In 1973, “Enter the Dragon” debuted in movie theaters across the planet and its status as one of the definitive martial arts movies of all time had already been cemented by the legacy of the man whose name would forever change the destiny of the martial arts for all posterity -Bruce Lee. His legendary status transcends the bounds of even human mortality, and he’s respected and revered as the ubermensch of combat mastery and physical perfection. We simply cannot deny that martial arts practitioners in every corner of the globe idolize him as a god and bow down to him, regarding him as the pinnacle of what we hope to achieve in our training. He set the standard for the kind of strength and ideals of mind, body, and spirit that are the cornerstone virtues of the warrior arts, and both he and “Enter the Dragon” itself inspired and continue to inspire one generation after another, Lee as the ultimate embodiment of the martial arts and the movie as the ambitious vehicle that surely catapulted his vision and art onto the centre stage of the world – forever!
Needless to say, this was the film that made Bruce Lee an international superstar, albeit posthumously so. His portrayal of the Shaolin Monk Lee is the stuff of legend, and would influence popular culture for years to come, in particular video games – i.e. Mortal Kombat, with the character Liu Kang being a clear analogue for Lee and the entire premise of the series being the story of “Enter the Dragon” with fantasy elements incorporated. However, quite a few masters of martial arts got their start in “Enter the Dragon”, such as Angela Mao, who portrays Lee’s sister Su Lin, who would go on to make a name for herself as the definitive female action star of Hong Kong cinema in the 70’s and 80’s. Then, of course, there’s Bolo Yeung, credited as Yang Sze, who portrays the heavy of the film, Bolo. He’d later trade blows with Jean-Claude Van Damme in”Bloodsport” and “Double Impact”. Bob Wall is pure macho evil as Han’s scarred bodyguard O’Harra, while the main villainous duties fall to Chinese actor Shih Kien, who channels a classic James Bond villain in his portrayal of Mr. Han. Lee’s compatriots in the film include John Saxon as Roper and Jim Kelly (R.I.P) in his film debut here as Williams, who would later become one of the defining figures of blaxploitation cinema.
A British Intelligence agent named Braithwaite recruits Shaolin Monk, Lee, to enter a martial arts tournament being held on the private island of Mr. Han, a nefarious drug lord and crime boss who has proven far too adept at keeping his activities a secret for him to be brought to justice. Braithwaite hopes that by posing as a competitor in the tournament, Lee can get the evidence needed to bring the drug kingpin down. Han is also a former Shaolin Monk himself, having been expelled for abusing their code of honour. Additionally, Lee learns from his father that Han’s personal bodyguard, O’Harra, is responsible for the death of his sister Su-Lin, who committed suicide when O’Harra attempted to rape her. Because of both of these factors, Lee sees bringing down Han’s criminal empire as a personal mission he must undertake to reclaim the stolen honour of the Shaolin Temple, and he agrees to the mission.
Lee’s fellow competitors in the tournament include Roper and Williams. Roper is a compulsive gambler on the run from the mob, while Williams is on the lam after fighting off a group of racist cops. Once on Han’s island, Lee makes contact with Mei Ling, another operative previously placed on the island by Braithwaite, while Roper develops a relationship with one of Han’s palace concubines, Tania. After the first day of competition in the tournament, Lee attempts to infiltrate Han’s underground chamber, but his attempt is thwarted by several of Han’s guards, whom he is able to incapacitate before they can positively identify him. The next morning, Han forces the guards who failed to apprehend the intruder to fight his right-hand man Bolo, who kills all of them with cold-blooded ease. As the tournament continues, Lee fights against O’Harra, whom he easily trounces and ultimately kills after the frustrated O’Harra attempts to stab him with broken bottles.
