Enter the Dragon
By Bruce Hall
December 21, 2010
Most consumers have no problem loving a huge budget blockbuster. Movies that are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience usually do just that. But some films have a narrower vision, or simply contain more complex meaning than meets the eye. They aren't always art, and they aren't always even very successful. But for a devoted and eccentric few, they're the best entertainment money can buy. Once, beginning with Erik the Viking, a group of dedicated irregulars gathered weekly in a dingy dorm room to watch these films and discuss how what pleases the few might also appeal to the many. Time has separated the others in those discussions so that I alone remain to ponder the wider significance of cult cinema. But while the room is cleaner and I no longer have to skip class to do it, I still think of my far off friends whenever I hold Viking Night.
Those who said that Bruce Lee could never be a movie star are probably the same people who told Frank Sinatra he couldn’t sing. Lee was one of those people who could do pretty much whatever he set out to do, because he was a force of nature. So was his legend while he was alive, and even more so in the years following his death. It is hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Asians existed in American entertainment only as stereotypes, and even the great Bruce Lee was looked upon as just another immigrant. But as legendary a figure as he remains today, it isn’t anything like it was for kids growing up in the 1970s and 80s. Bruce Lee was the sort of pop culture icon we don’t have many of any more – he wasn’t just playing a character on screen, he really was those guys; he really could do all that stuff. Bruce Lee was the real deal, and he was unlike anything or anyone Westerners had ever seen.
All of this makes it the more ironic that Lee’s final film role would be his first backed by an American studio, and the first to be widely available in the United States. And it would be the one that made him an international star and launch the legend of Bruce Lee into eternity. But for all its significance, Enter the Dragon is a movie that almost everyone has heard of, yet few have seen or can remember with any clarity. But to those who remain fans of Lee, of martial arts, or just film in general, Enter the Dragon is a milestone.
By today’s standards the story is quaint: A young Shaolin monk named Lee (I told you he was playing himself) is commissioned by his Order to eliminate a rogue member named Han. Han is suspected by international authorities of having connections to drugs and prostitution, so it isn’t hard to see why the clean living, image conscious Shaolin have a problem with it.
Han lives on a secluded island near Hong Kong, in international waters. He runs a martial arts school there as a front company, and holds a competition every three years to crown the best fighter in the world. It is to be here that Lee carries out his mission. It doesn’t hurt that in addition to being pretty evil himself, Han’s right hand man was responsible for the death of Lee’s sister – the kid sure isn’t lacking motivation. Lee is joined at the tournament by Roper (John Saxon), a kung-fu con man on the run from a fistful of debt. Roper’s friend Williams (Jim Kelly) is an African American activist on the run from police corruption.
Each man is at the tournament for his own purposes but end up on the same side as Lee’s snooping triggers Han’s anger and opens them all up to retribution. Lee doesn’t have long to avenge his sister and uncover enough evidence to bring down Han’s empire before the power mad crime lord closes in on them. Sure, this would be eye-rolling stuff were it to be released in 2010, but at the time this was the sort of intrigue only available in a certain series of Sean Connery flicks – so it is no accident that Enter the Dragon was a hit, and Lee’s role as an Asian 007 was just the sort of exotic twist that younger audiences craved.