Fighting Fuel: Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon (1973) – the Friday Classic review
Hollywood does its damnedest to neuter Bruce Lee’s danger, but every decision-by-committee only enhances his majesty.
Enter The Dragon
(Robert Clouse, 1973)
Bruce Lee’s rise to Hollywoodmovie icon is one of the oddest overnight success stories of all time. Already a TV star thanks to playing Kato in The Green Hornet, studios couldn’t figure out how to give him leading roles so he departed for Hong Kongand revolutionised kung fu action – at which point Warner Brothers came knocking with an idea. His future was assured…and then he died, leaving Enter The Dragon as Exhibit A in one of the most intriguing What Ifs in cinema.
Enter The Dragon is martial arts by committee, a film in which Bruce is obviously the star but who is often displaced from centre stage by John Saxon’s counter-cultural wiseass Roper, and Jim Kelly’s Blaxploitation rebel Williams – nods to two of the biggest demographics of the early 1970s. It ought to be a disastrous compromise, but somehow the not-quite-buddies approach adds to Bruce’s lustre. Williams falls by the wayside, Roper proves too diffident to really do anything, leaving Bruce to initiate Armageddon come the final act.
In plot terms, too, the film visibly creaks under the weight of executives trying to figure out how “a mainstream Bruce Lee movie”might work. Lee’s earlier films didn’t worry about the fact that, wherever he turns up, there was armies of fighters wanting to kick his ass… but in the logic of the Hollywood three-act movie, that’s too messy and unexplained. Enter the tournament, a linking device that permits an excuse for endless fighting – but also, in a weird way, dilutes it. This is sanitised, sanctioned fighting within set boundaries and for specific goals, unlike the brawls Bruce was famous for.
And yet… halfway through, Bruce’s alter-ego, the Shaolin monk Lee, faces regular screen opponent Bob Wall, playing the sadist who drove his sister to suicide. The rules are broken: Wall goes for Bruce with a bottle; Bruce kicks him to death. By caging the star’s potential in those early stretches, all Hollywood has done is to build anticipation and pressure for the inevitable blow-out. The long game is much more satisfying that the consistent ebb and flow of Lee’s Hong Kong work.
Even this isn’t enough. Hollywood’s idea of villainy must up the ante on the Mafia hoodlums and drug smugglers of earlier films, so here big bad Han is a proper, old-school Bond villain, with a clawed hand and an underground base full of hapless goons. The film invites comparisons to lure in new audiences (“this Bruce Lee fella, see, he’s a bit like 007”) but the more the film tries to find parallels with James Bond, the more it differentiates Bruce.
Consider this: Bond is a hired killer, who blithely accepts his commission with glib, amoral detachment. Lee is a monk, who fights with honour and, as he tells a protégé, insists on “emotional content.” That level of commitment spills over into the fights, where Bruce single-handedly makes an assault on the underground base and kills dozens (including a pre-fame Jackie Chan!) before the troops arrive to mop up the mess on the surface. And the star’s singularity leads to his most iconic battle: wounded tiger-style by Han but so bad-ass he simply licks the blood as if it’s fighting fuel, and then taking on his enemy in a hall of mirrors that splinters Bruce into multiple Bruces: an army of one. No gadgets, no girls, and only one gag (“boards don’t fight back”) which is as much a philosophical study of the difference between heroes and villains, as it is a joke. Had Bruce lived, he could well have eclipsed 007, a genuinely moral crusader in the age of Watergate.