Bruce Lee is arguably the closest thing the real world has had to a superhero (yeah I know some of you are probably saying what about Arnold, but Arnold doesn’t possess the fighting skills that Lee did). Bruce Lee had the sort of quality that made you believe that he truly was the characters he played. Enter the Dragon is the quintessential Bruce Lee movie and it continues to rank as one of the best martial arts films ever. Its premise is far-fetched and it tells the kind of story that’s reserved these days for Steven Seagal and other late-night Cinemax action films. However, what makes Enter the Dragon stand out as a classic after so many years is its showcasing of Bruce Lee’s talents. Sure, you also have the great Jim Kelly and John Saxon co-starring, but you’re primarily watching this film to see Bruce Lee lay down destruction on whoever crosses his path.

If you haven’t seen Enter the Dragon, then reading my synopsis of the story might turn you off because it sounds pretty lame on paper. Again, this film’s appeal has nothing to do with the story. Its all about the characters and the action. Anyway, Bruce Lee is a Shaolin monk (isn’t every violent martial arts Asian action star?) who has been assigned to find a former Shaolin monk, Han, who has gone evil and lives on an island where he hosts an annual karate competition. Of course, Han’s “friendly” karate competition is just a ruse for the opium and prostitution that goes on deep inside his island compound. Lee enters the competition where he meets Williams (Jim Kelly) and Roper (John Saxon), two Americans who have also entered the competition.

We don’t really see Bruce Lee go unleashed until toward the end of the film. The filmmakers were clearly saving Lee for last, but they throw the audience a few teases in a few earlier scenes. In the meantime, we’re treated to a cast of colorful characters who are equally captivating and fun to watch. The beginning of the film does a great job introducing our three main characters through the use of flashbacks. Lee, Williams, and Roper are all shown entering Hong Kong en route to Hans’ island. With each character, we are shown a brief flashback that gives us an overview of each character’s background and why they have entered the competition. The most interesting of these characters is big, bad Jim Kelly (by the way, both John Saxon and Jim Kelly are highly skilled in martial arts). As this film was made in the early 70s, Kelly’s character reflects the attitude and politics of American black communities. Although they don’t say this outright, Kelly is essentially a sort of Black Panther. With his tall height and huge afro, Kelly makes a lasting impression. He’s cool and charismatic and his fighting technique has a street brawl style to it. SPOILER AHEAD: Williams ends up being killed by Hans halfway through the movie, which got me thinking of the cinematic cliché of always having the black character die first. I’m not sure if what underlies the cliché is what went through the filmmakers minds, but I immediately thought of it when Williams dies.

The second main character is John Saxon’s Roper. Life is a constant gamble for him and he likes the jetset life even though it’s a life that’s well beyond his means. Due to his opportunistic nature, Roper is the least moralistic of the three main characters. You’re never quite sure where he stands in terms of either being good or bad. As he’s the least formidable-looking fighter of the bunch, the character makes up for this in personality.

Although its perhaps the most famous and iconic scene of the film, the battle between Lee and Hans in the room of mirrors is far from being the best demonstration of Lee’s fighting skills. That distinction goes to Lee’s battle with Hans’ guards underneath the island. Its an awesome display of skill by Lee as we not only see him go completely apeshit on his enemies with just his kung fu, but we also get to see him gradually progress to more deadly weapons as the fight continues. When Lee finally graduates to using a nunchuck, the speed at which he wields this weapon is so fast that what you basically get is an insane blur of motion. You can’t not be thrilled watching this scene and no martial artist since has been able to match the ferocity and intensity that Bruce Lee displays here (no, not even Jackie Chan, whose style borders on more comedy than anything else in my opinion).

Sadly, Bruce Lee died shortly after the completion of Enter the Dragon. I’ve wondered how Lee’s career would have shaped had he lived to old age. I think he would have continued to have made martial arts films in Asia, but I don’t think his career would have lasted very long in the U.S. Martial arts action movies didn’t hit big in the U.S. until the mid-80s and that was only for a short while. On the other hand you look at the long career Jackie Chan has enjoyed and you can’t help but think that that’s what Bruce Lee’s career could have become. Enter the Dragon is one of cinema’s greatest classics and its required viewing for anyone serious about movies or if you simply like a good action film.

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