Enter The Dragon


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Enter The Dragon
"Lee is terrific and his natural charisma gives the film the energy it needs."

It’s hard to imagine, looking at Hollywood action films today, that there was ever a time before martial arts had a role to play in Western cinema. It’s embedded in numerous films and although it may not be quite as popular as it is in the East – due to a lingering preference for bulky men swinging old-fashioned punches – it is used to construct all sorts of entertaining sequences, and has been a big equaliser for women in fight sequences. All of this can, of course, be traced back to the kung-fu craze of the late Sixties and early Seventies, and the tremendous success of Bruce Lee, but it was his final film, Enter The Dragon, which also featured white and black martial artists, which cemented that legacy.

Deliberately designed to maximise international appeal, the film is also a precursor to today’s efforts to woo both the North American and the Chinese markets (Europe has always been a bit more difficult but, in this particular case, showed the film more love than anywhere else). With its focus on spying it drew comparisons, at the time, with James Bond, and indeed Roger Moore would have his own martial arts contest moment the following year in The Man With The Golden Gun. Lee, however, recognised that having a tall actor win fights like this just wasn’t convincing, and wielded some influence over casting, ensuring that his various opponents and allies fit the bill.

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The film has three heroes of sorts: Lee (Bruce Lee), a martial arts expert and all round good guy who agrees to work for British intelligence by infiltrating a tournament; Roper (John Saxon), a compromised man desperate for the money which victory could bring, but still holding onto some vestige of his old values; and Williams (Jim Kelly), an old army friend of Roper’s whose is there to compete but gets drawn into other events. Presiding over the tournament is Han (scheming villain specialist Shih Kien), a mysteriously wealthy man who may be a crime lord and runs the island where it’s taking place like his own personal fiefdom. A brutal decision which he makes early on establishes the danger which he represents and makes the various competitors realise that, win or lose, they’ll still need a measure of luck to escape with their lives.

The story may be a bit flimsy but the acting is better than might be expected given that everyone has been cast with other skills foremost in mind. Lee is terrific and his natural charisma gives the film the energy it needs in sequences where he sneaks around at night trying to find out what Han is really up to. It should go without saying that he’s amazing in the fight scenes, both in and out of the tournament arena, even if he does get a little help from a body double to give his character some additional moves. The film does a good job of balancing the formally stages fighty sequences with more sinister goings-on, and when Han ultimately decides to address his displeasure with two of our heroes in public, there’s a truly spectacular showdown.

Of course, simply fighting a lot of people doesn’t cut it, and although Lee has a personal quest to undertake along the way, he ultimately needs to take on the big boss. Han is distinguished as a fighter by the presence of an iron hand to which he can attach various weapons, and Kien is sufficiently skilled to move with this in a way which convinces, creating a formidable foe. Their final fight in a hall of mirrors (again – ahem – mirrored in the following year’s Bond outing, and reprised many times in film since) succeeds in making Lee seem vulnerable despite everything we’ve seen him achieve, and will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Despite all this going in its favour, the film looks pretty rough in places, and dramatic scenes give the impression of having been rather hastily thrown together, but fans of the Shaw Brothers hits which preceded it will find that its lack of sophistication sometimes adds to its charm. The dialogue may be a bit cheesy but is well delivered, and its bright colours add to its energy – all the more so when it was first released, at a time when most people were still watching television (if they owned one at all) in black and white. Enjoying a 50th anniversary outing at Tribeca 2023, it’s a film which everyone should watch at least once, and which, for many, will become an enduring favourite.

Reviewed on: 15 Jun 2023
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Enter The Dragon packshot
A Shaolin martial artist travels to an island fortress to spy on an opium lord - who is also a former monk from his temple - under the guise of attending a fighting tournament.

Director: Robert Clouse

Writer: Michael Allin, Bruce Lee

Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Ahna Capri, Kien Shih, Robert Wall

Year: 1973

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: Hong Kong, US


Tribeca 2023

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