- Director: Robert Clouse
- Writer: Michael Allin
- Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Shih Kien, Ahna Capri, Bob Wall, Jim Kelly, Angela Mao Ying, Betty Chung, Geoffrey Weeks, Yang Sze, and Peter Archer
- Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
At dinner with friends last week, one of them announced that it was unacceptable that I, “the old movie guy,” had never sat down and watched a movie with Bruce Lee. So this one is for you, Harry. In fact, Lee’s legend and cultural impact are outsized in comparison to the length of his filmography. After a long series of smaller roles, he appeared as the sidekick Kano on the Green Hornet TV series, then starred in a handful of successful martial arts films in Hong Kong. The success of these movies, combined with Lee’s status as an American who was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown and spoke good English, drew the attention of Hollywood, with Warner Bros. agreeing to co-produce Enter the Dragon. That movie became, and is still by many measures, the most financially successful martial arts movie of all time. Unfortunately, Lee died in somewhat mysterious circumstances less than a month prior to the movie’s release. It was such a success that his next film, Game of Death, would eventually be finished using the footage he had already shot, along with various stand-ins and other tricks. And that is the extent of his film career.
Yet Bruce Lee has remained a household name, not just as a star snuffed out too young a la James Dean, but due to his influence in many areas. He created his own style of fighting, which he called Jeet Kune Do, leading the founder of the UFC to call him “the father of Mixed Martial Arts.” He is credited with bringing “kung fu” movies to general consciousness in the US, as well. More important than that stuff, though, is the part where he was a fairly unique example of an Asian-American action star in an industry with a long history of emasculating Asian-American men. He also wrote poetry and books and is described by the top-line of his Wikipedia page as a “philosopher,” so he did a lot in a short time is the headline here.
I was up for a punches and kicks sort of movie, which Enter the Dragon delivers in spades, of course, but I also enjoyed discovering the extent to which this is 100% just a James Bond movie with a Shaolin Monk who likes to karate chop people in the middle of it. You’ll even find plenty of discussions of these similarities from reviewers at the time. Lee’s character (also named “Lee,” in case you got confused) is recruited by the British government (in charge of Hong Kong at the time, I suppose) to go to an island and apprehend a crime lord named Han (Shih Kien), by fighting in a martial arts tournament, as you do. The first time it was mentioned I somewhat derisively referred the tournament as “Mortal Kombat,” before I realized that basically all of that stuff, from Bloodsport to Street Fighter, gets the idea of “oh, there’s just a secret underground international martial arts to the death tournament, that’s a thing that happens,” from this movie.
Receiving co-billing with Lee in the opening credits, perhaps strangely from a modern perspective, was John Saxon, who plays one of the other competitors in the tournament. Saxon was a known actor in the US who also happened to have a black belt in karate. He reportedly took the role on the insistence that his character live through the movie (I still don’t understand why actors do this) rather than the African-American character, Williams. The latter is played by Jim Kelly, a last minute replacement who ran a dojo in Los Angeles and had never acted before. His obvious appeal in this movie led to him getting his own subsequent starring roles, including the next movie from Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse, Black Belt Jones.
Enter the Dragon represented a big break for Clouse, who went on to a successful career of mostly martial arts films. He is the only film director I have personally heard of, though I am sure there are others, who was completely deaf. He relied on assistants to tell him if the actors on set were speaking their lines correctly. It may be unrelated, but one of the first things an American viewer today will notice about Enter the Dragon is that it is clear that none of the dialogue or other sound was actually recorded on-set. Suffice to say that some of the dubbing does not quite match up with the actors’ mouths. This also allowed the filmmakers to dub in voices for local Hong Kong actors who didn’t speak great English, most prominently the villain Han. Shih Kien’s voice was entirely dubbed in the final version by Keye Luke, who was born in China but emigrated to Seattle as a young child.
As I said, the movie has become a wild financial success, likely the most successful martial arts film of all time. Its worldwide box office is estimated at $350 million (over $1 billion in 2021 dollars), against a budget of $850,000. As such, it went on to spawn dozens, if not hundreds, of later action movies in its wake. Had Bruce Lee lived, he would have had the world at his feet. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in Hong Kong on July 20, 1973, at the age of 32. Initial autopsies were inconclusive, and the cause of death was listed as “misadventure.” For many years the primary theory regarding his death was that he had an allergic reaction to a painkiller, though many other explanations have been advanced over the years. But Lee’s legacy lives on to this day, a statue of him overlooks Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, and there is even reportedly a Bruce Lee-themed amusement park in Southern China.