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Enter the Dragon

I've actually got a few reviews on the conveyer belt which I've been saving to dole out in regulation for you all, but one review has jumped ahead of all of them. When I came across the sad news yesterday that Jim Kelly had passed away it felt like the right occasion to revisit the classic Enter the Dragon, in which Kelly starred as Williams. It's perhaps a little different than my norm; it's kind of half Enter the Dragon review - half Bruce Lee retrospective/tribute


Year of release

Directed by
Robert Clouse

Written by
Michael Allin

Bruce Lee
Shih Kien
John Saxon
Jim Kelly

Enter the Dragon

Plot - A martial artist at the Shaolin temple named Lee (Lee) is recruited by an investigative agency to look into the activities of a suspected crime boss named Han (Kien). His way in will be a martial arts tournament that Han holds on his private island every three years. And Lee has plenty of motivation. Not only was Han a former student at the temple who has now brought shame to it, but Lee discovers that Han's men were responsible for the death of his sister. Other participants invited to take part include Roper (Saxon) and Williams (Kelly), old friends and former army buddies. Both men are on the run and use the tournament as a way of hiding out. Roper is running from the Mafia whom he owes large debts to, while Williams assaulted two police officers who were racially harassing him.

Out off all the B-movies, exploitation flicks and grindhouse films that have ever been produced you would be hard pressed to come up with another film which has had such an impact on cinema and popular culture as Enter the Dragon. Even today, 40 years after its release, the film is still revered by fans all over the world and continues to have a lasting impact and legacy both on cinema and in the land of merchandising. And when you really examine it, perhaps it may seem a bit surprising. After all what is Enter the Dragon but a cheap Hong Kong pastiche of the James Bond film series, with Dr. No seeming to be of particular inspiration. While it may very well be an “AWESOME film, man!”, is it really that great a film? No, not especially. Its standing in the history of film is a lot higher than its actual quality would merit. However Enter the Dragon has the ultimate ace up its sleeve; it has the considerable presence of one Bruce Lee.

It is Lee's exceptional screen presence which lifts this film to truly iconic levels. The moments where Lee is allowed to cut loose and engage in combat are impossible to take your eyes off. With his lightning speed, unusual yelps and the sheer intensity on his face there has been little that has ever been able to match the scenes in terms of their electricity. The fight sequences, which Lee choreographed himself, are all a thrill to behold. From his brutal dispatching of O'Hara to his stunning battle with dozens of Han's henchmen in the underground caverns, from the massive battle royale in the courtyard to the hall of mirrors sequence which closes the film they are wonderful spectacles to behold. It's one of the great “what ifs” in all of film history that has been discussed by fans and critics alike; how big a star would Bruce Lee have been were it not for his tragic death at such a young age? What other movies would he have made which are now lost for all time? I don't think it's too far of a stretch to posit that he could have joined the likes of Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Bronson etc in becoming one of the biggest film stars of the 70s and 80s. Like those men he may not have been the most gifted of actors, but he had an immense and unmistakable screen presence which has rarely been matched.

And while it's Bruce Lee that has made the film so enduring, and which continues to bring people to it, when you actually get to the film there is a lot more to enjoy here than just that. At one point in the film Williams remarks to Han that “man, you come right out of a comic book.” It's an apt description for Han, and is also true for just about every other character and the film as a whole. The whole thing is a very colourful experience with vivid character and lurid moments. Han is a striking and bold villain, created through a combination of Shih Kien's grandiose showing and the violent accessories he can add to his person. His claw hands are absolutely classic! They are amongst the film's most outlandish additions and help to create some truly memorable moments. Indeed there can be very few images in all of cinema as indelible or iconic as the sight of a shirtless Lee with cuts across his face and torso. And while it may have become a cliché over the years, the hall of mirrors sequence is still fantastic and rightly remains one of the most famous fight scenes in film history.

