Growing up inundated with action cinema as a child, my first introduction to Bruce Lee was not in the form of one of his own films. Rather, it was Rob Cohen’s biopic DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY that – in an admittedly diluted yet ostentatious fashion – made the martial artist a prominent figure throughout my adolescence. It is also where I first heard of ENTER THE DRAGON.
ENTER THE DRAGON is that rare genre movie that takes something with a niche market and makes it appeal to the public at large. Perhaps it’s the martial arts world’s HALLOWEEN, or THE SEARCHERS. Wherever the analogy succeeds, or fails, it turned Bruce Lee – and “kung-fu” movies – into a household name seemingly regardless of genre expectations and/or box office appeal.
Lee had appeared in films prior to ENTER THE DRAGON – most notably THE BIG BOSS and FIST OF FURY – but they were destined to achieve the same international success that the films of martial arts luminaries The Shaw Brothers, which by 1973 – the year of the film’s release – had become staples in sleazy 42nd Street grindhouse cinemas, playing for a devoted, albeit risk taking, audience of genre cinema supporters. Apparently Hollywood took note of the kung-fu new wave happening in China around this time – supplying those very 42nd Street cinemas with weeks worth of content – and decided to capitalize on that, making ENTER THE DRAGON the first Chinese martial arts film produced by a major studio.
As history would have it, ENTER THE DRAGON became a rather staggering cultural litmus test of sorts, much like THE EXORCIST in the same year or DEEP THROAT the year prior; it was something that had to be seen if only to be a part of a greater conversation. However, unlike the two admittedly controversial titles above, ENTER THE DRAGON would find a larger audience overseas than in the United States, where it would find more of a lasting acceptance than an initial one.
Though it may have not been the success for Warner Brothers that MAGNUM FORCE would be in the same year, it offers a strange juxtaposition in terms of marketable violence in the US. Where DIRTY HARRY’s potently gruesome gunplay and SERPICO’s aggressive portrayal of police corruption would find heavy ad campaigns and notable box office returns, ENTER THE DRAGON’s nunchaku and fisticuffs clad one-sheet seemed tame in comparison. Despite the film being jarringly brutal at times – it did receive an X rating in the UK at time of release – it was met with little of the attention given to the violence on screen in the aforementioned two films.
What it did get attention for was its casting. Though it’s very forthcoming about being a martial arts film and taking place almost solely in China, the leads joining Lee were John Saxon and Jim Kelly. Both being American, the former Caucasian and the latter African American. Neither Saxon or Kelly were stars at the time – or really ever, for that matter – outside of their target demographics, but having three races sharing the screen prominently in the first international production of its kind (and all in English), seems almost ahead of its time. Especially when considering that Blaxploitation was happening concurrently and Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were executing anything with prejudice on more and more screens annually.
Perhaps the strangest thing about ENTER THE DRAGON is that it would be Lee’s last film. He died after completing only four – THE WAY OF THE DRAGON being the only unmentioned title thus far – and only days after ENTER THE DRAGON would be released. It was an untimely death, one that was introduced to me before any of his work was in DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY. It has now been twenty years since Cohen’s film was released and forty since ENTER THE DRAGON – as well as Lee’s death – and his work is still as vital as it ever was in either decade. ENTER THE DRAGON has not only been inducted into the National Film Registry but it has recently been the subject of a new restoration which will be playing at The Brattle.