For Americans seeking a good introduction to the appeal of martial arts films in general, and the talents of Bruce Lee in particular, the obvious starting point is usually Enter the Dragon. By 1973, action movies had already dominated the Hong Kong film industry for decades, but Dragon – an international production by Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers – was the hit that opened the floodgates for Western interest in Eastern genre films, and made Lee an international icon mere months after his premature death. Kung-Fu connoisseurs inevitably prefer films that are somewhat lesser-known in the West, many of which more purely and accurately represent the achievements of Hong Kong action cinema, but Enter the Dragon is widely regarded as a classic, not only as a gateway drug for action junkies but as a ludicrously enjoyable 70’s B-movie in its own right.
Lee, who had trained in martial arts from a young age throughout a childhood divided between the US and Hong Kong, had made his first big break as an actor as the sidekick Kato in Fox’s TV series The Green Hornet (an appealing, if silly, short-lived production of which Lee was the clear highlight) before returning to Hong Kong to carve out a career as an action star. Though his filmography is spotty, to say the least (and rife with posthumously assembled Frankenfilms and dubious, tangentially-related cash-ins), Lee remains an indelibly appealing star whose status an icon is clearly well-deserved. In addition to his formidable skills as a martial artist, the strikingly handsome Lee is also overwhelmingly charismatic, possessing a sly, endearing humor, and capable of projecting a fierce physical intensity that has rarely been equaled since by performers in any genre. Enter the Dragon’s primary appeal lies in the fact that it remains the most clear and competent showcase for Lee’s considerable talents.
But the rest is what carries the film over from a mere showcase to memorable cult classic, and the elements surrounding Lee read like a wish-list of early-70’s exploitation gold: the co-stars include B-movie lifers John Saxon (Black Christmas, Tenebrae) and Jim Kelly (Black Samurai, Black Belt Jones), as well future Hong Kong legends like Sammo Hung and a brief appearance by a very young Jackie Chan. The plot is wonderfully absurd, a willfully transparent James Bond knock-off in which Lee plays an undercover secret agent, competing in an international martial-arts tournament held on the private island owned by a cackling supervillian with a metal claw for a hand, who may also have been responsible for killing Lee’s sister. It’s shot in vividly colorful widescreen, wrapped in a score by Lalo Shifrin (of Mission: Impossible fame), and culminates with a showdown in a hall of mirrors.
Whether you’re an action neophyte looking for a fun flick, or an obsessive who’s paused freeze-frames of every bone-breaking spin-kick, Enter the Dragon is a solid classic, worth enjoying on the big screen.
Friday, 2/28. Free, 7:30pm. The Packard Theater at the Library of Congress, 19053 Mount Pony Road, Culpeper. (540) 829-0292.