Enter the Dragon
Directed by Robert Clouse
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelley, Ahna Capri
Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings recently spent four weeks atop the box office while Cobra Kai is one of Netflix’s biggest show of the past year. Neither of these would exist without Enter the Dragon blazing a trail first.
Enter the Dragon was in the same “Movies to Watch for your New Year’s Resolution” collection as The Third Man, a compilation that had me going “Hmm, I should really see that one sometime,” an embarrassing amount of times. Once again, I was happy to fork over money to fill in a cinematic gap—or I was, until Vudu made it FREE two days later! Hopefully, a new generation easily discovers it.
Bruce Lee plays Lee, a Shaolin martial artist who teaches at a temple. He’s the purest master of the art, so the temple’s head selects him to meet with a British Intelligence Agent. A rouge student of the temple named Mr. Han has opened his private island for a martial arts tournament. Why does Mr. Han own a private island? Besides being a Wing Chun master, Mr. Han is also an international arms dealer and designer drug dealer. The Brits see this tournament as their only chance to capture this asset while Lee’s temple sees it as an opportunity to erase the only stain on their legacy. To make matters worse, Lee learns that his sister’s recent death was at the hands of one of Mr. Han’s bodyguards.
Upon arriving on the island, Lee notices that most of the competitors are goons or henchmen, save for Roper, a Scottish gambling addict, and Williams, a Vietnam War vet. After a frankly surreal welcome party, Mr. Han offers everyone “companionship” for the evening. Lee, being a gentleman, refuses, but asks his escort about her conditions. Here, Lee discovers just how putrid Mr. Han’s enterprises are. If Lee survives the tournament, he’ll have to mow through Han’s increasingly bizarre bodyguards, free the island’s prisoners, and destroy Mr. Han’s lair—all in three days!
Only after earning level-ten open-hand proficiency in racial and cultural context.
Enter the Dragon is a lean, pulse-pounding action thriller, and it’s easy to see the influence on films decades later. That said, today’s viewers would be floored by some of the film’s racism. The words “of its time” came to mind when I made my initial judgement, but that label is, I feel, unfair to this movie. Most “of its time” films are reflections of the moral and cultural attitudes of the era in which they were created. Enter the Dragon actively tried to progress Asian and Black portrayals; outsized ethnic stereotypes which came AFTER this movie’s release are unfairly traced back to Enter the Dragon when it had no such intention.
The main example here is the unfortunate yells and shouts that Bruce Lee makes when releasing his moves. While perhaps appropriate for his martial art at the time, they sound like an angry chicken clucking a war cry to current viewers. Even worse, Lee’s “Whaaah!” sound has been repeated by amateurs as a gag ad infinitum in the decades since the movie’s release. I personally felt like I was at the end of a children’s game of telephone: the message sent has been warped entirely, and some bully changed it on purpose halfway through.
Yes, if they take the bad with the good. The martial arts visually hold up, and Bruce Lee’s intensity scintillates the screen. Infamously, Bruce Lee died suddenly before the movie’s release, so seeing Lee’s movie-star qualities is bittersweet. As far as entertainment goes, Lee wanted the film’s main character to become an Asian James Bond. The influence is obvious: Mr. Han is a Dr. No cut-and-paste, Lee gets recruited by British Intelligence, and Roper, Lee’s ally, is a Sean Connery lookalike. (Bizzarely, James Bond immediately ripped off Enter the Dragon to make The Man with the Golden Gun.)
These pulpy homages, along with Mr. Han’s claw fingers, lend tremendous entertainment to the movie. On the other hand, Mr. Han adds to a weirdly long line of “Fu Manchu” characters—evil Asian mad scientists bent on destroying “civilized Western people.” Does the hero of Enter the Dragon being Asian equalize the villain’s stereotype? Perhaps that’s a question for each individual viewer. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive.
Conversely, 2020/2021 saw a sharp rise in hate crimes against Asian people and Marvel Comics had a mirror maze of their own to deal with when handling “The Mandarin” in Iron Man 3, Doctor Strange, and Shang-Chi. While these issues aren’t equivalent, media portrayals certainly shape cultural attitudes towards ethnic groups. Long story short, if people are prepared to deal with that baggage, Enter the Dragon is cinematically rewarding.