This was the last film of a great actor and the dying flame truly burns brightest.
Lee (BRUCE F*CKING LEE) is a supremely skilled martial artist who is approached by British Intelligence agent Braithwaite (Geoffrey Weeks) about an investigation into Han (Shih Kien/Keye Luke), a notorious drug lord. Han is hosting a martial arts tournament and Lee is a prime candidate to enter. Lee’s master (Roy Chiao) informs him that a man who works for Han, O’Hara (Bob Wall), killed Lee’s sister, Su Lin (Angela Mao). Additionally, he reveals that Han had been a member of the Shaolin temple like Lee, until he was expelled. Lee agrees to infiltrate Han’s island for the British. At the same time, gambling addict Roper (John Saxon) and Martial Arts master Williams (Jim Kelly) also enter the tournament. The two, having previously served together in Vietnam, quickly regain their friendship. The three, along with other competitors, arrive on Han’s island.
The three prove to be more than up to the level of the challengers, with Saxon and Williams even wagering on each other. At the end of the first day of fighting, Han supplies all of the fighters with female companionship, but orders the men to stay in their rooms. Lee arranges for his companion to be Mei Ling (Betty Chung), a secret undercover British agent, which allows him to sneak out. However, he encounters guards and is unable to find anything to report to the British, but escapes back to his room. The next morning, Han orders his chief fighter Bolo (Bolo Yeung) to kill the guards for failing. Bolo kills them all easily. Lee then faces off with O’Hara, whom he defeats easily, then is forced to kill when O’Hara tries to stab him. That night, Han summons Williams to his chambers. Williams had stepped outside the previous night to practice and Han believes he was the intruder. Han kills Williams with his metal hand when Williams tries to leave.
Han offers Roper a place in his organization. Roper, who usually operates in the gray areas of the law, considers it, but refuses when he sees Williams’ corpse. Lee sneaks into Han’s inner sanctum and finds a collection of drugs and guns and radios Braithwaite before being captured. Han orders Roper to fight Lee, but Roper refuses. Han orders Bolo to fight Roper, only for Roper to emerge victorious. Lee and Roper fight off Han’s minions, aided by released prisoners from Han’s own cells. Lee pursues Han and kills him. The British military finally arrive and Roper and Lee watch as Han’s men are overrun.
Some of you are probably wondering why I would finish the year off with Enter the Dragon. The simple answer is that I started the year off with The Last Dragon, so it seemed like a natural pairing. A movie about a man aspiring to be Bruce Lee and the movie that represents the pinnacle of Bruce Lee’s short career. It’s been a crappy year, so let’s end it with a good movie. Also, a certain brother who shall not be named showed this to his daughters and apparently it resulted in an honor duel between them, so I took that as a sign.
As you can probably guess from my subtitle, I believe this is the greatest martial arts film ever made. Yes, I’ve seen The Raid and its sequel, Once Upon a Time in China (which I would argue is less impressive than Kiss of the Dragon but I’m apparently in the minority there), Ong Bak, Ip Man, The Legend of Drunken Master, and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. All of those are great films that usually populate the top few spots of “Greatest Martial Arts Movies” lists, but I would argue that this is the only film where NOT having it on your list does not invalidate the movie, but instead invalidates the list.
Part of it is that, in the case of many of those films, most modern production companies would not be willing to do a lot of the ridiculous things that this movie did, like having Bruce Lee grab an untrained cobra for 30+ takes (he got bit once, but it was devenomed by that point). During the final battle sequence, the film hired members of two rival gangs as extras, leading to an actual brawl on camera. As a joke scene during the movie, they shoved actual Martial Arts Champion Peter Archer onto a boat which had a hole in it. They were not aware of the hole in the boat, but Archer, an Australian, just told them to keep filming until the boat he was on actually sank. Most of the types of contact between the martial artists in this movie would not have been allowed if they hadn’t filmed in Hong Kong in the 1970s. Hell, Lee routinely had to fight the martial arts extras after filming because they kept challenging him on set. Then there’s the Bob Wall fight.
Legend has it that Bob Wall and Bruce Lee did not get along very well. Wall had already appeared in The Way of the Dragon, being a friend of Chuck Norris, and supposedly had clashed with Lee on set there. Then, during filming, Bob Wall actually cut Bruce Lee with the bottle he was using to stab him, due to it being a real broken bottle and Lee insisting that Wall keep trying to really attack him. This supposedly enraged Lee so much that during a subsequent take (which actually happens earlier in the fight in the movie), Lee actually kicked Wall harder than expected. As Wall was a professional martial artist, the scene was supposed to be more real than usually allowed, but in this case Lee kicked Wall so hard that he flew into an extra, breaking the extra’s arm. While Wall has disputed that Lee was angry at him, it’s irrelevant, because Bruce Lee kicking a man so hard that he broke another man’s arm is one of the most amazing things you could put in a movie.
Just those things alone set this movie apart. The only recent film I can think of with this much reckless disregard for the safety of the people involved was the movie Chocolate in 2008, which was filmed in Thailand and almost permanently crippled at least one person involved. Lee and Director Robert Clouse’s decision to mostly cast actual martial artists allowed for a level of realism that most films just won’t match. John Saxon was one of the only members of the cast who wasn’t a professional martial artist, but he had black belts in Judo and Shotokan Karate. Additionally, Lee trained most of the stunt people for the film, something that pays off immensely in the iconic scene of him rampaging through the facility. While most martial arts films record at a slower shutter speed so that the actors will seem faster when played normally, Lee trained the stuntmen to react to his movements so that the film could be filmed at a high shutter speed. The result is that everyone aside from Bruce Lee appears to be moving in slow motion. It shows just how fast Lee could move and react.
The performances in the film are solid, though it’s made easier with having several of the characters (Bolo and O’Hara, for example) almost entirely silent. The actor who plays Han was dubbed, but the fact that his voice acting doesn’t quite match his physical performance actually still works for the character, who is constantly practicing some level of deception. It starts with his famous iron hand and culminates in the showdown with Lee in a hall of mirrors. Jim Kelly, who was asked to be in the film less than a week before filming was set to begin after actor Rockne Tarkington dropped out, started a successful career in movies for the rest of the 70s. The scene in which Kelly humorously picks four girls for the evening is still a great performance. John Saxon, who was primarily an actor, does a great job as the comic relief. Then there’s Bruce Lee, the only man who could deliver a line like “Boards don’t hit back” and make it sound awesome.
Overall, this is just a great movie. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. Even if you’re not a fan of martial arts films, you should give it a try.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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