Still from 1973's "Enter the Dragon."

Enter the Dragon  

June 28, 2018


Robert Clouse



Bruce Lee
John Saxon
Ahna Capri
Bob Wall
Shih Kien
Jim Kelly









1 Hr., 42 Mins.


s it often goes for artists who meet their demises right before they can see their inevitable iconhood come about, the premature death of the lithe martial artist Bruce Lee has contributed to his legacy rather than detracted from it. Only 32 at the time of his death — and on the cusp of what appeared to be a leveling up to a new kind of world domination — ponderings of what might have been have long continued throughout the decades, resulting in the sort of savoring we’d otherwise reserve for someone like the unaffected James Dean, who himself only made three


But unlike Dean, whose starring features are all widely considered masterpieces in themselves, only one of Lee’s films, the posthumously released Enter the Dragon, from 1973, has widely been heralded an outright masterwork. Besides his starring role in the beloved, one-season caper series The Green Hornet (1966-‘67), it is the true-blue cinematic crux of his career. (Although it lamentably does not feature the indelibly popular, trademark canary-yellow jumpsuit worn in Game of Death, from 1978.)


The actual film isn’t as titanous as the legacy preceding it, though. It is mostly a lean action thriller additionally notable for acting as a Hollywood-sanctioned intersection of the kung fu movie and the increasingly popular blaxploitation subgenre. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be more that — it's polished and aerodynamic as is. And since Lee, with his strident screeches and elastic physicality, makes for such a catching action hero. (Even if he, as it went with the leggy, very niche Esther Williams and her relationship to water balletics, is dry and emotionally monochrome when acting in scenes that don’t involve his specialties.)  


Written by Michael Allin and directed by Robert Clouse, both renowned for their work in the action genre in the 1970s, Enter the Dragon narratively envelops us in the sort of pulp you might only expect to find in dime-store comics. In it, the multihyphenate plays a Shaolin martial artist named Lee who is sent to the private island of Han (Shih Kien), a suspected criminal overlord, to investigate on the behalf of the British government. Han, possessing the sort of chilling calm popularized by the James Bond villains of the era, is suspected of perpetrating multitudes of major offenses. It is believed that he is heavily involved in drug trafficking and prostitution, and is using his island, which will be hosting a morally dubious, probably illegal martial arts competition in the next couple of days, as a coverup. It is up to Lee, who will enroll in that competition, to effectively snoop.


Lee’s mission is interspersed with sequences orbiting around Roper (John Saxon), a lothario wanted by the mafia, and Williams (Jim Kelly), a vigilante on the lam after beating a handful of racist cops, who also enroll in the competition for its financial rewards. These subplots are more or less gratuitous, though: they're likely around to respectively appeal to the white and black members of the audience who might have "trouble" identifying with the otherworldly Lee.


In lieu of the reality that the central competition taking up most of the film is heinous, and that the crimes Han has apparently committed — which we hear about in more detail as the movie travels along — are horrific, Enter the Dragon nonetheless manages to be a frolicsome, colorful melding of genres. It’s something of an answer to the spy films of the era, flavored by the standards of the few foregoing Lee starrers.

I liked it, though the esteem which has become synonymous with its name tells me that I should look at it as something more than a well-made pastime. But until then, I’ll recognize it as what it is: a credible, pleasuresome action feature that spotlights Lee at the “best” he’d never live to undo. B