Director: Robert Klouse
Cast: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Shih Kien, Jim Kelly, Anha Capri, Robert Wall, Betty Chung
Plot: A Shaolin martial artist (Lee) is asked to infiltrate a fighting tournament to take down disgraced Shaolin fighter turned criminal, Han (Kien).
Enter the Dragon is the sort of film that sounds a lot better than it actually is. Filmed just before the great Bruce Lee died and released just after, Enter the Dragon has obtained cult status, a proud testament of Lee’s fighting capabilities and screen presence. While director Klouse’s cinematographer and fight choreographer impresses often throughout the course of the film, Enter the Dragon still struggles to break out of the guilty pleasure genre.
The issue with Enter the Dragon is the Americanisation of the whole affair. The film is caught between wanting to be a testament to Bruce Lee’s stock filmography, but at the same time, echo something more akin to a James Bond film. This is a martial arts film stuck inside the spy genre. It starts with Lee’s character, a Shaolin warrior training in the mountains. The scene is brief but sets up Lee to be a strong fighter, beloved by his people and a honourable man. He is approached by a government agent who wants Lee to use his fighting skills to take down a wealthy island owner, Han. Han is a recluse who owns an island free of jurisdiction and able to support himself financially without external help. Every three years he lets a select few on his island to partake in a fighting tournament for his own entertainment, but otherwise he is totally cut off from the rest of the world. New information reveals that Han is perhaps using the island as a cover for selling opium and prostitutes, the real reason he is able to live such a rich life. While the Shaolin never usually involve themselves in international fights, there is a personal stake in it for Lee. Han was an ex-Shaolin monk, but used his fighting training to further a life of crime, also killing Lee’s sister in the process. Lee heads over to the island, undercover as a fighter, also teaming up with an American gambler (John Saxon) and a cocksure ex-soldier (Jim Kelly). There the cliché spy tropes are dolled out, but without the fluidity of a 007 flick or a blockbuster affair. Bruce Lee, as with any martial artist that usually plays themselves in a film (Van Damme, Seagal), is given the bare minimum of a character (honest, reluctant to disgrace his family name with killing), and thrown into a story. When the plot falters, the bad guy launches into a monologue revealing his true plans, so the story can ramp up again. Scarred henchmen fuel the middle act. Enter the Dragon is what it is: a movie script rushed and stapled together to give us an American Bruce Lee film. The tell-tell signs of how hollow it is comes from the supporting cast, who try to make a difference, but always fade away into the background. An undercover female spy is hinted to be a major plot point, but barely registers. Ahna Capri just stands around looking pretty. Even John Saxon and Jim Kelly, who are meant to share hero duties with Bruce Lee can be easily written out of the story if push came to shove.
Which is why Enter the Dragon is at its best, when it stops beating around the bush and just embraces the fact it is a Bruce Lee film. Whenever Bruce Lee is simply allowed to beat up a gang of thugs, the film finally feels comfortable. Enter the Dragon is the kind of film that sits on a DVD shelf faithfully and when it is finally pulled out, the viewer can simply watch the final twenty minutes to get to the good bits. The director is allowed to do what he has been wanting to do at the start and directs the punch-ups with the flourish of a man who loves his work, something hard to tell from the scenes that came before it. Yes, there are a few outdated pastiches that modern cinema have ironed out from the screaming noise that Bruce Lee is obliged to shout out before every punch and bad guys that only attack the hero one at a time, despite having a whole group at their sides. But that is part of the genre. The fight scenes breathe life into Enter the Dragon, Lee impressing with every kill, kick and punch. The finale in the hall of mirrors is a majestic display of action territory, copied in modern films but never quite living up to the visual magic of Klouse’s camerawork. Good guy bleeds into bad guy. Punch into punch. It is a dizzying display of camera operating, even if the scenes involved two characters standing around and chatting, let alone ripping chunks out of each other with knuckledusters. Also, keep your eyes peeled for Jackie Chan as an enemy guard who gets his neck snapped by Bruce Lee.
Final Verdict: Bruce Lee makes this film better than it actually is, but it still remains a solid place to satisfy your action movie cravings.