from David’s father played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Brandon showcases his contempt for those he deems lower than him. When the point is made that his views are similar to that of Hitler, he tries to brush it off as they were just brainless murderers, but he’s so sophisticated he’s above the pointlessness of fascism. I though it a smart choice to have Hardwicke, an actor I always felt possessed a high class air, take the reasonable and humane position. Rope displays how easy it is for these types of theories to permeate the mind of those who have certain feelings and how quick and easy they can be acted upon.
Rope is a film I can never get enough of. Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest would all mostly be put ahead of this and there’s good reason to. However Rope remains a favorite for packing so much substance into an apartment in the city. There so much on display and it manages all of this in 80 minutes.
I discovered Sergio Leone in college when I rented The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the library. It was the film that got me into the western as genre. It wasn’t long until I was able to watch A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Eventually I discovered the greatness of Once Upon a Time in the West as well as Once Upon a Time in America and Duck, You Sucker. However, I never saw his 2 earliest works. Both are part of the biblical/historical epic category. Leone was part of productions like Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis so it was familiar territory for him. With these first 2 films he cuts his teeth and we see where this master of the medium began his career at.
THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII
I was expecting this is be a very low budget operation. It still might have been, but I was very impressed. Mario Bonnard took ill on the first day of shooting and Sergio Leone steps in to take care of everything. Although he wasn’t credited, this is his first work as a director and it’s a pretty solid effort. Some beautiful sets, decent pacing. I also was not expecting the decent sized addition of Christianity into the film. It’s not preachy or anything, mostly just showing the way of life of the people. Leone becomes known later for his extreme close ups and huge wide shots, but he had a handle on quiet indoor scenes as well. Also, the climax? Really well done. I’m surprised I managed to get this many words out of this film, but it surprisingly surpassed my expectations.
THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES
The Colossus of Rhodes is Sergio Leone’s first credited directorial work. Believe it or not, with higher production value than The Last Days of Pompeii, I felt The Colossus of Rhodes although entertaining, didn’t entertain as much as the prior film. Yet with it, we see Leone step away from what is basically his apprenticeship on these historical, biblical epics and move into the era and genre he would be best know for. I think one basic shortcoming of The Colossus of Rhodes is it’s a bit over plotted. It’s actually very Hitchcock in nature with the central character, played by Rory Calhoun is on vacation keeps getting caught up in the political intrigue of the land. His character comes across much like a Cary Grant which is also why I made the Hitchcock connection. We do see Leone’s development with size and scale. I think my issues were mostly with scripting. Funny enough, The Colossus of Rhodes feels more accomplished than A Fistful of Dollars. That might be due to it having MGM’s backing. The Colossus of Rhodes and The Last Days of Pompeii were the only of Leone’s directorial work I had not seen and with that I feel I can safely say, Sergio Leone never made a film I did not like.