It’s a little hard for me to look objectively at this movie, one that meant so much to martial arts movies both here in the United States and abroad. There is a whole weight of history on this movie now, what with how it influenced the path of action films in the US, combining martial arts and blaxploitation tropes in an effective way. What can you say about what it means to the history of cinema. Maybe I should just leave that to the film scholars, ones who are better equipped to speak to those issues.
Because what I want to talk about is of the most ass-kickingest movies ever made outside of Jet Li’s Fist Of Legend. Bruce Lee (Lee), Jim Kelly (Williams) and John Saxon (Roper) are three men who’ve been invited to an island martial arts tournament being held by Han, an international crime kingpin who owns the island in international waters. Lee, a Shaolin monk, is recruited by British intelligence to enter the tournament and find out what is going on on Han’s island. Wiliams is there for the actual tournament and Roper is there for the money to pay off his gambling debts. Naturally, there’s all sorts of dastardly deeds on the island and Lee is there to put a stop to it and avenge the death of his sister, dead due to being harassed by Han’s goons.
If this sounds like a knock-off Bond plot (spy infiltrates island fortress, brings down the bad guy), well, you’re not that wrong. But it’s all handled very deftly and with style. When you have Lee, Kelly and Saxon as your three leads, you’re talking a lot of charisma and effective genre acting. They all had varying levels of martial arts ability to bring to the table (Lee of course was Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly was a legitimate international middleweight karate champion and Saxon was a black belt in karate), Those three in a movie can cover a lot of sins and thankfully Enter The Dragon is a movie that doesn’t have a lot of sins to cover up.
Unfortunately, behind the three of them is one of the sins of this movie. Neither of them are what we might call a..complex character. Lee barely has a motivation for going after Han besides the honor of his order, Williams is there to look cool and win the tournament and Roper is in it for the women and the money. It’s all a lot of little character beat fun (it’s like the Ocean franchise that way), like when Roper and Williams pull in a pigeon when they’re betting on each other in the tournament, but all the characters here aren’t the most complex in the world.
And that’s where we get into the other problem of the movie: women. Yeah,. Yeah, I know, martials movies of the time weren’t exactly a world of inclusiveness (which makes the uncommon standout like Come Drink With Me or Lady Snowblood all the dearer) but this movie doesn’t exactly have the best opportunity for the few women actors to shine. Ahna Capri does the best she can with her role, but she’s there essentially as Han’s toaddy and bed partner for Roper. Betty Chung only did a few movies and you can see why, but it’s not like she’s given a lot to do even as a supposed British spy who’s already on the island. Then there’s poor Angela Mao, playing Lee’s dead sister. All she gets is a flashback with maybe one line where she is being chased by Han’s goons; admittedly, it’s a cool chase where she’s kicking ass (Mao was a hapkido champion), but when said chase results in her committing suicide to save her honor, it all feels a little distasteful that said asskicking has just been in service of fridging her to give Lee a further motivation. I’d like to say movies have gotten better at this but…yeah. Mao went on to a pretty good career of her own in movies before retiring, which is good at least.
But do I still recommend this movie? Of course. It has some great action, some legitimately funny moments (Lee was always under appreciated for his comedic timing) and just enough plot to keep it all moving. There’s a reason this movie stuck around and is now in the United States National Film Registry; it’s important and it’s also fun! Besides, it’s great to see Lee at the top of his game. There are some fight scenes in this that are breathtaking in their efficiency and physicality; sometimes it’s great to look back at the golden age of martial arts movies, when there were far fewer wires and jumping around. And hey, there’s a final fight scene in a hall of mirrors, which is always a fun trope. Sometimes all you want is a guy in black pants, swinging nunchaku around and kicking ass, and this movie delivers that in spades.
(A final note; after seeing this, The Kentucky Fried Movie. The movie as whole is an uneven collection of sketches, but the longest sketch is a parody of Enter The Dragon called A Fistful Of Yen that is really well done and funny as hell.)