If Bruce Lee hadn’t passed away a week before the US release of Enter the Dragon (1973), Robert Clouse’s martial arts masterpiece may well have been regarded as nothing more than a taste of things to come. As it is, Enter the Dragon was the only opportunity we got to see the great man in a genuine Hollywood picture and the film, like Lee himself, has transcended critical appraisal. Flaws have become virtues and 40 years of imitation, parody and homage have blurred the line between truth and legend. Bruce plays Lee, a Chinese super spy sent by British intelligence to investigate a suspected drug trafficker.
Lee takes the guise of a competitor in the triannual martial art tournament held on drug baron Han’s (Kien Shih) own personal island. Joining Lee on the boat to the competition are Mr Roper (John Saxon), a roguish playboy on the run from the mob and Williams (Jim Kelly) a black Activist chased out of town after defending himself against a racist attack. Arriving on the island the three fighters progress through the rounds of the competition but Han’s dubious methods and Lee’s quest to expose them lead to some extracurricular conflict.
Loosely based on inaugural big screen Bond outing Dr. No (1962), Lee abandoned filming the promising but incomplete Game of Death (1978) for Hong Kong-based production company Golden Harvest after being offered an unprecedented $850,000 by Warner Brothers to make Enter the Dragon – and the bigger budget paid dividends. Lee’s previous pictures for Golden Harvest, such as The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1978), showcased Lee’s physical prowess and screen presence, but the film themselves are rough around the edges and the picture quality varies. Enter the Dragon’s production values were far superior and, combined with Lee’s choreography, transformed him into a Hollywood icon.
The cave scene in particular which features Lee beating up an endless supply of henchmen with his hands, feet and assorted weapons is still one of the great action sequences. Lee perfectly framed by Clouse who just about manages to keep up with the speed of his leading man’s lightning movements. Enter the Dragon’s influence on American cinema is immeasurable but the likes of Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme and the martial arts movie boom of the 1970s and 80s are obviously in its debt.
The film’s most important legacy, however, has been the introduction of Asian cinema and Asian culture in general to mainstream western audiences. As a mindless action flick, Clouse’s Enter the Dragon certainly delivers the goods. Yet, in terms of its cultural impact, it’s easily one of the most significant films of the 20th century and worthy of the highest possible praise – hence the 40th anniversary rerelease.