ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
A modern Shaolin monk, Lee (Bruce Lee) is recruited by British Intelligence to go undercover in a martial arts tournament hosted by Han on his private island to find the proof they need to destroy his international drug operation. Among the other contestants is a bankrupt businessman Roper (John Saxon) running from a sizable debt in America and Williams (Jim Kelly), a bad-ass African-American kung-fu expert with an unorthodox fighting method. Once on the island, the contestants are treated to luxurious foods, exotic women, and the toughest competitors they've ever faced. At night, Lee explores the island hoping to find the evidence he needs. But when Lee's true motives are discovered, he will have to face down against Han's entire martial arts trained army with fists of fury, feet of strength and any weapons he can get a hold of!
It has been over thirty years since Bruce Lee died, with this being his final film role, and his popularity has never budged an inch. After one viewing of ENTER THE DRAGON, you'll understand why. Lee had a screen presence, charisma and physical stature that is still yet to be challenged in the world of martial arts films. Few have come close, including Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and the new kid on the block Tony Jaa, but there is something about Lee that is unique. Perhaps it is that he is one of a select handful of humans that have been able to reach the true apex of both human physical form and balanced spirituality that strikes a chord. He was and is still an inspiration to those that were lucky enough to meet him, and for any those who watch his movies.
ENTER THE DRAGON provided a glimpse into both Lee's philosophical mind, through his monologues eluding to the fighting style Jeet Kune Do he developed over his years of training, and the skilled action filmmaker that was forming within his head. All of the fight choreography was designed by Lee, and performed by his stunt team (which included a very young Chan and Sammo Hung) with deadly precision. Each fight sequence brought something new and exciting to the screen, from hand-to-hand combat to weaponplay, and tournament style fighting to all out brawls. The final showdown, which takes place in a room covered in mirrors and features Lee's now iconic claw-scratched body, is still used today to compare against films.
Lee and his stunt team can not be held solely responsible for the pure enjoyment of this film. His co-stars play an crucial part in bringing this together. On the hero side, both John Saxon (perhaps best known as Nancy's father in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and Jim Kelly (a titan in the 70's blaxploitation market) show off their real life martial arts training and acting chops and provide some great oneliners throughout the picture. On the villain's side, Shih Kien, who was a Hong Kong character actor that reveled in the roles of evildoers, and Bolo Yeung (a former Mr. Hong Kong and an all around Chinese brute to be reckoned with) ham it up just a bit. It is clear that everyone really enjoyed being a part of this movie, and had a sense that this was going to be a movie that went down in history. The city of Hong Kong itself plays an important role within the film, adding an exotic spice to the scenery. From the neon-filled downtown streets, to the outskirt villages and Kowloon Harbor, it is almost impossible to find a bad angle to shoot.
This film marked the first American/Chinese co-production, and was the debut of Bruce Lee to a mainstream US audience. It must have been something for those audiences, seeing for the first time Bruce Lee fighting across the screen like a madman, and witnessing action scenarios that they may have never seen before. For modern martial arts fans who have "seen it all", it is incredibly difficult to try and grasp the thought of what was going through their heads seeing Lee. The story itself is rather slim, and created in a blender using b-movie spy movie clichés, martial arts themes and violence, and a dash exploitation, but fills in the spaces between the action nicely.
In the wake of Bruce Lee's death, a micro sub-genre emerged, which was dubbed "Bruceploitation". This genre was filled with actors who tried to looked liked Bruce Lee and had names such as Bruce Le and Bruce Li, with filmmakers hoping to cash in on the fame of the true Lee. All it takes though is one look at this movie and the rest of the short but impressive filmography of Lee to know that these imposters simply can't match the energy and speed that Lee brought to his fans. Lee's accidental death is a tragedy that robbed the world a unique visionary. Had he gone on past ENTER THE DRAGON, which no doubt would have made him the first Chinese mainstream movie star, there is no telling what he would have brought not only to the silver screen, but those the minds and ears of any who would listen to his philosophy.