Enter the Dragon: The first mainstream martial arts film

A movie that changed the cinematic landscape
Posted at 9:49 AM, Apr 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-16 13:40:03-04

With the Criterion Collection's recent announcement of a remastered box set of some of Bruce Lee's most influential pictures and next week's release of "Ip Man 4" on home video, there's no better time to talk about 1973's "Enter the Dragon".

If you grew up on Jackie Chan movies, it’s hard to appreciate the old school martial art films of the 60s and 70s. Shaw Brothers movies tend to be more staged in a variety of ways from set design to choreography. Not to say the films of King Hu or other early innovators are bad, they are just different in their approach. In many ways those early directors are emulating stage dramas. Jackie Chan is running around a city block beating the tar out of guys in prop-heavy and hilarious ways; old school kung-fu movies are focused on a soundstage where combatants brawl in a very controlled, dance-like setting. People are getting hurt in the process, it’s just different and jarring to those of us who were seeing the results of the genre’s maturation. It’s much like how the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood or a movie like The Wild Bunch makes it hard for me to appreciate the old cowboy movies of my grandparent’s generation.

Bruce Lee has been an enigma to me throughout my life. He’s arguably the best known martial arts star of all time. To this day his face is being sold on posters and T-shirts. His cat-like exclamations as he looses a punch or kick are emulated by anyone who performs a mock martial art attack. If you are a fan of martial arts movies, he’s an inescapable figure despite the small number of films he starred in. His impact was the kick that crumbled a dam keeping martial arts from mainstream American audiences.

But despite that…I’ve never appreciated his work.

For years I’ve tried to sit down and watch a Bruce Lee movie front to back and never was I able to see what everyone else saw. The fighting in his films is good, but never impressive. The movies themselves were rarely engaging. There was something missing…and I attribute my lack of appreciation for Bruce Lee entirely to what I explained above: I grew up on a much different style of martial arts movie than Lee thrived in.

"Enter the Dragon" came at a time when martial arts movies were becoming huge in America, especially with an African American audience that saw the oppression of the Chinese characters by the Japanese as parallel to their experience in America with whites. Bruce Lee, who the Shaw Brothers (the major producers of Hong Kong films at the time) passed up, was trying to stake his claim on stardom in this flashpoint of cinematic history.

Stardom would come when he co-starred in the "Green Hornet" television series as sidekick Kato. Lee used the role to introduce American audiences to a type of fighting they had never seen before. Think back to the old "Batman" with Adam West and you have a good idea of the style of fighting that was prevalent in American media. You could call it “Cowboy” style, because it was the typical tough guy fighting of cheesy cowboy movies. Lee, unlike those guys who threw corny punches that overextended and only looked good because the guy on the receiving end was going through a window or falling on a table, could fight. And fight he did. Audiences were enthralled by Kato and that would be the impetus for Lee to start his movie career.

"Enter the Dragon" was a collaboration between Warner Bros. in Hollywood and Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong. It was the joint venture that said clearly that martial arts movies had a place in America and Hong Kong wasn’t nearly as culturally insulated as they may have thought. Bruce Lee would be the star of the film, with John Saxon cast to appeal to white America and Jim Kelly to black America. But it would also contain several then unknown Hong Kong martial artists whose careers would take off afterwards. Sammo Hung fights Lee in the first scene, showcasing that even a rotund man can be lithe as a skinny guy. Bolo Yeung plays a barrel-chested villain, the same basic character he would play in every subsequent movie he was cast in, notably "Bloodsport". Yuen Biao is not a name you may be familiar with, but he was an actor in a number of Jackie Chan’s pictures of the 80’s (he was a student with Sammo Hung and Jackie at the same drama school). And Jackie Chan makes a brief appearance later in the film where Bruce snaps his neck. Jackie talks about this moment quite proudly in his autobiography.

"Enter the Dragon" could be considered a “best of” movie, taking pieces from other films, compiling them together, and having just enough plot to carry the action. Lee lives at a Shaolin temple but is called upon to enter a tournament hosted on an island owned by the evil Han. Han brainwashes women, murders people, produces drugs; all the typical bad guy stuff. The best fighters from around the world come together in an action extravaganza; including the guy who was the reason Bruce’s sister killed herself. A best friend dies along the way. Han is missing a hand and has a metal replacement. Take Dr. No, blend in a generic martial arts tournament movie, throw in some cheesy Hong Kong character motivation, and you have "Enter the Dragon".

So yes, it’s dated, it’s derivative, and it would probably not be remembered had Bruce Lee not starred in it.

My biggest problem with "Enter the Dragon" is how it meanders through the first half, attempting to build the plot and characters without ever giving them the depth that it is going for. Bruce is boring throughout with little development or reason to act aside from his sister’s death. It’s the same for every other character; they all get moments to grow and become three dimensional but those are never explored far enough for them to be anything more than cookie-cutter.

Once "Enter the Dragon" makes it to Han’s island, it picks up with great set design and some entertaining action but that lack of originality in the plot and the weak character motivation makes what should be emotional fight scenes just…well, fight scenes. And while one-on-one fight sequences tend to be shot wide, Bruce taking on multiple opponents is more medium, meaning guys run into frame. It’s something that bothers me from the perspective of an armchair action director. If I were in charge, I’d want to see every henchman in the shot to give an idea of Bruce’s odds and create a more holistic view of the action. Seeing Bruce from the waist up and the bad guys come in from off-camera is less impressive visually than seeing everyone full bodied.

The best action sequence of the movie is the final fight with Han in the mirror room. Han obviously does not have the same skills as Bruce and would not be able to win in a straight fight. He resorts to a claw hand and when that fails, he uses the environment to confuse his opponent. The mirror room isn’t necessarily a good sequence of action so much as a great piece of directing. It builds tension through the confusion the images in the mirrors bring on the viewer; the same confusion Bruce must feel. The fact no camera or crew show up is quite amazing—in the "John Wick" films mirror sequences they could digitally remove the crew members from mirrors. Here, it’s pure skill on the part of the filmmakers

"Enter the Dragon" didn’t leave a huge impact on me—it’s an entertaining movie but not memorable.

But it sure left an impact on cinema.

Releasing a month after Lee’s untimely death, the movie would make (adjusted for inflation) half a billion dollars in the US alone. Television networks would play martial arts movies in specialized blocks, learning a martial art became a hip hobby. With the rise of home video (VHS), it became easier to release martial arts movies that would otherwise never have been profitable at a theater.

Without Bruce Lee and "Enter the Dragon" we wouldn’t have "The Matrix". We may not have had Jackie Chan. And we would not have the thriving martial arts scene in places outside Hong Kong like Thailand and Indonesia.

Watch "Enter the Dragon" for Bruce Lee’s charismatic approach to action and its historical significance—maybe you’ll walk away as enamored as millions of others had been nearly fifty years ago. And maybe, like those theatergoers, you’ll crave more and begin your own martial arts obsession.