Here it is. The Rosetta Stone for American Kung-Fu fans. For many, this is the first taste they had of this sort of action movie, their first taste of martial arts cinema, their first exposure to Bruce Lee. It opened the genre up for an entire generation of wide-eyed youths, and made a posthumous superstar out of its lead. Full of iconic imagery and unforgettable moments, ENTER THE DRAGON owes as much to the James Bond films of the time as it does to the kung-fu films coming out of Hong Kong, but the masterstroke was letting Bruce Lee handle the action. This was something totally different, and audiences clamored for more.
Of course, it’s far from a perfect movie. Robert Clouse’s workmanlike direction leaves a lot to be desired, and while John Saxon and Jim Kelly are plenty capable actors, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they are meant to distract from the fact that we have a Chinese lead. It’s also bizarrely choppy, particularly in the first half where frequent flashbacks threaten to kill any semblance of momentum. It’s when things settle down into the tournament on Mr. Han’s island that the movie starts living up to its promise, though even then Clouse handicaps much of the action with odd camera angles and editing which sometimes hides the fantastic physical gifts of his star.
But these are minor complaints compared to just what a massive accomplishment ENTER THE DRAGON is. While widely parodied and imitated, it still packs a heck of a punch – pun intended – and the tournament concept would make the basis for pretty much every fighting video game that would follow in the 90s. But it’s Bruce Lee who is the breakthrough here. His charisma and physicality were something completely different than what audiences in the early 1970s were used to, and within a year teenagers all across the country had posters of Lee on their walls. Unfortunately, he was to suddenly pass away just a month before its American release, meaning that he could never enjoy the fruition of his dream to find success in the US.
It’s rather well documented that when shooting began on ENTER THE DRAGON, the producers and directors were left waiting as a very nervous and intimidated Bruce Lee refused to come to the set. It’s hard to believe that such a physically gifted and charismatic individual, and one who had already found massive fame in Hong Kong with his previous films, could be so petrified by this opportunity – but he likely recognized that this could very well be his only shot at breaking through. Golden Harvest were notoriously protective over their biggest star, and it’s fully possible that – if this film were to fail – that Bruce would have returned to Hong Kong and would forget about ever breaking through. America would never get kung fu fever. Carl Douglas would never write “Kung Fu Fighting”. Cinemas would never play Shaw Brothers films, or Jackie Chan classics. No kung-fu theatre on TV. No Wu-Tang clan. Everything was riding on ENTER THE DRAGON, so the plot had to deliver.
It all begins with Bruce Lee vs Sammo Hung. Yes, the opening scene of the film – envisioned by Bruce, and filmed after completion – shows Lee and Hung squaring off in what could be interpreted as a symbolic passing of the torch to a new generation of kung-fu stars. At least, it would be if Bruce (playing the aptly named Lee) didn’t quickly wipe the floor with him. Lee is a Shaolin trained kung-fu master, and we get a quick slice of his philosophy when he has a brief conversation with a Shaolin Abbott. It’s all a bit goofy, but must have been mind-blowing for kids in the 70s who got a quick lesson in what Lee was all about. This isn’t the shaky philosophy of THE MATRIX. This was a real dude, and he could kick your ass.
It seems that Han, a former member of the temple and now a reclusive Bond-villain-billionaire, has gone rogue and the British government have started to get a little antsy. Probably because he uses a martial arts tournament as a front for the processing of opium, as well as some heavy duty prostituting – geting the women addicted to drugs, and then forcing them into sexual slavery. This Han is a bad man. Lee is visited by British officer Braithwaite who asks him to enter Mr. Han’s tournament, infiltrate his operations, and report back. Alternatively, he could infiltrate the operation, beat the hell out of everyone on the island, kill all of Han’s goons, and then kill Han himself. If he felt like it, I mean. In a famous moment, Lee interrupts his meeting with Braithwaite to give a quick kung-fu lesson to a student (giving him a few slaps for good measure). This young actor was Wei Tung, who grew up to have an extensive career in Hong Kong action films, and directed Jet Li’s THE HITMAN. Neat!
So, Lee reluctantly agrees to attend the tournament, but before he heads to Han’s island it’s revealed that he has a personal reason to seek revenge. Apparently Lee’s sister (played briefly – and memorably – by the great Angela Mao) was killed after a run-in with Han’s goons a few years previously. We get a lengthy flashback showing the confrontation, and it serves as our introduction to Han’s right-hand-man Oharra (played by Bob Wall), who gets his trademark scar across his face from Mao. If you look carefully, you’ll also see Wilson Tong (from THE VICTIM and THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN) as one of Oharra’s men. It looks like Lee has a personal investment in seeing Han’s empire fall. I hope he gets his revenge.
As Lee boats off, we also get our introduction to our two supporting good guys. Williams (Jim Kelly) is a black Vietnam vet/kung-fu expert, who ended up assaulting some racist cops before hauling ass to Hong Kong. Kelly’s performance is a bit wooden, but he’s the epitome of cool and gets most of the best lines. Joining him is the pompous Roper (John Saxon), a charming con-man who owes money all over (including to the Mafia), so enters the tournament for the cash. Williams and Roper served together in Nam, and make a pact to stick together once they hit the island.
