It was the summer of 1984 and while most of my friends were engaged in the bitter culture war that was Duran Duran v Culture Club, I was obsessed with a dead movie star called Bruce Lee. Our video store in Bramhall, Cheshire, was a classic early 80s den of rental iniquity, crammed with unclassified horror and martial arts flicks, and I wanted to see all of these morbid and violent treats before someone came along and banned them. My parents weren’t quite irresponsible enough to let me rent Last House on the Left or Driller Killer, but they had an open-door policy on kung fu, so one afternoon I went home with Enter the Dragon and nothing was the same again.
Everything about Bruce Lee’s first American-produced movie (after three pictures made by Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest) is ludicrous and over-stylised in a way only the 1970s could manage. From its amazing orchestral funk soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin (also responsible for the Mission Impossible theme), to the kitsch set designs, it is a black-belt assault on the senses. It is also joyously dumb. Bruce Lee plays a Shaolin master recruited by the British secret service to infiltrate a fighting tournament arranged by reclusive millionaire Mr Han on his island off the coast of Hong Kong. You can tell Lee’s contact is a British agent because he looks like Captain Mainwaring and drinks tea in every scene he’s in. Han is suspected of running a trafficking operation, in which women are being kidnapped, drugged and then sold to rich psychopaths but instead of mounting a conventional intelligence operation, MI6 decides to send in a really violent monk. This all made perfect sense at the time.
So Lee jets off to Hong Kong then boards a junk to Han’s island, where he meets several of the other ne’er-do-wells set to complete in the tournament. Most of the cast are genuine martial-arts experts. Gambler and scoundrel Roper was played by veteran actor John Saxon, a judo expert and student of the shotokan karate style. Williams is played by Jim Kelly, who the producers found teaching at a karate school in Crenshaw, Los Angeles, bringing him into the film at the last minute when another actor dropped out (possibly because he didn’t want to get kicked in the face by Bruce Lee). Kelly is not a great actor, but he’s an amazing presence in the film with his voluminous afro and red denim suit. He also gets the best lines, including the moment Han asks how he’ll feel when he finally faces defeat, and Kelly replies: “I’ll be too busy looking good” – which was cooler than anything I’d ever heard anyone say in Knight Rider. It was through Kelly that I discovered blaxploitation cinema, renting a whole bunch of his subsequent movies including Hot Potato and Black Samurai – a genuine cultural education for a white boy growing up in a white suburb in the north of England.
From here the tournament begins and, while the days are for fighting, the nights see Lee sneaking around the island, trying to uncover its secrets while Roper and William enjoy the attentions of Han’s concubines. This was the 1970s after all. On that note, there’s one very weird scene where Han fights Kelly and the two smash their way into a sort of psychedelic opium den populated by stoned hippie women who laugh creepily while the two pummel each other. If Stanley Kubrick had made martial arts flicks, this is what they’d look like. Han, though, is essentially like a Bond villain, hiding away in his luxurious lair filled with exotic women and ineffective henchmen. He even spends one scene petting a white cat, which he then threatens to chop in half on a guillotine.
The fight scenes seem slow and stilted compared to today’s ultra-fast action-movie choreography. There are no jump cuts or swirling bullet time shots. However, the sequences where Lee lets loose perfectly showcase his dynamic fighting style; those graceful flying kicks, that balletic brilliance with the nunchucks and, in the scene where he takes on Han’s bodyguard, O’Harra, his explosive one-inch punch. Lee finally faces off with Han in the legendary hall of mirrors fight scene. As the two characters stalk each other, their bodies are reflected and replicated dozens of times, like animate Eadweard Muybridge stop-motion photographs. It is tense and arresting and ends with Han being impaled on a revolving door, which slowly spins for several seconds to some weird harp music, like a ghoulish merry-go-round. To 12-year-old me, this was high art.
Enter the Dragon would go on to influence the two greatest cultural obsessions of my teen years: hip-hop and video games. In mid-70s New York, the success of the movie led to an influx of martial arts films, exposing audiences to non-white action stars for the first time. This made the genre hugely popular with a generation of young black men and women who would go on to become rappers, DJs and graffiti artists. Hip-hop godfather Fab 5 Freddy was a Bruce Lee fanatic and would later incorporate the star into his graffiti art, while Wu-Tang Clan named their first album, Enter the Wu-Tang, after the movie. Later, seminal fighting games Street Fighter, King of Fighters and Tekken were based around Enter the Dragon’s concept of an international martial arts tournament attended by bizarre and differently skilled combatants.
For years I had a poster of Enter the Dragon on my bedroom wall. It was a still from the fight scene in the island’s underground laboratory (which is where a young Jackie Chan pops up in one of his first acting roles). Bruce is standing with a pair of nunchucks above his head, shirtless, lithe and handsome – a very different representation of masculinity than I’d ever experienced before. It is such a potent, lasting image from a movie that is full of potent, lasting images: the scene where Jim Kelly’s character is hassled in the street by racist LA cops is a weird and unsettling thing to rewatch in the summer of 2020; and then there’s the moment Lee explains his technique as “fighting without fighting” – part of his “be water” philosophy that would go on to inspire the Hong Kong democracy protesters. Something I didn’t realise when I was 12 but I do now: for a joyously dumb movie, Enter the Dragon sure did have a lot to say.