A Shaolin monk named Lee (Bruce Lee) is invited to a martial arts tournament being held by Mr. Han (Shih Kien), a former Shaolin monk who abused his training for personal gain. Lee intends to bring him to justice, having been recruited by British Intelligence, but is joined in the tournament by other competitors Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly). It soon becomes clear that the tournament may be a cover for something more sinister.
This film was nominated for me to watch by Jason Soto of Your Face! I mentioned recently when I saw The 36th Chamber of Shaolin that I wasn’t very familiar with martial arts movies. When I picture the genre as a whole, the content of the films is very much in keeping with that Shaw Brothers movie, focussing on the training and general fighting of the artists central to the story, but with minimal plot surrounding them, or potentially a great deal of convoluted story, such as in The Raid 2. I don’t expect a James Bond movie starring Bruce Lee, but that’s exactly what Enter the Dragon is. And it’s fantastic.
Enter the Dragon has all the Bond movie tropes. The villain, Han, has a private island lair and an army of trained minions, led by a couple of alpha henchmen. First up there’s the scarred O’Hara (Robert Wall), who has history with Lee by having a hand in the death of his sister, and the hulking Bolo (Bolo Yeung), whose signature move is folding people up until they break. In typical Bond tradition, Han also has a physical deformity in the form of a missing hand, which can be replaced with various tools, most of which are some variation on sharp pointy things, and at one point he can even be seen caressing a fluffy white cat. John Saxon even bears more than a passing resemblance to 60s era Connery, and has his way with the ladies too, but Kelly’s Williams is the real womaniser here, opting for 4 island-provided beauties and still claiming it to be an off night for him. The main difference between traditional Bond and Enter the Dragon though is the lead. Saxon’s Roper is in the Bond role, but Lee is rightfully the star, and he’s a far more taciturn, meditative hero than any Bond actor has been so far, which is far more fitting within the martial arts genre.
The action, which is for the most part fighting, either one-on-one or one-on-many depending on the situation, is spectacular. Most of it was choreographed by Lee himself, so he knew how to make the most of his own abilities, and does so tremendously well. It all feels kinetic and smooth, and I never felt lost or that I was watching people waiting to be punched, as I did for example in Mission: Impossible 2, which I watched last night and is terrible. The characters are also a lot of fun, particularly Williams, who Kelly imbues with an effortless cool, living life without even contemplating defeat, so if it comes he won’t even notice. It doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t need to because he’s so damn cool. Roper’s gambling habit was also a nice touch, allowing him to bet on everything during his trip, including his own fights, whilst playing them. I could have perhaps used a little more back story on some of them – we’re told why Lee is there and Roper has gambling debts he needs to pay off, but Williams’ explanatory flashback merely shows that back home in America he is the victim of racist cops, which doesn’t explain why he needs to win a tournament.
The third act plays out very much like I was expecting more of the rest of the film to, with Lee taking on a large number of people single-handedly, but still does so in an innovative and endlessly entertaining manner, and involves a well-implemented snake-in-a-bag, which all films should have. The climactic battle, set within a completely mirrored room, is also incredible in terms of both thrill factor and just how beautifully shot it is, with fractured images of Lee filling the scene.
No offence to Jason Soto, but his background of horror and self-proclaimed shitty movies did not give me high hopes in terms of what he’d recommend for me to watch, but so far this is amongst the best I’ve watched on this mission.
Choose Film 9/10