So our group all pile onto a boat and set sail for Han’s island. The place has everything! Dancing girls, sumo wrestlers, hundreds of bird cages hanging from the ceiling, and Han himself (played by Kien Shih, a veteran kung-fu actor who made appearances in a number of Wong Fei-Hung films). To make Han ultra villainy, he wears a false metal hand which he can unscrew and replace with a different style of falsie in a pinch. This will come into play later. Lee makes contact with a lovely undercover operative, while Williams and Roper enjoy the hospitality.
The next day we get a few brief fight scenes, but the tournament quickly fades into the background. Lee scopes out Mr. Han’s underground lair/slavery ring/drug processing center, while Williams beds down with a number of ladies (“I’ll take you, darling. And you. And you. And you.”) and Roper hooks up with the head Madam Tania (Ahna Capri). Since Lee easily dispatched some of Han’s men while snooping around, the next day Han is super pissed. He works out his frustrations by having his heavily muscled bodyguard Bolo (played, of course, by Bolo Yeung) kill his sloppy guards. So hard to find good help these days. We also eventually get a tournament fight between Lee and Oharra, which is our first chance in a while to see Lee unleashed. He makes plenty of ridiculous faces while beating the holy hell out of Bob Wall, who responds by trying to attack him with some broken bottles. Rightly perturbed, Lee kills Oharra. While filming this scene, Bruce Lee was actually badly cut since they used actual glass bottles instead of sugar glass. Crazy!
Now things start to spin wildly out of control. Han accuses Williams of being the one snooping around since his companion for the night squealed that he went outside his room (“Out in the moonlight, baby.”). Williams protests his innocence, leading to some of the best exchanges in the film (particularly “Man, you come right out of a comic book.” and “Bullshit, Mr. Han-man.”) before Han and his men beat him to death.
Later, Roper enjoys a tour of Han’s facilities, including seeing the scope of his drug empire, before Han propositions him to help him distribute his product in the US. Roper might have went along with it, but they show Williams mutilated body as a warning, which probably was a big turn off. That night, Lee breaks back into the facility to gather evidence against Han, but trips an alarm. You can probably guess what happens next. Dozens and dozens of men start filing out of every corridor, giving Lee an opportunity to dispatch them in a variety of interesting (and violent) ways. Lee throws his trademark kicks, fights off a group using a pole, before finally showing off his impressive nunchuk skill. Anyone skeptical of Lee’s abilities would quickly be left with their mouth hanging open at this display, and Clouse intelligently let the choreography do the work here. If you look closely, you’ll see Bruce encounter a young Jackie Chan before breaking his neck. Ouch. Eventually, Lee gets rather unceremoniously trapped.
The next day, Han – who has gotten progressively more pissed off as the tournament continues – tries to force Roper to fight Lee. He refuses, so Han sends Bolo after him instead. Now, Saxon was a skilled martial artist at the time, but his style of fighting looks a tad wimpy next to Lee’s flying kicks and skill with weapons. Still, he does an admirable job here, assisted by Clouse’s camera, and eventually dispatches Bolo with some well placed kicks to the junk. This sends Han-Man over the edge and he orders his men to kill both Roper and Lee. And they may have succeeded, except at exactly that moment Han’s hundreds of captives were escaping from his underground prison, and they make a rush for the tournament grounds. Thankfully, they are all wearing black, which makes it really easy to tell who the good guys are.
It’s about time for our climactic fight, and it’s incredible. While I criticized Clouse’s direction earlier, his staging of the fight between Lee and Han in the mirror room is astounding, especially when you include Han swapping his hand out for a claw. It’s beautifully over the top, and Lee gets his best line in the film (“You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple.”) before impaling Han on one of his own errant spears. Hoisted with his own petard. How fitting. Helicopters arrive to clear out this mess, and if it wasn’t for Lee’s death I’m guessing we would have likely experienced ENTER THE DRAGON 2. As it is, this is all she wrote.
I mentioned the brief appearances by Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Wilson Tong, but if you have sharp eyes you’ll also be able to spot Yuen Biao in one of the group scenes. And another member of the Seven Little Fortunes peking opera troupe, Yuen Wah, was Lee’s stunt double in the film (and performs some impressive onscreen flips). Director Robert Clouse would follow up the film with the Jim Kelly starring BLACK BELT JONES, before notoriously attempting to finish Lee’s GAME OF DEATH (using doubles, outtakes and footage of Lee’s funeral) in 1978. He would also fail to launch Jackie Chan’s US career in 1980’s THE BIG BRAWL, and directed the wonderfully goofy GYMKATA (“The skill of gymnastics, the kill of karate.”), starring gymnast champion Kurt Thomas. While his output was erratic, his contribution to martial arts cinema can’t be ignored, and he sadly passed away in 1997 at the age of 68.
ENTER THE DRAGON was a worldwide success, though wasn’t quite so revolutionary in Hong Kong where several of Lee’s previous films out-grossed it. Still, worldwide it changed the perception of martial arts cinema, opened the door for the theatrical releases of kung-fu films, and showed that an Asian actor could be a major movie star. Lee’s death would open the door for hundreds of tributes and parodies, most notable the FISTFUL OF YEN segment from THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, but ENTER THE DRAGON holds up as superior entertainment. A perfect starting point for those interested in kung-fu films, and an equally sad reminder of what the film world lost with Bruce Lee’s death.
NEXT WEEK: FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH/KING BOXER (1972)