Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Martial Arts Violence and brief Nudity
Directed by: Robert Clouse
Written by: Michael Allin
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Ahna Capri, Shih Kien, Robert Wall & Angela Mao
ENTER THE DRAGON is widely considered to be one of the greatest Kung Fu films ever made and stars the most famous martial artist of all-time. If you’re looking for an original narrative, you won’t find it here. The story is the Bond formula with Bruce Lee filling in as Chinese 007 and mainly serves as a gateway for lots of exciting fights. Lee directed these fight scenes, so that should already tell you that you’re in for something special. Lee constantly tried to make his films stand above the expectedly cheap genre norms and that’s certainly evident in ENTER THE DRAGON.
Lee (Bruce Lee), a Shaolin martial artist, is invited to participate in an exclusive underground fighting tournament by the mysterious Han (Shih Kien). Though initially shrugging off his invitation, Lee is informed that Han is actually involved in drug production and human trafficking. Seizing an opportunity to take down a very bad man and to show off impressive martial arts skills along the way, Lee decides to attend the tournament at Han’s heavily guarded island lair. Lee soon discovers that there are personal stakes in this tournament and the martial arts action quickly goes beyond the designated arena.
Michael Allin’s script actually puts an honest effort into fleshing out the protagonists. We see a flashback within a flashback that explores Lee’s Shaolin philosophy and explains his personal motivation for taking Han down. However, Lee isn’t DRAGON’s only martial arts hero. We also get heavy gambler Roper (John Saxon) and afro-fighter Williams (played by Blaxploitation star Jim Kelly). Roper and Williams also receive flashbacks that include a quick fight and brief background information. It should also be noted that Jim Kelly steals nearly every scene he’s in.
While the three protagonists are certainly fun, ENTER THE DRAGON also shines with colorful bad guys. There are plenty of faceless thugs for Lee to take down, but Han is a villain pulled straight out of an old-school 007 flick. From cat-stroking monologues to a creative weapon of choice, this antagonist feels like two Bond baddies had a baby and then shipped him off to Hong Kong. Han’s scenes are a blast and as one character aptly puts it he seems “straight out of a comic book.” They don’t receive nearly as much screen time, but Bolo (a buff henchmen) and O’Hara (a scarred bodyguard) also deliver memorable fights. This is especially true of the O’Hara’s unavoidable face-off against Lee, which stands out as one of the film’s best scenes.
DRAGON’s nagging flaw comes in a side romance between Lee and imprisoned prostitute Mei Ling (Betty Chung), which seems to build and then goes absolutely nowhere. This isn’t a huge complaint though, because I was more than content watching Bruce Lee kick ass through the rest of the film. However, it made me wonder what this character’s purpose was other than to give unneeded extra motivation for Lee to fulfill his mission. A similar problem can also be leveled at femme fatale Tania (Ahna Capri), who doesn’t receive nearly enough screen time.
What DRAGON lacks in certain subplots, it more than makes up for in fights and creative set pieces. Bruce Lee certainly knew how to put together exciting action scenes and makes lots of high-pitched vocal noises as he knocks out guys left and right. The latter only adds to this film’s already over-the-top fun factor. ENTER THE DRAGON is packed with awesome silliness as a snake becomes an improvised weapon, metal claws are employed in hand-to-hand combat, and a hall of mirrors sets the stage for a bloody final showdown. These are just a few moments in a film that’s highly entertaining for its full 102 minutes.
The Kung Fu genre isn’t exactly prone to producing timeless masterpieces and acclaimed classics, but instead delivers countless hours of silly entertainment that gets our adrenaline pumping and provides laughs (both intentional and unintentional). ENTER THE DRAGON fully delivers on those latter qualities. If you’re looking for a cheesy martial arts film that isn’t meant to be taken seriously in any way, shape or form, ENTER THE DRAGON should fit the bill nicely. I’m not an expert in this genre, but ENTER THE DRAGON is easily the best Kung Fu flick I’ve seen thus far.