Enter the Dragon (1973) — Bruce Lee at his finest

“It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

Al’s rating: So, they gave that Kato guy his own movie. Who knew?

Al’s review: Well, here it is. The big one. The one that sent kids all over the world karate chopping through their backyards screaming “Hoooooooooo-waaaaaaaaaaaah!” It launched an entire genre of motion picture in America. It inspired a young Carl Douglas to pen the phrase “Those cats were fast as lightning!” It has had more influence on pop culture than any other film of its kind. And, of course, it holds the unique place as the movie that finally introduced the world at large to that fresh-faced rising star of martial arts cinema, John Saxon.

In case you missed the headline, I’m talking about Enter the Dragon.

I’m usually leery of a review that starts of with “What else is there to say…” because that means I’m in for five paragraphs of filler material, but in this case, seriously, what else is there to say about Enter the Dragon that hasn’t been said already? Like Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, it is frequently cited as the greatest martial arts movie of the ’70s, if not of all time, and that’s tough to argue.

I mean, it’s Enter the Dragon. The fights are incomparable classics. The nuggets of Jeet Kun Do philosophy are memorable and thoughtful without being intrusive. The ‘tournament-covering-for-a-drug-cartel spy adventure’ thing reeks of James Bond-lite cheese, but the pace is brisk and energetic enough to gloss over anything you may want to split hairs about. It’s not the be-all end-all of martial arts movies like some say (the haircuts alone see to that) but it is nonetheless an experience that succeeds on every level.

First and foremost, Bruce Lee has never looked better. He used to say he did not act onscreen, he just did his thing, so like every other role he played prior to his death, most of Enter the Dragon is spent scowling intensely — which he does well — or exploding in his enemies’ faces — which he does very well — and he’s as effective as any “real” actor who’s trudged through the methods of Stanislavsky or Strasberg. The man had a magnetism that was comforting when he was calm and downright terrifying when he was riled. As an undercover martial artist, conveniently named Lee, his poise and intensity are just unreal and more than a little unnerving.

Since the singlemindedness of Bruce’s character can prove somewhat tiring after a while, the producers wisely thought to include some partners for him in the form of John Saxon and Jim Kelly. John Saxon (AKA Heather Langenkamp’s dad from A Nightmare on Elm Street) displays an unexpected modicum of acting ability as Roper, a gambler who owes money to the mob and heads to the tournament in order to lay low. Saxon doesn’t actually appear to have any actual martial arts talent himself aside from a single jump kick move he does at least three times, but ambles through Enter the Dragon with the help of several stunt doubles and by punching and kicking into a first person camera. He’s laughable next to Bruce Lee, of course, but that’s the price you pay for enlisting name recognition the John Saxon brand can offer.

Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones himself) is Williams, the likeable black guy that, as in all ’70s movies, they kill off halfway through. Kelly was the 1971 International Middleweight Karate Champion and, as such, is clearly having a lot of fun in the few fights he is given before being pushed aside for people with higher billing.

Large, impressive set pieces and excellent little exchanges are all over the place in this movie. Han’s warriors training in the open air arenas of the island. The technique of fighting without fighting. O’Harra getting sidekicked straight out of the ring and right through the audience. Williams selecting his ‘female companionship’ for the evening. The crazy opium den with the drugged-out prostitutes. Roper betting with his ‘easy mark’ on the tournament. Debating how much you trust a man who puts your head in a guillotine. Bruce making film history with nothing more than a pair of nunchucks.

I could rattle off great moments from this film all day, because that’s basically what Enter the Dragon is: Two hours of great moments unfolding one after another. The few minor rough patches, like the sluggish pace of the first half hour and some awkwardly placed flashbacks, will more than likely give the first time viewer a bit of pause. These melt away almost immediately, however, when Enter the Dragon hits its stride. It’s simply one of the best of all time. The best? I think I’ll let it fight it out with Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber. But it is certainly the pinnacle of Bruce Lee’s film legacy and an inarguable piece of history. Check it out.

Didja notice?

  • The omnipresent waka-jawaka
  • A young Sammo Hung as Bruce Lee’s opponent in the opening exhibition
  • A pre-fame Jackie Chan as one of the guards Lee fights off in the underground cavern. He’s one Lee grabs by the hair and holds in front of the camera for a while before breaking his neck offscreen.
  • During the praying-mantis fights on the boat, Falcons’ quarterback Michael Vick is the visible in the background? Kidding, kidding.
  • Bruce’s technique of ‘fighting without fighting’
  • Bolo Yeung (Chong Li from Bloodsport) playing The Muscular Asian Bad Guy role
  • The guys dipping their hands in hot coals
  • The skeletal hand in the trophy room
  • The entire welcome party freezes in place while Han is speaking at the feast

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s