The ghoulish insensitivity of an Enter the Dragon reboot
How can you reboot Bruce Lee?
As you read this, something is being rebooted. Maybe it's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Roseanne. (Or Roseanne without Roseanne.) Reboots are a regular part of the entertainment business now, the natural result of a pop cultural landscape flooded with too many shows, movies, and video games. When chances are slim that anyone will pay attention at all, the logic goes, who wouldn't use a familiar name to juice the odds a bit?
It's foolish to make blanket statements about reboots being good or bad. All reboots aren't equal, and some are more suspect than others — like the potential Enter the Dragon reboot from Warner Bros.
On Monday, news broke that the studio was in talks with David Leitch, who most recently directed Deadpool 2, to helm a reboot of the martial arts classic. It's the latest in a long line of overtures Warner Bros. has made towards a remake, stretching back over a decade, when Kurt Sutter of Sons of Anarchy fame first developed a neo-noir take called Awaken the Dragon.
But rebooting Enter the Dragon — whether in 2007 or 2018 — is a uniquely fraught prospect. It's not even a matter of canon, despite the movie's status as the first martial arts film produced by Hollywood. Because while Enter the Dragon is historic for many reasons, what it is more than anything is synonymous with a person: Bruce Lee.
And so the very notion of rebooting Enter the Dragon is implicitly asking a question no modern reboot has really asked before — can you reboot a legacy? Or cash in on one in good taste?
This isn't like Solo, where an iconic character tied to an iconic actor was recast and we find it strange and uncomfortable but otherwise permissible — because Han Solo is a character owned by a company, and corporate-owned characters will always outlive their creators or the artists who made them famous. This is about a real person.
Enter the Dragon isn't famous because its premise of a Hong Kong martial artist conscripted by British intelligence to bring down a trafficking ring is the stuff of cinema legend (good as that hook may be); it's famous because it was a showcase for the man the world knew as Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong movie star and martial arts phenomenon. Enter the Dragon was a watershed moment in Hollywood, a movie that starred an Asian man as its hero and marked what could have been the beginning of a new chapter in a successful career if not for Lee's untimely death.
It's telling that Lee's character is just named "Lee" in the film — a tacit admission that Lee is what the movie was selling and what people wanted to buy. While it's true that Enter the Dragon was directed by Robert Clouse, a white man, its legacy and fame are unquestionably synonymous with its star.
And so any potential Enter the Dragon remake can't help but feel ghoulish right from the start. Given these circumstances, it only makes sense to approach it with a lot of sensitivity, which makes it that much stranger to see that the first name potentially attached to it is David Leitch, a white director. Especially in 2018, a year where the push for representation in front of and behind the camera is stronger than ever, the failure to appear to at least consider a director of color reads as hopelessly tone deaf.
Reboots don't merely function as a renewed chance to make money off an old name, they're a product of the tension between past and present. Bruce Lee was the bridge between two worlds, and Enter the Dragon was the culmination of his work in the public consciousness. A filmmaker of Asian descent might have thus made a movie that considers the racial legacy of Enter the Dragon, crafting a reboot in conversation with its history. Something more indirect would also be interesting, wherein a filmmaker of color makes a movie that speaks to the cultural push and pull of America, a place where old kung fu movies inspire rappers and rappers craft lyrics that mimic the sparring of martial artists.
This isn't to say that David Leitch can't make a good action movie called Enter the Dragon, it's just that it almost certainly won't be as interesting as it could be, because martial arts isn't just choreography, it's culture. And Enter the Dragon isn't just culture, it's Bruce Lee.