The legend of Enter the Dragon is bigger than the film itself. The first Hollywood-sanctioned kung-fu film, and a worldwide box-office smash, Enter the Dragon is lean and proficient as an actioner, centered around a fighting competition held on a mysterious island owned by Han (Shih Kien), a powerful Shaolin dropout who traffics in drugs and prostitution. Lee (Bruce Lee) proves to be Han’s greatest adversary, a quiet Shaolin master who accepts an invitation to the competition in hopes of helping British Intelligence arrest Han and best Han’s chief bodyguard, O’Hara (Robert Wall), who, coincidentally, had a hand in Lee’s sister’s suicide. It’s a familiar setup, but director Robert Clouse works the material for efficiency and optimum thrill, while providing a buoyant visual style to the action.
Written by Michael Allin, who was responsible for Flash Gordon and the lurid Isaac Hayes actioner Truck Turner, the film conflates Lee’s spy mission with the doings of two American kung-fu grifters. Williams (Jim Kelly) is on the lam after beating a pair of racist cops unmercifully, while his playboy friend Roper (John Saxon) is attempting to outrun the mafia, but they arrive at Han’s island mainly to make some quick cash. Clouse nails the sense of congenial seediness and amorality that Han engenders through prostitution and luxurious environs, but it isn’t merely to further highlight Lee’s ironclad sense of duty and spiritual strength. The director presents the allure of cheap visual delights (mod dresses, psychedelic lighting, sudden slow-mo shots, tacky Asian designs) as genuinely seductive and fascinating, and one can never overstate the power of a Lalo Shifrin score to sell sin. Lee, for all his quiet honor and formidable physicality, feels equal in the mix up until he enters the competition and decimates O’Hara.
The filmmakers brilliantly evade any sense of suffering or victimization of even their most minor characters, which is essential to the film’s genre-based playfulness. Lee’s sister, whose suicide we see in flashback, impales herself with a glass shard rather than let O’Hara and his men have their way with her; this is, of course, after she’s torn off and put her footprint on half of their asses. Allin’s script smartly never trips into sentimentality or needless emotional manipulation to underline the power of the narrative. These are hard, dangerous men, carved by greed, lust, ambition, and, in some cases, righteousness, and the filmmakers show unerring fascination with their duplicities and confrontations without compromising or overcompensating for this hardness. The lack of sentimentality helps focus the viewer on what the film depicts exceptionally well, namely wanton bad behavior and enthralling, wall-to-wall ass-kicking.
The stunning efficacy and spectacle of the film is, of course, tainted by the fact that this was at once Bruce Lee’s breakout film role and his last completed project. It’s also inflated Enter the Dragon’s reputation a bit, and though the film is hugely satisfying as an entertainment, it’s far from touching the canon. Saxon’s Roper feels largely like a throw-in character meant to give white America someone to connect to, and the whole spy angle proves almost entirely useless to the streamlined narrative. Still, these are minor gripes, and they certainly don’t weigh down the story’s seedy thrills and exact pacing. In the shadow of Lee’s death, Enter the Dragon has ironically grown to be perceived as a classic, even as the film itself giddily disassociates with anything approaching classicism.