Enter the Dragon (1973) / Action-Thriller
aka The Deadly Three
aka Operation Dragon
MPAA Rated: R for violence, sexuality, nudity, and language
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Kien Shih, Robert Wall, Bolo Yeung, Ahna Capri, Angela Mao, Betty Chung, Geoffrey Weeks, Peter Archer, Jackie Chan (cameo), Sammo Hung (cameo), Yuen Baio (cameo)
Director: Robert Clouse
Screenplay: Michael Allin
Review published March 22, 2007
Bruce Lee's (Return of the Dragon, The Chinese Connection) final completed film before his untimely death at the age of 33, Enter the Dragon, the first Hollywood martial arts film, is definitely is one of the most influential, establishing Bruce Lee as an iconic figure for future martial artists, starting a kung fu film craze that ran throughout the 1970s. It has also been re-popularized today in similar strains. Video games, such as the infamous "Mortal Kombat", have emulated its plot and style. In fact, so much has been lifted by future films and other forms of media, that when one looks back at it from a modern perspective, it seems like just another typical kung fu movie, rather unfairly.
Most of the action follows three main protagonists, all traveling to a fortified, remote island owned by Han. Bruce Lee plays Lee, working as an undercover intelligence agent seeking revenge for his dead sister, who killed herself to keep from getting taken by Han's men. John Saxon (Black Christmas, Joe Kidd) plays gambling addict, Roper, who escapes the mob boss out to collect on a late payment. American karate champ Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones, Black Samurai) is also out to escape, hunted by the cops who were harassing him. While there, it is discovered that Han has more going on than just his martial arts tournament, as drugs and prostitutes run rampant over the place, drawing the eye of the authorities surrounding the island who want evidence of wrongdoing before coming in.
The main reason to see Enter the Dragon isn't for the story, direction, or anything one normally associates with the worth of your typical movie; you watch it to see the greatest martial arts figure in the history of cinema, Bruce Lee, at the peak of his career. This is a film conceived of solely to introduce Bruce to an American audience as something more than Kato from "The Green Hornet" fame. He would quickly become the premier action hero for a new decade. Though he would die less than a month before the official release, the impact of his performance in the film catapulted him into becoming a household name, almost inseparable in the minds of millions from martial arts for decades.
As for the story itself, it's really not much to brag about. The novelty of the deadly tournament itself peters out before the halfway point, as we barely get to see much head-to-head fighting in the arena past the first round. Eventually, the film turns into a sort of spy thriller, and later an action film, with Lee and steel-fisted Han battling in a room of mirrors (a la Lady from Shanghai), while the rest of the men on the island battle each other in a free-for-all melee. The acting is passable, but unspectacular, while the dubbing is typical of martial arts releases of its era, despite it being a mostly English-language production.
However, when the sole purpose is to showcase Bruce Lee to the Western world, all eyes are on him, and he delivers mightily in one of the finest physical performances of its time. People often wonder what the definition of "screen presence" means in terms of actors, and Enter the Dragon provides a perfect example, as Lee electrifies the screen with his lean, muscular physique and menacing poses, taking out dozens of opponents in convincing fashion in perfectly choreographed precision. When Lee's on, it's impossible not to be riveted to the screen.
Enter the Dragon isn't so much a great film as it is entertaining and influential, so if you're not a martial arts fanatic, it's best to keep your expectations at bay. However, for all lovers of Bruce Lee, kung fu flicks, and revivalists of Seventies cool, it's a quintessential film, indispensable in its genre and firmly implanted forever in film history as the one that set the mold, even if future endeavors would top it in terms of breathtaking action, daring stunts, and more substantial stories.
©2007 Vince Leo