Before Tony Jaa, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan there was Bruce Lee. The man has been dead since the 1970s yet say his name and images of martial art fights spring to mind. He died way too early leaving behind only a handful of films, a few of them unfinished. Fortunately, Robert Clouse’s “Enter the Dragon” was completed before his death on July 20, 1973. As far as martial arts films go, it is one of the best and features the master in top shape.
Whenever I write for this blog I try to describe the impression I had when I watched the film for the first time. Sometimes it’s a memorable moment, such as watching a game-changing movie on the big screen. This however, is a rather ordinary moment since I watched “Enter the Dragon” yesterday evening on TV in my mom’s apartment in Quebec City. Life is ordinary sometimes.
Yet when it comes to Bruce Lee movies I still have a personal movie anecdote. About two years ago my brother bought a DVD box set of Bruce Lee’s films for Asian studio Golden Harvest. Nice item to have for any film buff, although I found the films to be lacking in terms of story. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad I have the box set, but the stories seemed somewhat repetitive: Bruce Lee plays a martial arts experts, bad guys go after him or his friends, and he beats the bad guys to a pulp while screaming like an animal. The dialogue is ordinary, the acting fair, and the production values varied in quality.
“Enter the Dragon,” the first martial arts film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, is an entirely different beast. Once again Lee plays a martial arts expert (called Lee) fresh off a Shaoling temple in Hong Kong. A British intelligence officer called Braithwaite (Geoffrey Weeks) wants him to participate in a martial arts tournament organized by a crime lord. Braithwaite’s organization knows the crime lord is into drug smuggling and prostitution but they have no proof. So they need Lee to travel to the island where Han (Shi Kien) is holding the tournament, confirm he is a criminal and the cavalry will swoop in to save the day.
Of course the fight needs to be personal for the hero and Lee has two reasons to be mad at the evil Han. Firstly, he was once a Shaolin student and has disgraced their tradition with his evil ways. Secondly, Han’s bodyguard O’Hara (Robert Wall) attacked Lee’s sister, resulting in her suicide. Time for some roundhouse kicks.
One thing that sets this movie apart from other Bruce Lee movies is the supporting characters. One his way to the island, Lee meets two fellow martial arts experts, both of them Americans. Roper (John Saxon) is a playboy and a gambler who left the America with a pile of debts. Williams (Jim Kelly) is an African-American who beats two racist police officers outside of his martial arts school. He looks like he wandered off from a blaxploitation movie and gets one of the movie’s best lines: “Man, you’re straight out of a comic book.”
That line is actually well deserved since he is talking to the villainous Han, although he is not out of a comic book. He is clearly copied from the early James Bond films: Han has a hideout on an island, an army of henchmen wearing the same uniform, a room filled with torture devices, and sharp knives he can attach to the hole where his hand used to be. Oh! He also has white kitty cat.
This all may be unoriginal by today’s standards, but it is highly entertaining. As with all martial arts films, the third act must have prolonged battle scene between the hero and the henchmen followed by a fight between the hero and villain. That last fight takes place in a hall of mirrors where Han is fighting with metal claws that belonged to either Freddy Krueger or Wolverine. Hard to tell, but the point is they are very sharp, adding to the tension.
This may be the best movie Bruce Lee ever made and one of the best in the genre. Yet there is one fight that you find on his earlier films but not in this one: a fight between Lee…and Chuck Norris. Yes. That happened. I am glad I have my DVD box set because that fight alone deserves to be on film, even if it’s not in Bruce Lee’s best movie.