This week’s classic on the Everyone’s a Critic Movie Review Podcast is Enter the Dragon, the final film in the all too short career of the legendary Bruce Lee. I have had little exposure to kung fu movies in my nearly 20 years as a film critic. Aside from some 80s cheese like The Last Dragon or the work of Jackie Chan, I have mostly ignored the genre having written it off based mostly on the stereotypes built from years of Bruce Lee knock-offs and cash-ins that soured more than just me on the idea of kung fu movies as anything other than the sad side of the B-movie genre.
Watching Enter the Dragon for the first time sadly is no revelation for me. While I came away with a great deal of respect for why fans took so much to Bruce Lee as a performer, I found the film not all that special. Lee’s magnetism goes a long way to making the otherwise predictable, bordering on silly story worth watching but the screen time spent waiting for Lee to start kicking butt is quite tedious and I found myself drifting.
In Enter the Dragon Bruce Lee stars as a martial arts master, also named Lee, who is recruited by a shady intelligence organization to attend a martial arts tournament run by the kind of super-villain that only exists in martial arts movies, Mr. Han played by former Drunken Master star Shih Kien. Mr. Han owns his own island in the Pacific and despite the best efforts of this intelligence agency they aren’t sure if he is amassing weapons or not.
The agency needs Lee to participate in a deadly martial arts tournament hosted by Han on his island and find out if there are indeed illegal weapons that would allow international military to attack the island. Lee agrees to the mission and then finds out that the mission has a personal component for him. We meet Lee’s father and he informs Lee and us that Lee’s sister was murdered by Han’s thugs in a seemingly random killing.
Why Lee’s father withheld this information until he knew that Lee was going to Han’s island is anyone’s guess. By this point in Enter the Dragon Lee has already agreed to go to the island with the aim of bringing down the evil Han. Why does he need more motivation? The attack flashback is nothing special either as the thugs just sort of show up randomly on mainland China, visiting from their island, and they see a random girl walking with her father and things just get rapey really quickly. She fights them off for a while and then kills herself to avoid actually being sexually assaulted by the thugs.
This plot point is sloppy and unnecessary, and while it allows the young woman playing Lee’s sister a brief showcase for her remarkable skills, it lends little to the plot aside from making Lee mad and a little more eager to do a job he was already set up to do. I understand wanting to add a personal component and I get making this into a revenge plot as it provides a conflict for Lee who uses kung fu not as a fighting style but as a defense of just causes. To then be given over to revenge creates a tension, an inner struggle for Lee regarding making sure he is doing what he is doing for the right reason.
Unfortunately, this series of scenes from Lee’s recruitment to the story about his sister and his conflicting emotions regarding revenge is botched so badly that we can hardly make sense of whether Lee is indeed seeking revenge or still just treating this as a mission. Director Robert Crouse then compounds this mistake by including desperately long and involved introductions for side characters played by Jim Kelly and John Saxon as fellow competitors in Han’s tournament. Hours seem to pass as these characters are introduced and take a boat ride from China to Han’s island.
The tournament itself is yet another mess with no rules or design of any kind. Competitors are chosen at random to fight and while the fights are exceptionally well choreographed by Bruce Lee himself, it’s impossible to determine what the point of the tournament is, how someone wins or loses, etc. I was under the impression going in that the fights were to the death and that was what made the tournament so dangerous, but the film gives no indication.
For a super-villain, Han isn’t very bright. His tournament is easily infiltrated by Lee who then makes his way around the island quickly locating Han’s secret criminal stash and then reporting back to his handlers. Lee, at least, gets the chance to do plenty of fighting during these scenes getting the chance to whoop thug after faceless thug, but the film is so sloppy that I have read more than one account that claimed Han was a drug dealer and others that claimed he was a weapons dealer and so on. It’s such a mess and there is so little care for characters and story around Lee’s fighting that, I believe, many critics just filled in the blanks as best they could in describing the movie.
All of that said, Bruce Lee is exceptionally charismatic. Lee owns the screen with his presence and when he strips off his shirt and shows off that lean, shredded frame he takes on the aura of a true movie star. The fight choreography in Enter the Dragon is stunningly beautiful, brutal, and exciting. Bruce Lee’s every physical movement holds the eye and the over the top sound effects add another dimension to his physical presence that while kind of cheesy, is still iconic and awesome.
Enter the Dragon isn’t a great disappointment to me as I didn’t go in with high hopes, my views having long ago been shaped by so many bad Bruce Lee knock offs and the comic Jackie Chan movies. That said, I didn’t expect it to be as bad and as sloppy as it is. It’s not so bad that it left me with a negative take on Bruce Lee, thankfully. Lee is a true movie star and even in his quiet scenes or his dialogue scenes, he conveys personality and charisma that is enhanced by his remarkable physicality. Lee is good enough that I could recommend Enter the Dragon based solely on the chance to see Lee at the height of his powers. You just might want to fast forward to the fight scenes, especially the ones near the end of the movie.
We will be talking about Enter the Dragon on the next Everyone's a Critic Podcast which goes up every Monday at EveryonesACritic.com and on iTunes. We chose Enter the Dragon this week because it coincides with the release of the new Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon from WWE Films. We will also talk about the new releases Leap, Wind River and All Saints and the 1987 movies The Fourth Protocol, House 2, and more.