A pulpy blend of martial arts and James Bond-style international intrigue, Enter the Dragon suffers from cardboard characterizations, predictable plotting, and action sequences that border on self-parody. Plus, the less said about the acting, the better. Nonetheless, Enter the Dragon is fascinating almost entirely because of its leading man, Bruce Lee. Like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, Lee became a pop-culture icon by dying young, passing away at the age of 32 just days before Enter the Dragon, his first English-language starring role, premiered. And like his fellow tragic legends, Lee justifies his enduring appeal with a peerless onscreen persona: During the film’s many fight scenes, Lee does things that shouldn’t be possible and makes them look effortless. Lithe and graceful, he attacks with blinding speed and frightening power, so even though the fight scenes are jacked up with the campy sound effects that dominated ’70s martial-arts pictures coming out of Southeast Asia, Lee emerges as a cinematic badass of the highest order.
As for the movie itself, Enter the Dragon is pure escapist silliness. An international criminal named Han (Shih Ken) holds a martial-arts tournament on his private island, and he invites Lee’s character (who is also named Lee) to participate. Meanwhile, government agents ask Lee to accept the invitation in order to sneak around the island and confirm reports that Han is hiding a major drug operation there. Also invited to the tournament are Americans Roper (John Saxon), a white man in debt to the mob, and Williams (Jim Kelly), a black man running from charges of assaulting police officers.
Lee, Roper, and Williams participate in the tournament by day and discover Han’s criminal activities by night, leading to a giant confrontation as good guys, accompanied by legions of freed prisoners, battle Han and his minions in an island-wide martial-arts showdown. The movie’s climax is a justifiably famous duel between Han and Lee in a hall of mirrors, with Han wearing a set of metal talons in place of his missing left hand; since Shih Ken had starred in dozens of martial-arts movies before appearing in Enter the Dragon, he makes a formidable opponent for Lee, and their battle is exciting and stylish.
Although Enter the Dragon wasn’t the very first martial-arts movie to find success in America—the 1971 indie Billy Jack, starring American karate fighter Tom Laughlin, made a mint when it was re-released in early 1973, just a few months before Enter the Dragon hit theaters—the fact that Enter the Dragon was a U.S./Hong Kong coproduction ensured the film was steeped in genre tropes most American audiences hadn’t seen before. Furthermore, director Robert Clouse shot fight scenes somewhat like dance numbers, emphasizing the elegance of the combatants’ movements and thereby helping stoke the fires of the ’70s kung fu craze. So, while it’s easy to identify the picture’s campy faults (many of which were mercilessly satirized in the 1977 comedy flick Kentucky Fried Movie), Bruce Lee’s participation makes Enter the Dragon one of the defining movies of the ’70s.
Enter the Dragon: GROOVY