Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Jim Kelly, and Enter the Dragon, 1973

A forgotten actor and his cameo in a cult movie is this week’s focus for Tuesday’s Overlooked Films at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

"I broke down the colour barrier. I was the first black martial artist to become a movie star."

One of the segments I look forward to watching at the Oscars and Golden Globe awards is ‘In Memoriam’ where pictorial tribute is paid to artists who have died over the past year. At the Academy Awards this year, many luminaries like Shirley Temple and Philip Seymour Hoffman were honoured. And, as so often happens, some were left out, notably writer Tom Clancy, which was odd since his senior contemporaries Elmore Leonard and Richard Matheson were part of the celebrity montage. However, there are bound to be hits and misses in an event of the scale of the Oscars.


Among the many entertainers who made it to the posthumous list was Jim Kelly, the American actor and martial arts exponent who died on June 29, 2013. He was 67. Not many would remember him.


Born James Milton Kelly, the actor brought his 6' 2" frame and beehive hairdo to bear upon one of the most popular martial arts movies of all time—Enter the Dragon. In doing so, Jim Kelly left a permanent imprint on the cult film whose most famous star was Bruce Lee. Kelly had his task cut out for him, for not only did he have to work in the shadow of the legendary martial artist but he also had to contend with the suave actor John Saxon. While both Lee and Saxon had already established themselves, this was only Kelly's second film and probably his most notable cinematic work.

In Enter the Dragon, director Robert Clouse brings Lee, Saxon, and Kelly together on an island off Hong Kong considered as the hotbed of vice, mainly opium and blood trade, run by Han, a master criminal with a claw hand. It is Bruce Lee's task, as an informal undercover agent, to investigate the suspicious happenings on the island and report to his agency. But Lee has an agenda of his own: avenging the death of his sister. The man responsible for it, O’harra (Robert Wall), is on the island and in Han's payroll. Old friends Roper (Saxon) and Williams (Kelly) accompany Lee to the island to escape from their own problems.

John Saxon and Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon.

On the island the three men find the ideal cover in a do-or-die martial arts tournament organised by Han and refereed by his beefy henchman Bolo (Bolo Yeung) who requires no introduction. Men must fight men, sometimes until death. Lee, Saxon, and Kelly prove their worth as martial artists though Han never pits them against each other (in fact, I think he tries but they refuse). In one memorable scene, Lee faces O’harra. Before the start of the fight, O’harra picks up a board and smashes it to convey a point to Lee who retorts in his trademark clipped voice, “Boards don't hit back.” Lee has his revenge.

The film ends on a predictable note: Bruce Lee and John Saxon take on Han and his inexperienced men and liberate hundreds of innocent civilians held captive.

This was Jim Kelly's only well-known film and he was eliminated in the first half. Fans of martial arts films continue to ask why. He deserved to remain until the end.

There are many Bruce Lee takeaways from this film, like his "taming" of a venomous snake, his high-pitched shrieks during fights, his skill with nunchucks, his flying kick, and his final battle with Han inside the deceptive room of mirrors. The one thing Lee doesn't bring to this film, not that he was expected to, is humour. Director Robert Clouse leaves that to Jim Kelly who is the funny face of Enter the Dragon.

Although Clouse lays out the red carpet for Bruce Lee, and John Saxon to a lesser degree, Jim Kelly brings his own charm and style to the film, be it with his fists and arms, his wisecracks, betting on fights and making a neat pile, a toss of his head, or his ridiculing of Han.

“Man, you come right out of a comic book.”

After Enter the Dragon, I never saw Jim Kelly again, in spite of being a gifted actor. But, after hearing his name and seeing his face at the Oscars, I looked up his filmography and found that, in 1974, Robert Clouse directed him in Black Belt Jones, described as an "American Blaxploitation action film," and in Golden Needles.

More than these two films, I hope to see Kelly in action film Three the Hard Way (1974) alongside Jim Brown and Fred Williamson; the western Take A Hard Ride (1975) with Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, and Fred Williamson; and another action movie called One Down, Two to go (1976), again opposite Brown and Williamson, and Richard Roundtree.

