Enter the Dragon is Bruce Lee’s most popular movie, but is it his best? How it compares with Fist of Fury, Game of Death and Lee’s other films
Enter the Dragon, the film that made Bruce Lee a global star, is still the martial arts legend’s most popular movie.The glossy Hong Kong-Hollywood production in which Lee arrives on a mysterious island to take part in a violent kung fu competition is certainly his most polished and stylish film – but is it his best? Four film experts offer their thoughts.Grady Hendrix, author of These Fists Break Bricks:“Bruce Lee made a lot of movies as a child actor, but only four as “Bruce Lee: Action Superstar” and his charisma and screen presence is bigger than any of them.
“His first movie, The Big Boss, is a low-budget cheapie where he doesn’t come to life until the final 20 minutes. He’s able to take over the action choreography completely in Fist of Fury, and a lot of people consider that his best movie, and it’s certainly his most narratively compelling one.“He directed every frame of The Way of the Dragon, but it’s mostly a comedy with a few action scenes scattered around until his climactic showdown with Chuck Norris.
“Game of Death was finished posthumously and feels awkward and ghoulish, but when you look at Alan Canvan’s re-edit of it, using Lee’s script as a guide and utilising all 39 minutes of footage Bruce actually shot – as opposed to the seven minutes the official movie uses – it’s clear that this was going to be his masterpiece, combining humour and action in ways audiences wouldn’t see for a few more years from the likes of Sammo Hung Kam-bo and Jackie Chan.“Given all this, it’s clear that the best overall Bruce Lee movie is Enter the Dragon.“From its stylish East-meets-West visuals, to its supporting cast of Jim Kelly, Shek Kin, Angela Mao Ying, and John Saxon at the top of their respective games, to Lee’s performance, which turns every action scene into a showcase for his physical skills, and every dialogue scene into a showcase for his macho cool, it’s just a bulletproof exploitation film that over delivers on every front.”
Carl Fox, author of The KFM Bruce Lee Society:“I don’t think Enter the Dragon is Bruce Lee’s best or worst film. It is the best-looking one out of them all, but you’d expect that anyway from the higher production cost. They threw money away on this movie.“John Saxon once stated that some of the props had to be made twice due to miscommunication between the crew. It is reminiscent from the scene in [1984 rock music mockumentary] This is Spinal Tap where they made a miniature model of Stonehenge, rather than a full-size one, as someone wrote the measurements in inches rather than feet.
“In terms of action scenes, I think it lags behind some of Lee’s other films; the opening fight with Sammo Hung is OK, the scene against Bob Wall is OK, but the fight with the old man Shek Kin is poor and only salvaged by some inventive visual trickery in the Hall of Mirrors.
“The fight scenes from Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon are far superior and dynamic. Even Lee’s footage for The Game of Death looks better than that from Enter the Dragon.“The plot of Enter the Dragon is very much of its time as a James Bond-esque spy thriller with a bit of martial arts thrown in, but it is still enjoyable, if a little dated.
“Though not the best film Bruce Lee ever made, it is the one that made him a legend and made him known the world over. The film has gone on to reach legendary status and is known by people that don’t know any other Bruce Lee film.“Despite my thoughts, I still love the film and that’s why we’ve made the 50th anniversary screening the centrepiece of our UK Bruce Lee event in October.”Frank Djeng, commentator and former head of marketing at Tai Seng Entertainment:“Many Bruce Lee fans would consider Enter the Dragon to be his best film. It has a great plot, with Bruce travelling to this mysterious island to compete in a martial arts tournament hosted by an equally mysterious crime lord.
“Bruce was probably in his best physical shape while making this movie, and the final battle in the underground dungeon prison was fantastic.“It made an international star out of Angela Mao in her oh-so-brief appearance, and you had an iconic villain in Shek Kin’s Han.“And when it comes to production value, Enter the Dragon really shines – after all, it was a Hong Kong/Hollywood co-production.
“But although Enter the Dragon is certainly Lee’s most iconic film, it has certain elements that prevent it from being his best. The subplots featuring the characters played by John Saxon, Jim Kelly and Rob Wall took away Lee’s screen time, and Betty Chung’s “love interest” character Mei Ling was not as interesting as Nora Miao in Bruce’s other films.“There’s also the (retroactively speaking) ugly stereotyping of the ‘Oriental’ elements in the film that just don’t sit comfortably with a native Chinese viewer like myself, and which were probably responsible for the film’s relatively low box office in Hong Kong compared to Lee’s other films.“There are actresses wearing cheongsams regardless of their race, there are Japanese Sumo wrestlers in the banquet sequence – why? – and all the henchmen wear karate robes when they should be wearing Chinese-style clothing.
“It’s almost as if the filmmakers put in anything that looked ‘Oriental’, regardless of their origins, in the film to satisfy Westerners’ preconceptions of how Orientals should look.“There’s nothing in Enter the Dragon that can compete with Lee’s fight with Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon, which is a masterpiece of fight strategy, choreography, and psychology between the two fighters in an actual contest.“No fight in Enter the Dragon can compare with this fight when it comes to showcasing Lee’s incredible athleticism, skill, and philosophy as a martial artist. I would go with Way of the Dragon over Enter the Dragon as his best film.”
This writer and film critic’s view:A lot of international viewers encountered Bruce Lee for the first time in Enter the Dragon, which is perhaps why it’s so popular – after all, everyone has a special feeling for their first love.It’s certainly Lee’s slickest and most complete work. But there is little context to bring meaning to the action, which is why it’s a lesser film than Lee’s earlier movies.
The revenge plot involving Angela Mao is hardly noticeable, the Chinese nationalism of Fist of Fury is absent, and his character doesn’t possess any Confucian attributes, like loyalty to a school or master.Lee is at his most charismatic, and the action is neatly choreographed and performed with precision, but it’s shot and edited like a US film, and lacks the visceral thrills of a Hong Kong movie.Enter the Dragon is enjoyable, but Fist of Fury is the better martial arts film. And yes, I saw that one first …In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved industry.