Enter the Dragon (1973)
Dir. Robert Clouse
Written by: Michael Allin
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Shih Kien
I’m not sure exactly when I first saw Enter the Dragon. It wasn’t the first movie starring Bruce Lee that I ever saw, nor was it my first foray into the kung-fu genre, but I do know that it made quite an impact on me at a fairly young age. For many people, Enter the Dragon stands as the high water mark of the classic era of kung-fu movies, and I don’t think that it’s a stretch to call it the most well-known mainstream martial arts film of all time. Lee’s star appeal was just beginning to break through in the United States, and Enter the Dragon was set to be his triumphant entryway into mainstream action filmmaking. However, Lee tragically passed away shortly before the film’s release, making Enter the Dragon the last film that he would live to complete. Though he left behind a relatively scant filmography, only starring in a handful of films, Lee has become synonymous with martial arts cinema, and is still one of the most widely recognized and celebrated martial artists to ever grace the screen. Instead of serving as a launching point into greater stardom, Enter the Dragon now serves as a reminder of Lee’s athletic ability, charisma, and viability as an action star.
Enter the Dragon marks a diversion from traditional kung-fu narratives of the time, including significant Western influences and playing out something like a blend of a James Bond spy thriller and a traditional martial arts film. In the film, Lee (Lee) is approached by a British intelligence agency and is encouraged to enter into a martial arts tournament held on a mysterious island owned by Mr. Han (Kien), a suspected crime lord. While attending the tournament, Lee is to investigate Han’s compound and find evidence of his involvement with prostitution and drug trafficking. Lee agrees to attend the tournament after learning of his sister’s death at the hands of one of Han’s bodyguards, O’Hara (Bob Wall), and vows to avenge her death, as well as bring down Han’s crime syndicate. When he arrives on Han’s island, Lee meets Roper (Saxon), a gambling addict on the run from the mob, and Williams (Kelly), a Vietnam veteran on the run from the police. The three men are obviously the most skilled fighters in the tournament, and they quickly dispatch of their opponents, although each of them runs afoul of Han in some way for disobeying the rules of his island. By night, Lee infiltrates Han’s compound and discovers the extent of his smuggling operations, although he is captured by Han’s guards. Meanwhile, Han has tried to recruit Roper to his syndicate, but Roper refuses when he realizes that Han has murdered his friend Williams. The next day, Han orders Roper and Lee to fight each other, and when Roper again refuses to be used as Han’s pawn, a melee breaks out which leads to Lee pursuing and eventually killing Han in an epic fight. With Han defeated, Lee and Roper await the arrival of the British helicopters on their way to recover Han’s prisoners and clean up the last of his criminal operations.
The influence of Enter the Dragon can’t be understated. The film was a box office and critical success, earning $25 million in American box office receipts alone, against a shoestring budget of less than $1 million. As I mentioned, the film marked the real introduction of Western audiences to Hong Kong cinema and martial arts cinema, in general. Far from being just a martial artist, Lee served as a cultural ambassador and representative of Chinese philosophy for many American audiences who were unfamiliar with the tenets of martial arts. Without the success of Enter the Dragon, I really doubt that American audiences would have ever experienced the films of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, or scores of other martial artists who would emerge as key action stars both in Asia and in America in the years to come. The popularity of Enter the Dragon also kicked off a fervid interest in martial arts in America, with kids all over starting to take kung-fu and karate lessons, emulating their onscreen hero, and embracing the strength, hard work, and discipline that martial arts training instills in its adherents. Simply put, Enter the Dragon was one of the most culturally significant films of the 1970s.
As a film, Enter the Dragon is a joy to watch. Though it was shot on a limited budget and under unique constraints due to language barriers between the American and Chinese crews, as well as creative disagreements between Lee and screenwriter Michael Allin, the finished film is a thing of beauty. The setting of Han’s island is lush and vibrant, and his compound is a visually rich location that hints at the opulence that a life of crime can afford him. The film is perfectly paced, and though it is light on the exposition, it delivers on the promise of great action. Its espionage scenes are tense and exciting, underscored by a funky jazz score from one of the great film composers of the 1970s, Lalo Schifrin. The fight scenes, all of which were conceived of and choreographed by Lee, are shot impeccably, capturing the aggression and grace of the fighters perfectly. The film’s climactic showdown between Lee and Han, in which the pair eventually square off in a hall of mirrors is a stunning cinematic achievement. The precision with which the scene must have been filmed is hard to fathom, and I still don’t know how the crew managed to pull it off. It’s one of the most memorable fight scenes in the martial arts genre, and the image of hundreds of mirror images of Bruce Lee repeating into the background as he stalks Han through the mirrored room is one of the genres indelible calling cards.
Kelly and Saxon certainly hold their own in their fight scenes, but Lee is the obvious star of the show. His lithe physicality is on display throughout the film, and his fight scenes capture the effortless way in which he cycles through movements, countering and striking with such ease and skill that he seems imbued with an innate sense of placement and momentum that the other martial artists simply don’t have. More than his obvious physical prowess, which had been on display in his other films, Enter the Dragon gave Lee the chance to introduce the philosophy behind his martial arts to the Western world. Particularly early in the film, Lee takes the opportunity to expound upon the ways in which his martial arts practice emphasizes living a balanced and harmonious lifestyle. Lee saw his martial arts as a form of self-expression, and his journey in life as one of constant self-improvement and of increasing the knowledge of self. Though much of the content relating to Lee’s philosophies and to Chinese philosophy, in general, was excised from the original American theatrical cut of the film, these scenes were reintroduced to later home video releases, and I think that the film is better off for it. If Enter the Dragon is to be seen as Lee’s magnum opus, it must contain at least some of the revolutionary thinking that he espoused and that ran as an undercurrent to his martial arts.
Though it isn’t my absolute favorite martial arts movie, or my favorite Bruce Lee movie (that’s Way of the Dragon, which I no longer own), Enter the Dragon is a classic, and an interesting look at what might have been had Lee lived longer and continued making films in Hollywood. Lee’s impact on the action film scene of the 1970s was seismic, launching a kung-fu craze that lasted long after the release of this film and, of course, long after his untimely death. The film is often imitated, but never duplicated, and it serves as a perfect entry point for the uninitiated into classic kung-fu films. It has all the campiness and action that fans of the genre are looking for, but it’s also a film that is clearly grounded in Lee’s unique philosophical viewpoint. Lee’s star burned so brightly and his legend grew so outsize after American audiences got a taste of his prowess in Enter the Dragon that the film’s director cobbled together the film Game of Death from outtakes and partial scenes that Lee had filmed before beginning work on Enter the Dragon. Though his image and reputation have often been traded on in the decades since his death, mostly to diminishing returns, such is the quality and intensity of Lee’s small filmography that he will be forever seen as an action film legend. Lee was already a star by 1973, but when Enter the Dragon was released, he became an icon.