In the years since his death, Bruce Lee has become a legendary figure in the martial arts world. Having created the style of “Jeet Kune Do,” the man basically invented MMA before that term was even a thing. His cultural impact is unparalleled in the fighting space.
Before all of this, Lee was making his mark in the world of film and TV. A lot of Americans may have remembered him from his role in The Green Hornet, but the film that truly brought him to superstardom was Enter the Dragon.
Released in 1973 shortly after his death, this Hollywood and Hong Kong co-production is remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only was it the first time that Hollywood collaborated with a foreign studio, but it propelled Lee to the status of a cultural icon while also legitimizing martial arts movies as an art form. This isn’t even mentioning how actors such as Bolo Yeung (aka Yang Sze) and Jim Kelly would go on to become important figures in their own right.
Enter The Dragon may not be Lee’s best film, but it most certainly is one of the most important for the genre. If you ask anyone what they know Lee from, Enter the Dragon is probably the first thing that will spring to mind.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t introduced to Kung Fu films by this movie. That honor goes to Master of the Flying Guillotine, but even I knew of Bruce Lee and his dominance in the field before jumping into this genre. I had practiced karate as a child under a teacher that was taught by Chuck Norris, a protege of Lee’s that would eventually become an action star and, later, internet meme.
In some weird way, my own life was changed by Lee before I was even truly aware of him. When I did finally start embracing Hong Kong cinema in my teens, you’re damn certain I started my journey through Lee’s filmography with Enter the Dragon.
To my teenage self, this was one of the greatest films I had ever seen. The mixture of Eastern and Western philosophies, the absolute charisma that radiated from Lee, the utterly insane fight choreography: I came to understand why Lee was so revered.
Does the film hold up after nearly 50 years, though? The whole impetus for this new series is a desire to look back at Kung Fu movies I grew up watching and see if my memories of them remain true. I’m still utterly fascinated by martial arts, but sometimes childhood has a way of obscuring flaws.
Thankfully, Enter The Dragon doesn’t suffer too much. Every moment Lee isn’t on the screen may drag a bit (I’m also not sure why the acting is so stilted), but the fight scenes contained are electrifying in their efficiency and pizazz.
The best example I can give comes from roughly the mid-point. Lee, playing a character named Lee, faces off against O’Hara (played by Bob Wall) in a battle that takes on two meanings. Not only is this his first battle in the tournament that serves as the central focus of the film, but Lee will finally have the chance to avenge the death of his sister. The backstory may have been clumsily delivered, but the emotion is palpable.
Even after watching this scene a billion times and knowing exactly what Lee is going to do, I’m still shocked by his speed. His movements are so swift and graceful that it’s not hard to understand why people thought he was a god. The camera seemingly can’t capture his speed with his movement almost appearing like a snap cut. It’s utterly captivating to watch unfold.
That isn’t even enough, though. To cap off this confrontation, Lee delivers his signature jumping side kick that sends O’Hara careening across the arena and into a bunch of extras. Urban legend claims that Lee and Wall got into a squabble which resulted in Lee “mistakenly” making contact with Wall. That’s just a bunch of nonsense, but the take used is a legitimate reaction instead of staged choreography. Lee really did kick Wall and you can tell from how intense the whole thing plays out.
Moments like this are scattered throughout all of Enter the Dragon’s fight scenes. During Lee’s infiltration of antagonist Han’s secret lair, there’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment where Lee looks down at a guy he just struck. Turns out that was a young Jackie Chan and Lee actually struck him in the nose with a Kali stick.
The opening fight scene against a young — and much thinner — Sammo Hung is also similar. Hung had something of a rivalry with Lee and the two legitimately dueled for the film’s opening. Hung would later say that Lee was absolutely the real deal.
Just watching Lee in action is reason enough to partake of Enter the Dragon. If it wasn’t for his untimely death, I’m sure the world would have been treated to even better films on the caliber of this production. Sadly, we do need to talk about the rest and that’s where my teenage memories start to get betrayed.
The general plot of Enter the Dragon is a pretty flimsy excuse to get people fighting. That shouldn’t come as a surprise (especially with this film’s age), but it does make the opening exposition dump a little exhausting. I also mentioned that the backstory for each of the characters was clumsily delivered, but it truly does feel like an afterthought in execution.
Lee is sent on a mission by the CIA to infiltrate Han’s island and while taking a boat to get to another boat, the film just flashbacks to Lee speaking with his grandfather. We then learn that Lee’s sister was cornered by Han’s men, but the sequence feels almost from an entirely different film. If you want a real trip with this sequence, track down the Chinese release that completely changes the dialogue with some weird Mandarin dubbing.
The same goes for co-stars John Saxon and Jim Kelly. Their backgrounds are given even less time, but both are delivered in a similar fashion. Roper (Saxon) has a gambling problem and owes money while Williams (Kelly) gets harassed by police for being black and is running away from an assault charge. You can definitely tell this was written in the 70s.
Still, the trio eventually meet up and the film kind of takes a lighter tone for a bit. There isn’t that much chemistry between the main players, and some of the dialogue makes absolutely no sense (I’ll forever be puzzled by the “You wanna bet” line Roper gives to Lee), but it’s at least entertaining.
What sucks is that once everyone gets to the island, the film never stops to look at these people deeper. Everyone falls into stereotypical roles and the movie becomes more concerned with setting up fight scenes instead of making logical sense. Han runs a drug operation and has a harem of women that he prostitutes out, but that’s all we really learn. Lee, Roper, and Williams are just there and don’t change throughout the course of the movie, other than Williams getting killed off.
One has to put this all within the context of Kung Fu films of that era. Compared to its contemporaries, Enter the Dragon is Shakespeare. Shaw Brothers may have been producing some classic films, but those ultimately suffered from the same plot issues. Characters had no…character, and the general story was merely a vehicle for the action sequences.
Enter the Dragon at least attempted to create some kind of a James Bond angle to hang its plot on. It’s not necessarily successful, but the action more than makes up for it. The pacing most certainly isn’t bad, which would have ruined the picture.
Some of the edits between scenes feel stuck in the past decade, but you can’t fault a nearly 50-year-old movie for being old. Again, Enter the Dragon was way ahead of the curve compared to other Kung Fu movies. There was a bigger picture, immaculate choreography, and better production values thanks to the Hollywood funding.
What it results in is a film that shows Lee in his prime. He was clearly meant to be a star and it’s tragic that he passed away before seeing the fruits of his labor. It’s also tragic that Lee never got to improve because the only real complaint you can give about these fight scenes is that Lee comes off as invincible.
In a project that started before Enter the Dragon took life, Lee was creating a film that could have been his magnum opus. Titled Game of Death, the movie better integrated Lee’s fighting philosophy alongside fight sequences that showed the man as the mortal he was. Lee wasn’t simply walking through enemies and coming out unscathed: there was some actual tension involved with foes getting the upper hand on him. Production on that was halted when the chance for Enter the Dragon happened.
Still, you can’t blame directors and producers for making Lee into this unstoppable force. Kung Fu films are all about the seeming underdog completely destroying their foes and proving the world wrong. Lee was basically unbeatable in real-life, so it’s not that big of a stretch to see him be just as such on film.
What it comes down to is that Enter The Dragon represents the pure essence of Lee given a budget that let him fully express himself. I might personally prefer Fist of Fury for its emotional story, but even after all of these years, Enter The Dragon still blows me away.