Enter The Dragon (1973)

Country: Hong Kong / United States
Director: Robert Clouse
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Sek Kin, Ahna Capri, Robert Wall, Bolo Yeung, Geoffrey Weeks
Music: Lalo Schifrin

As Enter The Dragon is one of the most famous and successful martial arts movies ever made, most people tend to overlook the fact that, in essence it really is a formulaic spy film. The biggest difference between it and a myriad of other spy films is that rather than using a collection of gadgets and dirty tricks to complete his mission, Bruce Lee has to use his martial arts skills to get him out of the situations he finds himself embroiled in. Despite this lack of conventional weapons, Mr. Lee at no stage looks troubled by the forces that are opposing him.

The plot for Enter The Dragon is simplicity itself. British Intelligence knows that Dr. Han is the head of a massive heroine operation, but they cannot prove it. Han lives on a remote island and as on the surface, he has committed no crime, the authorities cannot move against him. It’s a catch-22 situation – they can’t get proof about Han’s illegal activities without going onto the island, and they cannot go onto the island without proof. But every four years Han allow strangers onto his island to attend a martial arts tournament which he runs. Han uses the tournament to find and recruit new talent for his heroine distribution network. Han’s tournament attracts the best talent from all corners of the globe.

Braithwaite (Geoffrey Weeks) from British Intelligence requests that Bruce Lee attends the tournament and infiltrates Han’s operation and provide proof of illegal activities. Initially Lee is reluctant, but once he finds out that his sister Su was accosted by some of Han’s men – and subsequently killed herself – Lee sees the tournament as an opportunity to extract a bit of vengeance on his sister’s behalf.

Han’s tournament attracts a wide variety of fighters, and apart from Lee, two of the more interesting characters are Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly). Roper is a smart mouthed hustler who just happens is down on his luck lately. After the mob come to collect an outstanding debt, and Roper has to defend himself, he decides it’s time to leave town. Williams is a black American who has been persecuted all his life due to the colour of his skin. Over the years he has learnt to fight back. Williams is forced to leave town after a run-in with some racist police officers. Both men find themselves competing at Han’s tournament.

Bruce Lee, these days is a cinematic icon like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen or Humphrey Bogart, and in keeping, many books, documentaries and films have been made about him – some factual, others not. I will not pretend to be a Bruce Lee expert – I am simply a fan, but in my opinion, on screen at least, the most important thing about Bruce Lee’s legacy is that he forever changed the way martial arts were depicted in movies.

When Bruce Lee came along, martial arts movies weren’t new. They had been around for years particularly in Hong Kong, and they were extremely well choreographed, especially when studios such as Shaw Brothers started to hire expert martial arts to choreograph their fight scenes. But the fight scenes were just that – ‘choreographed’. The fights would last ten minutes with combatants performing superhuman moves, only to be countered with equally impressive blocks. The combatants never actually landed a blow. Then Bruce Lee came along and would knock a guy out with one punch or kick. As cheesy as that may sound, it is actually more authentic and realistic than the extended and overly stylised fight sequences that came before.

Naturally there is more to Bruce Lee’s legacy than that, but I believe that is the key ingredient – and that ingredient is showcased most brilliantly in the battle that Lee has with Han’s guards in the film. It’s a breathtaking, bravura display.

Han is played by Sek kin, who is no stranger to villainous roles, having performed in some of Hong Kong cinema’s earliest martial arts movies as the bad guy. Some of his more notable performances were in the Wong Fei-Hung series (at least seven films – opposite Tak-Hing Kwan), and quite a few roles in Jane Bond films, such as Two Sisters Who Steal, Blue Falcon, Lady Black Cat Strikes Again, and many others where he’d play scheming criminal types with a twitching black moustache.

Another actor who is no stranger to villainy is John Saxon. Saxon actually plays a good guy in Enter the Dragon. His career seems to fluctuate from being the second banana good guy in high profile films, or the main villain in B-grade films. Some of Saxons more memorable performances were opposite Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd, as the villainous Sador in Battle Beyond the Stars, and in a couple of The Nightmare on Elm Street films. He has appeared in countless television shows and I am sure acted in every genre imaginable over his fifty-six year acting career. Furthermore he is still working today – currently closing in on his 200th production (counting both television and movies).

Jim Kelly’s acting career is somewhat more patchy and elusive. Enter the Dragon – only his second film – was really the pinnacle, although he had some success with a few blaxploitation flicks like Black Belt Jones and Black Samurai (where he plays a secret agent for an organisation called D.R.A.G.O.N.) in the mid 1970s. After that he seem to fade away after a self imposed exile.

The real highlight of Enter The Dragon is the fight choreography. The fight scenes, large and small scale are impressively put together. From this film, it is easy to see why, thirty-five plus years after his death, people are still infatuated with Bruce Lee – the man – and the martial artist.

Like I alluded to earlier, the plot for Enter The Dragon may not be the most original, but as a display of martial arts, this film has very few peers. It is thoroughly entertaining and not to be missed.

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