Enter the Dragon
Enter the Dragon is Bruce Lee's greatest film, and by extension one of the greatest martial arts films ever made. Intended to be Bruce Lee's breakthrough into Hollywood after Lee left to make a name for himself in Hong Kong, Enter was tragically released posthumously following Lee's death due to an allergic reaction to a prescription analgesic. Lee's passing did much to enhance his legend, but let's face it: even if he'd lived, Lee's status would be cemented in the annals of film, and martal arts, history. He was, and remains, one of the greatest legends of all time.
Given the weight of all this pathos it's easy to see Enter the Dragon as an overrated piece of work. The first half of the film does little to showcase Lee's talents, instead slowly building up to his emergence in the second half, and the plot makes little sense once you beging to parse it out. I'd argue that, despite these faults, Enter the Dragon is still entirely deserving of its status.
The plot comes straight out of a comic-book (literally -- the producer claims the inspiration for the film came from the newspaper pulp-serial Terry and the Pirates). Lee (playing a character named, conveniently, Lee) is contracted by an unnamed government agency to infiltrate a mysterious island fortress led by the enigmatic 'Mr. Han'. Han, it seems, has his fingers in some pretty bad business: drugs, prostitution, and whatever else early 70's baddies do on their secret island hideouts. Conveniently, Han runs a semi-annual martial arts tournament which gives Lee a perfect cover story to make his way to Han's island. He doesn't do this out of the kindness of his heart, of course. One of Han's henchmen was directly responsible for the death of Lee's sister (played by Hong Kong film legend Angela Mao in what is essentially an extended cameo).
The first half of the film details the arrival of two other men to the island, Williams (played by blaxploitation/martial-arts star Jim Kelly) and Roper (John Saxon), who served together in Vietnam and subsequently find themselves desperate for cash. Neither of these characters is really fleshed out, but a pair of nice flashback sequences give us insight into the men's motivation. Kelly's is particularly amusing, coming across as a film-within-a-film blaxploitation sequence as Kelly is accosted by a pair of racist cops. Kelly, in a wonderful 'what's-a-brothah-gonna-do' moment, beats the two cops up and takes off in their squad car, running over a conveniently placed pile of destructible trash in the process. Priceless.
The film's plot, such as it is, is sparsely constructed, focusing entirely on the tournament and Lee's efforts to find out just what Han is up to. By the time Lee arrives on Han's island, the film is nearly halfway to its' conclusion, leaving him a short 45 minutes to get to the bottom of Han's schemes and beat the tar out of him. This brisk, no-nonsense pace really works in the film's favor.
As with Lee himself, there is no spare fat to speak of in Enter the Dragon. Every scene moves the plot forward, even the flashbacks. Of course, like any good martial arts film, the real core is the fighting sequences. The handful of folks who haven't seen the film may be a little dismayed at the lack of Lee-action (despite a neat-o sparring sequence between Lee and Jackie Chan cohort Sammo Hung which opens the film), but from the time Lee is interrupted infiltrating Han's caves about an hour in it's his show. Lee reportedly took a very active hand in compositing the shots for each of his fight scenes, and it shows. He knows just how to play to the camera: as wave after wave of baddie attacks, Lee takes them apart with the precision of a surgeon The legendary final showdown between Lee and Han, which takes place in a hall of mirrors, is wonderfully choreographed. Lee moves like a coiled spring, and with the possible exception of a few moments from the unfinished Game of Death, he is clearly at his best in this film.
This isn't to disparage director Robert Clouse and his contributions to the film. While Lee was certainly an active participant in the film's direction, Clouse (who went on to direct such 'gems' as the 80's schlockfest Force: Five and Jackie Chan's first foray into Hollywood film, The Big Brawl... as well as a directorial credit for the salvage job on Lee's unfinished masterpiece Game of Death) does a remarkable job keeping the proceedings moving quickly. The aforementioned cameo by Angela Mao is wonderful, featuring very few cuts compared to most Hollywood action cinema... clearly a result of the collaboration between Clouse and his mixed American and Hong Kong film crew. Mao is simply allowed to do her thing while the camera rolls.
Being a crossover U.S./Hong Kong production, Enter the Dragon is rife with cameos and guest appearances. Former Chinese Mr. Universe Bolo Yeung makes a brief appearance, as does Kien Shih, who appeared in many of the nearly 100 Wong Fei-Hung films produced from the 50's through the 70's. Sammo Hung's Seven Little Fortunes classmates Yuen Biao and Jackie Chan also reportedly make brief onscreen appearances as extras, as well, though I have no idea where.
Of course, no review of Enter the Dragon would be complete without mentioning Lalo Schifrin's classic score. Schifrin, whose past credits include The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission Impossible, Dirty Harry, and a whole slew of other classic 60's and 70's films and TV series, was at the top of his game here. I'd even go so far as to say it's one of his finest works. I'm fairly certain that any other composer at the time would have defaulted to a really horrible 'chop-sockey' soundtrack featuring all kinds of faux-Chinese rhythms, and while Schifrin's score treads perilously close to these waters, it nevertheless is a classic of 70's action film scoring.