Enter the Dragon, released shortly after the actor’s tragic death in 1973, is the movie that made Bruce Lee a legend. It’s also the movie that more than any other was responsible for introducing the kung fu Hong Kong action film to western audiences.
In the early 70s there was a general expectation that kung fu movies were about to make the crossover into the mainstream among western audiences, and this expectation was the driving force behind three fascinating multi-national co-productions. Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was a collaboration between Hammer Films and Shaw Brothers Studios, was an unlikely combination of a Hammer Dracula movie and a king fu movie. The most surprising thing about it is that the combination works and it’s an outrageously entertaining movie. The Man from Hong Kong was an Australian-Hong Kong co-production, combining martial arts with the outrageous and frequently extremely dangerous stunts that characterised ozploitation movies, and with a considerable James Bond influence as well. It’s also enormous fun, and was commercially quite successful.
The most significant and biggest-budgeted of these crossovers movies though was Enter the Dragon, made by a Warner Brothers subsidiary and a subsidiary of Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest studios. It was an attempt to mix a traditional Hong Kong king fu revenge film with an American-style action thriller, with a bit of James Bond and a bit of blaxploitation thrown in. Overall it would probably have been the least satisfactory of these multinational hybrids except for one thing - Bruce Lee. Lee choreographed all the fight scenes himself, and they’re still breath-taking. He was great in the action sequences, but more importantly he had real charisma and a talent for sly humour that would undoubtedly have made him a major international star had he lived.
The plot is frankly ludicrous. There’s really not a single thing about the plot that makes sense or is even vaguely plausible, or that connects to anything else. Lee (played by Bruce Lee) is a shaolin monk kung fu expert recruited by a mysterious agency (presumably some shadowy British covet law enforcement agency) to infiltrate an island owned by a master criminal heavily involved in both narcotics and prostitution rackets. Han, the criminal concerned, is a renegade shaolin monk himself. For reasons that are never explained (but then nothing in the plot is ever explained) Han decides to host an international kung fu tournament. Among the many martial artists attracted by this tournament three are significant to the action of the film - Lee, Williams (Jim Kelly providing the blaxploitation element) and Roper (John Saxon).
Lee meets up with one of Han’s stable of high-class hookers, who is actually a British undercover cop. She can’t provide him with any useful information, and plays no further part in the films. This is another plot element that simply goes nowhere. Lee encounters the man who killed his sister, one of Han’s agents (this provides the traditional revenge motif), and exacts his vengeance in fairly spectacular fashion. From this point on the plot more or less stops and we have a succession of action and fight sequences.
Despite the incredibly silly and disconnected script the movie still works, and it works mostly because the action sequences are done with such superb style. The hall of mirrors showdown between Lee and Han is one of the best action scenes you’ll ever see.
It also works because Lee has sufficient charisma to keep us interested even when the storyline starts to unravel completely. John Saxon’s performance as Roper also helps considerably. Pretty much everyone else in the film is just a stock character, which is not a criticism - it’s more or less a convention in this type of movie, as it is in many genre movies. Roper has a bit of depth though. He seems to be a cynical and basically amoral opportunist, but he’s incapable of behaving like a cynical opportunist because he’s really hopelessly sentimental and is willing to risk death to save a cute and cuddly kitten from the wicked bad guy. He almost seems as if he’d like to be a bad guy, but his inherent decency keep interfering.
But when it comes right down to it there are three reasons to see this movie - spectacular fights, general stylishness and Bruce Lee. Those three reasons are more than enough. Despite its flaws it remains a must-see movie for cult movie fans.