Film Trivia Snippets - In the film's famous Hall of Mirrors finale over 8000 mirrors were used to set it up. /// At one point during filming, Lee accidentally struck Jackie Chan in the face with one of his fighting sticks. Lee immediately apologised profusely, and told Chan that he could work on all of his movies after that. This of course proved to be Lee's final film, but imagine the possibilities had these two made a movie together when Chan became a star. /// Warner Brothers considered calling the film “Han's Island” as they thought international audiences may be confused by an action film called Enter the Dragon. Other alternative titles put forward where “Blood and Steel” and “The Deadly Three.” /// During filming, Lee was frequently challenged on set by extras and triad punks looking to make a name for themselves. He would normally ignore them but did fight one time, beating the hell out of two men, one after another. They weren't the only ones to suffer at his hands. During his battle with O'Hara he delivered a running thrust kick to Bob Wall which broke his sternum, and broke the arms of two extras in the crowd who attempted to catch Wall as he was sent flying backwards.
Enter the Dragon isn't just your classic single hero v villain set-up, with Jim Kelly and John Saxon joining Lee to form a heroic trio, even if neither of the characters appear to be especially noble. Jim Kelly is great as Williams. With his considerable height and large afro he cuts quite the imposing figure and has charisma to burn. Seemingly plucked straight out of a blaxploitation flick his Williams is so self-assured and arrogant; just one really cool cat. I love the moment where he explains why he doesn't even consider the possibility of losing, and that when it comes he won't even notice. He'll be to “busy looking gooood.” While John Saxon is also a lot of fun as Roper, a womaniser and compulsive gambler who probably has never met someone he didn't think he could outsmart or con. On the run from the mob the man is a real playboy. And even when it comes to background performers who don't even speak, you've got colourful participants. As Han's main henchman, Bolo Yeung is an intimidating figure with a face that would make you cross the road if you saw him on your side of the street. He's a foreboding presence who would later be put to great use opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1988's Bloodsport.

While Enter the Dragon may still be a little rough and shonky in places, its production values are certainly higher than the standard for a film like this. Yes it's plot may be minimal to the point of it barely being worth mentioning, but it accomplishes its goal; namely to get us from one showdown to the next. And alongside those superbly staged fight scenes the film is also nicely photographed and featured some rich visuals from Clouse and cinematographer Gil Hubbs. Before the characters arrive on Han's island we get a few sequences which depict Hong Kong and add a bit of flavour to proceedings, moments such as Williams walking through its crowded city streets and the main trio arriving by boat in the bustling harbour. And then you've got the highly expressive set design in Han's compound, most notable in the large party room which is garishly and colourfully decorated and complete with two sumo wrestlers in the middle of the room. Enter the Dragon also features a thumping score from Lalo Schifrin which mixes jazz and funk beats with more traditional Chinese music, resulting in an entertaining fusion of cultures.

Enter the Dragon was the film which introduced martial arts cinema to the masses outside of Asia. It made Bruce Lee a worldwide star, even if it was posthumously, and paved the way for the likes of Jackie Chan and Jet Li to achieve success around the world and become stars in Hollywood. Indeed the film even features two young men in minor roles who would carry on Lee's legacy; Sammo Hung as Lee's sparring partner at the film's beginning and Jackie Chan as one of Han's henchmen who has his neck broken. More than any of his other work, it is this film that has ensured Lee has remained an icon and one of the most recognisable stars in the world despite the small fact that he died 40 years ago. He is arguably still the biggest star to emerge from the world of martial arts; so much so that even to this day anytime a new star arrives on the scene, be it Tony Jaa or Iko Uwais, it isn't long before they are invariably cited as his possible successor; as the 'new Bruce Lee.' But I think that fruitless search will continue for many years to come. There will never be another Bruce Lee.

Conclusion - Enter the Dragon is the absolute epitome of Bruce Lee's tragically short career and life. With its minimal plot, prominent focus on the visuals, those tremendous fight sequences and Lee's charisma I find it an exceptionally easy watch everytime. Throw in its fun, diverse cast and its real mishmash of styles and cultures (chop socky, blaxploitation, Bond-style espionage, revenge flick) and you've got one of the most purely entertaining action flicks you're ever likely to come across.