Enter the Dragon
Director: Robert Clouse
Starring: Bruce Lee and that’s all you need
Y’know, I am really glad that the list I am working off of is called “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die,” and not “The 1001 Best Movies Ever Made.” There’s a big distinction between something that’s deemed “good” or “quality filmmaking” by critics, and films that have some sort of cultural import. Sometimes, for this reason, we get a few stinkers (like Flaming Creatures), but sometimes, we get the crazy, silly, stupid fun of Enter the Dragon. It might not be Oscar bait, but one’s entire diet cannot consist of steak alone.
Lee (Lee) is a talented martial artist who is recruited to spy on evil druglord-slash-martial arts enthusiast Han. Han runs a prestigious martial arts tournament every three years as a cover to recruit new talent to his opium operation. This tournament takes place on his reclusive Evil Island of Evil, where guns are strictly forbidden in order to keep the authorities at bay. Lee meets the other competitors, including gambling addict Roper and fro-tastic Williams, played by martial arts expert Jim Kelly. There is spying and fighting; there are drug rings and secret passageways; there are girls, girls, and a helping or three of gratuitous nudity (oh, the seventies), but at the end of the day, Lee triumphs over Evil and a good time is had by all.
Enter the Dragon is a bit of a “James Bond as martial artist” film. The influence is clear, from the electric bass soundtrack, to the labyrinthine Evil Fortress of Evil that Han runs, to Lee’s meeting with upper crust British official Braithwaite at the beginning informing him of his mission. The ladies are all decked out in classic Bond girl attire, and the women on Han’s island could have come straight from any Bond flick from the seventies. This is a definite reason why Enter the Dragon is a great deal of fun; Bond films tend to have that “forget about reality, we’re going to take you for a glamorous if not ridiculous ride!” feeling, and Enter the Dragon is definitely shopping at the same store.
Ultimately, however, despite the dressings of Bond and the spy thriller scaffold for the plot, Enter the Dragon is NOT James Bond, and that’s because it’s Bruce Lee. This was his final completed film before his untimely death, and from the (admittedly) little I’ve seen of other martial arts films, Enter the Dragon is a fully realized vision, a successful martial arts crossover movie made for America. Although never pretending to be more than sheer entertainment, it has a clear premise and plot progression and it never once feels confusing or lost, unlike other films of the genre. Lee, for his part, plays to his strengths. Not the most gifted actor (a “stern look” he gives to a guard at one point looks more like a zombie stare), he is mostly silent and thoughtful until he lets loose in fight sequences, which suits him just fine. And about those fight sequences – there aren’t as many here as you would think. Don’t get me wrong, if you came here for some awesome martial arts, I doubt you’ll be disappointed. But the well choreographed sequences are spaced out, as if Lee knew to avoid overdosing his audience. This is not a film where the fighting starts with the opening credits and doesn’t let up until the end, and thank goodness. Lee and director Clouse did a good job of translating traditional Hong Kong martial arts stories into something an American audience would appreciate, while never abandoning its roots. In a very fitting manner, Enter the Dragon feels like both a Hollywood movie and a Hong Kong movie.
Additionally, one of the last things I expect in a martial arts film is decent cinematography, but Enter the Dragon is a rather pretty movie. I know, I wouldn’t think so either, but it’s true. The legions of Han’s men all practicing in white uniform on the island is impressive, as is the climactic battle in a hall of mirrors. The colors are rich and the sets sumptuous in that gilded seventies way, but it works. More than I expected (which was, admittedly, zero), I found myself impressed with a particular shot.
Oh, the one liners. Williams and Roper are full of nonstop quips, as befits the comic side characters. “Here’s another mess you got me into,” Roper says to himself, and really, try not giggling when Williams picks out his evening, um, treat. Even Lee himself manages to be the source of a few laughs, most notably when he sits with a bored look on his face, waiting for the guards to finish freaking out about a snake he just loosed on them. These lines and attitudes make the film feel a bit tongue in cheek, which might be the filmmakers’ way of telling you not to take anything too seriously. Sit back, have a few laughs, and enjoy the ride.
I’m not a kung fu freak like Jennifer Aniston in Office Space. But fun movies are fun movies, and Enter the Dragon is a fun movie. Is it ridiculous? Heck yes, but ridiculous in a palatable way. Would I ever choose to watch it on my own? No, probably not, as martial arts films are very much not my bag, but I enjoyed my time with Enter the Dragon. I even popped a bowl of popcorn, did it up right.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10