‘We need emotional content … not anger!” Bruce Lee’s unique screen presence is even more arresting in non-fight mode in this martial arts classic, now re-released for its 50th anniversary. The quote above comes from a scene in which Lee schools a quivering young teen novitiate (Sammo Hung) in kung fu, and his gnomic instructions are delivered with that dreamy-insinuating half-smile that Lee’s face always gravitated towards. While discussing his vocation with a Shaolin master earlier in the movie, Lee says that his technique is “to have no technique” and that approaching an opponent is to “have no opponent”, a Zen transcendence through physical discipline and combat to a purified state in which what he has learned is not needed.
Lee’s absolute conviction in selling these lines is what earned him his army of fans: no martial arts star does anything like it today. Jackie Chan approximates the ingredient of playfulness, although Lee is never joking – and it’s what still infuriates fans when they think about Lee not being allowed to play the lead in the 70s TV show Kung Fu that wound up starring David Carradine. Lee undoubtedly created the conditions in which Asian American stars could succeed in Hollywood, although recently he has been the subject of a slightly tiresome culture-war contest in which people have taken offence on his behalf about the way he was portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
In Enter the Dragon, Lee plays a Shaolin monk recruited by British intelligence to infiltrate a suspected crime empire of drugs and sex trafficking being run from a private island near Hong Kong by the Dr No-ish figure of Han, played by Shih Kien (although Han’s cat is a bit Blofeld-ish). Han is a renegade Shaolin student who every three years hosts a martial arts tournament, though the system of competition, seeding, scoring etc is never actually explained. British laws forbidding gun ownership explain the point about the lack of firearms – and perhaps make possible the entire Hong Kong martial arts genre.
Lee shows up undercover as a contender alongside fellow martial arts hombres Roper (John Saxon) and Roper’s Vietnam comrade Williams (Jim Kelly). Lee has moreover got a personal beef with Han’s brutish bodyguard O’Hara (Robert Wall) who was responsible for the death of his sister Su Lin (Angela Mao Ying); she had opted to take her own life rather than be overpowered by the loathsome O’Hara.
And so the martial arts begin, with many fights concluded by jumping heavily on your opponent, accompanied by the sickening off-camera crunching sound. As for Lee, his balletic moves are a joy and the traditional nunchuck showoff display is mesmeric – it’s why we can forgive this film for the slightly lower-octane scenes when he’s not in them. That slight, wiry, impossibly compact frame is mesmeric, as is his weird, mewing-moaning sound while delivering a lethal blow.
• Enter the Dragon is released on 11 August in UK cinemas, and is screening now in select Australian cinemas.