Han suspects Williams of having been the intruder in the palace, and after interrogating him, viciously beats him to death with his iron-left hand, a prosthetic he implemented after a “bad experience” with guns. Han later attempts to recruit Roper into his criminal empire, and subtly threatens him into complying by showing him Williams’ bloodied corpse when Roper appears reluctant. That night, Lee’s second attempt at infiltrating Han’s underground chamber is successful, uncovering all the evidence of Han’s criminal activities. However, he triggers an alarm when he delivers the message to Braithwaite via morse-code, and after a prolonged battle against dozens of Han’s guards, Lee is trapped and captured, with Han admonishing Lee that he was going to ask him to join them…
The next day, Han attempts to pit Roper against Lee, but Roper refuses to fight him. Han then forces Roper to fight against Bolo, and though initially outmatched, Roper ultimately defeats him. In a panic, Han orders all of his men to kill Lee and Roper, but despite being outnumbered, the two successfully hold their attackers off. Unbeknownst to Han, Mei Ling has set about releasing the dozens of captive men in Han’s underground chamber, who come to Lee and Roper’s aide. Han flees the chaotic battle in the tournament grounds for his palace, but Lee arrives to punish Han for the disgrace he has brought to the Shaolin Temple and his family. Despite having exchanged his prosthetic hand for a four-bladed claw, Han proves to be no match for Lee, and he flees into a hall full of mirrors. Initially at a disadvantage due to the difficulty of distinguishing Han from his reflection in the room, Lee shatters all of the mirrors in the room to strip Han of his advantage, as he ultimately uncovers the real Han and sidekicks him into a spear that Han had thrust into the door (of the mirror room) at the beginning of their battle. With the honour of the Shaolin Temple now restored, Lee returns the tournament grounds and delivers a ‘thumbs-up’ to the exhausted Roper, now mourning the death of Tania in the battle. Moments later, Braithwaite’s reinforcements arrive to the island via helicopter, with Lee grimacing at the fact that they are now no longer needed…
If you’re in the mood for some action-packed (even along with a hearty meal!) entertainment, you could hardly do better than “Enter the Dragon”. Bruce’s mastery at displaying both the beauty and the lethality of martial arts would become the gold standard for martial arts filmmaking. The cave scene, in particular, would become a staple of martial arts films, pitting the lone hero against a swarm of seemingly limitless opponents (not to mention giving Jackie Chan one of the most memorable movie deaths in history)! Indeed, several scenes in the film are iconic to the point that they have become some of the first images that spring to mind when anyone thinks of a martial arts film: the opening fight with Sammo Hung in the Shaolin Temple, Lee decimating a barrage of guards in front of an elevator, his trademark usage of the nunchuku, the battle with Han in the hall of mirrors – “Enter the Dragon” has come to define the martial arts film genre to a degree that only a handful of entries in the genre have ever done (one of them being Bruce’s own “Fist Of Fury”, no less).
If one were to assign a trademark technique to Bruce Lee, his mastery of the sidekick makes it a prime contender, and the viewer is afforded numerous opportunities to see it performed with textbook flawlessness throughout the film. Easily the most memorable of these is his use of the kick during the fight with O’Harra, filmed in slow-motion to allow the viewer to fully absorb the impact as much as it’s recipient (Bruce reportedly delivered such a powerful kick in this scene that the stuntman tasked with catching Bob Wall had both of his arms broken!). One more subtle moment in the film conveys Bruce’s absolutely blinding speed to the viewer – as the fight with O’Harra begins, Bruce lands his strikes with such blazing speed that it appears to the naked eye as if he simply shoots his fist straight into the target; it is nearly impossible to see that he first traps O’Harra’s leading hand (with his non-striking limb before delivering the strike) without freeze-framing!
Apart from Bruce himself, no one in the film makes as much of an impression on the viewer as perhaps Angela Mao. Her brief role as Lee’s sister Su-Lin is easily the best fight in the film not involving Lee, and for many in the west, marks their initial introduction to a woman who remained one of the reigning queens of martial combat in the female fight club camp .
One thing also worth mentioning is how much the sound effects really stand the test of time. The sounds of blows landing were created by snapping used chicken bones up close to a microphone!
It is worth asking if “Enter the Dragon” would be as good without Bruce? Besides being the pinnacle of martial arts perfection, Bruce had a charisma and presence that few could hope to replicate. Without Bruce Lee, we might not even be talking about “Enter the Dragon” today as anything more than some pseudo-classic cult martial arts film from the early seventies. Bruce gave us his all in this film, one that was truly his own…
- When O’Harra attacks Lee with the broken glass, real glass bottles were used. This led to an accident during filming when Bob Wall misjudged his distance and accidentally stabbed Bruce Lee’s hand. Rumors circulated that Lee wanted to kill Wall, only sparing his life because he was needed to complete the scene, but Wall maintains that Lee held no grudge whatsoever over the accident.
- During the fight in the cave, Jackie Chan was accidentally struck in the face by Lee with a bo staff, which Lee profusely apologized for, promising that Chan would work on all of his subsequent films (which could not materialize due to Lee’s untimely death). Chan has said that out of all the injuries he has sustained over the years, this was the most painful.
- In the opening fight scene of the film, Lee’s opponent is portrayed by future Hong Kong action king Sammo Hung. Thirty-years later, Hung would serve as the action director for the film “Ip Man”, a film about Lee’s real-life Wing-Chun teacher of the same name! Two years later, Hung would not only return to action director on the sequel, “Ip Man 2”, but he also starred in the film as a Hung Gar master who has a fight scene against Ip Man himself. Epic stuff all the way, so whatever you do, don’t miss these movies!!
Film Rating: 10/10