Remember That Movie: Enter the Dragon

Bruce Lee is a legend of martial arts films and teaching. He was a Chinese American who taught martial arts and developed his own style, which he taught at his schools in Seattle and California’s Bay Area. He was eventually asked to audition for a TV show, which became the short-lived The Green Hornet, with Lee as sidekick Kato. This led to a run of dissatisfying supporting roles and Lee’s move to Hong Kong cinema. Lee starred in three movies – all critically and commercially successful – and was working on a fourth, Game of Death, when he was approached to star in Enter the Dragon. It was one of the first martial arts films produced by a Hollywood studio and sparked a brief American interest in kung fu in the ‘70s. Most importantly, Enter the Dragon was also released in 1973 in Hong Kong, six days after Lee’s death from cerebral edema, which was a possible response to a muscle-relaxant.  Enter the Dragon cemented Bruce Lee as an icon.

In case you don’t remember, Enter the Dragon stars Lee as a martial arts master who is invited to a tournament on a far-away island. British Intelligence requests Lee’s assistance in the capture of the event’s host, Mr. Han, a suspected drug trafficker.

John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and martial arts actor Jim Kelly also star as competitors in the tournament and provide some of the film’s lighter performances. Take for example the juxtaposed moments when both are presented with courtesans; Saxon, a man who likes to appear comfortable in both demeanor and wealth, makes the most Bond-like choice, while Kelly, after choosing no less than four women demurs, “Please understand, if I missed anyone, it’s been a big day. I’m a little tired.”

Enter the Dragon is essentially a James Bond movie – and probably the best Bond film of the seventies. Imagine if Bond relied on martial arts instead of tech gadgetry. If Bond didn’t take every opportunity to bed a woman. And if he were Chinese. Lee, when discussing the mission with a member of British Intelligence, plays the same beats of cynical bravado that we’re familiar with in these kinds of adventures; he’s calm, collected, and cool – and he scoffs at governmental bureaucracy. He sneaks around in the dark, finding secret passages to get to the bottom of things. And he single-handedly takes out dozens of guards, only here he does so with all the yelps, screams, and ruthless assaults one expects from a Bruce Lee movie.

Add to this the nefarious Mr. Han, himself a Bond villain, complete with a white, fluffy cat to stroke and various deadly prosthetic hands (from bear claw to steak knives!). His is the business of corruption through drugs and prostitution. And Han has the hired muscle to protect him in Bolo, a thickly-muscled Chinese thug, whose spine-snapping grip is an impossible match. Also, there’s Han’s other go-to-guy, O’Hara, a curly-fro’d meanie who is responsible for the death of our hero’s sister.

Taken as such, Enter the Dragon is great fun – that is, after the first half hour, the film’s weakest point, which features random flashback sequences and a bizarrely-lengthy opening sequence about martial arts philosophy. It is also here that it becomes apparent this is one of those movies where everybody knows how to successfully complete a round-house kick and every hit sounds like a firecracker.

The film is directed by first-timer Robert Clouse, who went on to make such martial arts films as Black Belt Jones (also starring Kelly) and Ironheart, none of which reached Enter the Dragon’s level of success. With his debut, Clouse had some tricks up his sleeve to keep things visually interesting. Unlike movies today where fights are either heavily stylized or shot so tightly one can’t make sense out of the action, the fight scenes in Enter the Dragon are mostly static shots from yards away that allow you to see every punch and kick completely. This is refreshing and compliments Lee’s choreography well, allowing the viewer to better appreciate the action and kills.

Also, there are two key first-person perspective shots that take their scenes in unexpected directions that must’ve been striking at the time. And the climactic hall of mirrors set-piece, while copied many times since, is disorienting and makes for an inspired final showdown with a satisfying, if predictable, conclusion.

It’s also worth noting Enter the Dragon was filmed during the final years of the Vietnam War and the middle years of the Cold War, both conflicts between democracy and communism. That the movie is about the West working with the East to fight corruption offers something of political significance and an interesting analysis of the film, especially given the film’s final moments, which I won’t spoil here. However, it isn’t something the film dwells on and exists only superficially. After all, there’s too much kung fu fun to be had to get bogged down in politics.

Each of Lee’s films is notable for the appearance of some future star and Enter the Dragon is no exception. While Way of the Dragon and Game of Death respectively featured prominent fight scenes with former pupils Chuck Norris and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Enter the Dragon features appearances by two well-known names – you just have to look closer to see them. Sammo Hung, future star of a slew of martial arts films and TV’s Martial Law can be seen during the film’s opening fight. While, if you look closely during a scene in a dungeon where Lee is being attacked by a bunch of henchmen, you’ll spot a young Jackie Chan getting his neck broken by a furious Bruce Lee.

Enter the Dragon is a fun Bond-like action film that influenced everything from TV (Kung Fu) to video games (Mortal Kombat) and helped make possible the careers of many martial arts movie stars. It has its flaws and I couldn’t help laughing as Bruce Lee completely annihilated insignificant, non-descript guards. But it also offers some interesting action and direction and comic-relief by John Saxon and Jim Kelly. If you’re curious about Bruce Lee, martial arts films, or on the look-out for a good action film then look no further.


Should you see it? Rent

Enter the Dragon is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.


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