Jim Kelly has left behind a bigger legacy than I thought he'd.

14 comments:

  1. I have never seen this film, Prashant. There were quite a few left out, but they only have so much time, I guess. Clancey was certainly a big omission.

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    1. Patti, ENTER THE DRAGON is a constant on Indian cable, telecast almost every week throughout the year. All of Bruce Lee's films are popular in India, as they are in Asia, and he has a large number of fans here. In RETURN OF THE DRAGON, Lee fights Chuck Norris in the end.

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  2. Great choice Prashant, really fascinating and for me truly out of left field, thanks. I would say, with regards to the Clancy reference, that he may have been omitted because unlike Leonard and especially Matheson, he did not have any notable credits as a screenwriter.

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    1. Thank you, Sergio, and you're welcome. I have seen each of Bruce Lee's movies several times, more for the martial arts than the stories which are weak. He went too early. I think of Jim Kelly more as a comedian than a martial artist. However, I'll have to watch some of his other films and find out how true that is. I thought Tom Clancy ought to have got a mention simply because his novels were made into films. I didn't realise that he may not have written any (notable) screenplays for those adaptations. Good point.

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  3. Very nice tribute, Prashant. I don't know much about Jim Kelly but my husband remembers him.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. Not many would have heard of Jim Kelly who didn't have much of a film career. He was also an athlete. In contrast, John Saxon has been very successful. Both had good screen presence in this film.

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  4. I really like this movie. I've watched it many times. Didn't know much about Kelley I guess.

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    1. Charles, I've watched it many times too, as I have all of Bruce Lee's films. He directed all the fight scenes and sequences in his films. And was he fast! Had he lived long, he'd have had a terrific career.

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  5. I can't actually remember whether I have seen all of this or only snippets. I definitely haven't seen any of the other Kelly films mentioned. The face and the hair are instantly recognisable.
    I caught an hour of Chuck Norris and Missing in Action last Saturday night. I did like a bit of Chuck back in the day. He seemed to kind of get left behind when Arnie and Stallone took over as action men.

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    1. Hi Col, I used to enjoy watching Chuck Norris' films in the very late 70s and 80s. It was around the time Sylvester Stallone came out with the ROCKY and RAMBO series but well before Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean Claude van Damme added their muscle to the big screen. Norris fought Bruce Lee in THE WAY OF THE DRAGON (or RETURN OF THE DRAGON as I know it) in 1972. I think the film came to Indian theatres after ENTER THE DRAGON even though it was made a year before; possibly for chronology. Aside from this film, off the top of my head, I remember Chuck Norris most in THE DELTA FORCE, LONE WOLF MCQUADE, CODE OF SILENCE, and GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK. I have never seen his television series WALKER, TEXAS RANGER that I've heard so much about.

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    2. Prashant thanks for the detail on him. I'm only really familiar with the MIA films. I was unaware he had figured in the DRAGON series of films.

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    3. Col, Chuck Norris figures only in Bruce Lee's THE WAY OF THE DRAGON (aka RETURN OF THE DRAGON). The final scene is worth watching. As I remember it, Lee beats Norris in no time. I think Norris has always played the good guy in his films.

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  6. You brought back memories of earlier days, Prashant. I remember watching this on Doordarshan and it remains a favourite. I was already very fond of John Saxon though this was the first time I saw Lee and Kelly. We (Myself and my sister and cousins who watched it at the same time) were were very hurt when Kelly died. (I liked the way how his death is initially only hinted at). Sad that he passed away in such an unsung manner. But that's the entertainment world, I guess...

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    1. Hi Neer, I think most of us saw this film on DD and, as you point out, it is a favourite and for a lot of Indian movie buffs too. Jim Kelly's death in the film surprised many including John Saxon whose expression says it all. I wonder how the film would have come out had Kelly lived until the end but then you can't have all the good guys surviving; somebody has to go as they usually do in most films.

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