Last March, I watched a 1981 Filipino martial arts flick called “The One Armed Executioner” about an Interpol agent who seeks revenge after losing his arm. The movie was poorly dubbed, melodramatic, and cheaply produced. I liked The One Armed Executioner more than Enter the Dragon. Now this isn’t meant as a slight against the 1973 classic. What I’m trying to say is that I believe that Enter the Dragon’s influence over the genre might be outweighing the actual quality of the film.
Enter the Dragon does not look like a cheap movie. The film was shot on location in Hong Kong in temples and on scenic islands. It has cult movie favorites Bruce Lee and John Saxon and a score by the legendary Lalo Schifrin. My issue is the actual contents of the film (outside of the fight choreography) leave much to be desired.
Some might argue I’m missing the point of this film. It’s all about the fighting. A valid argument, but when I watch an old school Martial Arts flick, I look for that X factor. I look for stylized editing, dynamic set pieces, creative violence, ridiculous characters. Enter the Dragon has a few of these elements but otherwise feels workmanlike.
I haven’t seen any of Bruce Lee’s films produced in Hong Kong but I would wager they are more interesting than Enter the Dragon. I think this because they were actually made by Hong Kong filmmakers instead of a bunch of white dudes. Enter the Dragon was written, filmed, and directed by Americans. Martial arts was a new concept to American filmmakers. They were never going to make as good a film as Hong Kong, even with the greatest martial arts star of all time.
Plot-wise, Enter the Dragon resembles a Bond film. Bruce Lee plays Lee, a martial artist at a Shaolin Temple who accepts a mission to infiltrate a fighting competition in order to stop its organizer, Han (Shih Kien), a drug peddling crime lord. We also follow a fighter named Roper (John Saxon), a compulsive gambler being pursued by loan sharks, and Williams (Jim Kelly), a Vietnam vet who doesn’t do much and then gets killed.
The fights are always good. The end fight against Han and his claw-hand in a room of mirrors is a classic. The problem is there is a lot of downtime and the only character that ever holds my attention is Roper. Bruce Lee is cut, his moves are immaculate, but his character is boring and feels flat when there’s no fighting going on.
I feel the same way about Enter the Dragon that I feel about Shaft. Both were important films in getting the word out about their genre, but feel streamlined when compared to most other films of those respective genres. Which I think is important when you’re introducing a new audience. Regardless, Enter the Dragon is a fun watch but it’s far from the best of what the genre has to offer.
Possibly the greatest cut(s) in cinema history.