When it comes to Bruce Lee pictures, most people swear by Enter the Dragon. The 1973 film is directed by Robert Clouse, with Lee helming the opening sequence and writing the screenplay along with Michael Allin. The first Chinese martial arts flick produced by a major Hollywood studio, Enter the Dragon is quintessential Lee in a lot of ways but it’s also a fairly Westernized project.
The storyline is straightforward, the action is fluid and Lee is tremendous as always, plus Enter the Dragon offers a chance to check out some of the finest martial artists all under one roof. Along with Lee and other stars, Clouse’s picture utilizes the Seven Little Fortunes Chinese performance troupe as stuntmen. Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung are among the performers to watch for.
Lee stars as…Lee. He’s a Hong Kong-based martial artist and he’s been invited to take part in a fighting tournament on a mysterious island. The competition is hosted by Mr. Han (Shih Kien), who was kicked out of the Shaolin order. Lee is approached by British intelligence agent Braithwaite (Geoffrey Weeks) and is recruited to investigate Han’s island on suspicion of a drug and prostitution operation.
Lee arrives and meets other competitors, including Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly). There are girls, including the agent Mei Ling (Betty Chung), and there are fights as the combatants work their way up the rankings. And all the while, Lee snoops around the island in hopes of finding the goods on Mr. Han.
As mentioned, this is a fairly forthright martial arts film. Lee eschews most of the Chinese nationalism of his earlier movies and is less a folk hero and more a superspy. Enter the Dragon has earned comparisons to James Bond pictures and rightly so.
The 007 elements are easy to spot, from the bevy of beauties to the underground lair to the supervillain tendencies of the one and only Mr. Han. His late-game arm attachment is something right out of a Bond yarn, as is the house of mirrors showdown. He even has a white kitty. There’s certainly a blueprint to operate from and that’s fine, but one almost longs for the more organic tales from Lee’s earlier outings.
The flip side of the coin is that Enter the Dragon does a pretty damn good job accomplishing the 007 feel without relinquishing its own distinctive feel. Lee’s insistence on more “emotional content” isn’t as fully realized as it could’ve been, but there’s still something to explore when it comes to his character’s desire to restore the honour of the Shaolin through his actions.
A key revelation comes when Lee lures Parsons (Peter Archer) by saying that his style is one of “fighting without fighting.” This is based on an anecdote about Japanese swordsman Tsukahara Bokuden and does more than reveal Lee’s ingenuity. It also reveals how the enemy can be defeated, how philosophy and cunning can achieve goals fists and feet cannot.
If we chart the course from The Big Boss to Enter the Dragon, there’s certainly a progression. Enter the Dragon is easily Lee’s most sophisticated picture and Clouse handles it well, spotting and exemplifying the talents in his cast. Cinematographer Gilbert Hubbs captures the bearing of Lee’s kicks and the hectic sweep of the broad fight scenes, with some interesting shifts to POV worth watching for.
Enter the Dragon is Bruce Lee’s final film appearance before his passing in July of 1973. It was released just six days after his death. Lee died during the making of Game of Death, also directed by Clouse, and that picture was completed with a selection of archival footage and whatnot. But Enter the Dragon is the real deal, the hero at the pinnacle of his force, grace and control.
Without question, Enter the Dragon is must-see stuff. It’s one of the most important films of the genre and it features Lee at his most hypnotic and accessible. It lacks the political context and goofball humour of the icon’s earlier efforts, but it’s a graceful and enjoyable ode to Hollywood, spy movies and kung fu magic all the same.