The greatest tragedy of Bruce Lee’s all too short life was that he didn’t live to see the premiere of Enter the Dragon. Lee died on July 20, 1973. Enter the Dragon was released six days later.
Four years prior, Lee made a vow to himself that he titled “My Definite Chief Aim.” Handwritten in cursive with his characteristic flair, he wrote “I, Bruce Lee, will be the first highest paid Oriental super star in the United States. I will give the most exciting performances and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor.” Throughout his career in Hollywood, Lee struggled to make his way, fighting against prejudice and exclusion at every step, in hopes of reaching his goal. And yet he never lived to see the breakthrough success of his masterpiece.
Enter the Dragon was the 13th highest grossing film in North America in 1973, but it was a big year for movies with other classics like The Exorcist, The Sting, American Graffiti, Magnum Force, and Live and Let Die. Reports of Enter the Dragon’s earnings vary because such statistics weren’t as carefully monitored as they are now, but most estimates range between $21 and $25 million. When adjusted for inflation, that’s $144 to $171 million today. The film has been rereleased several times since then, most notably in 2010, 2020, 2021, and again this year for its 50th. These rereleases, coupled with profits from global distribution, bring the all-time worldwide gross for Enter the Dragon to over $2 billion today.
Enter the Dragon is hailed as the greatest martial arts film of all time by many, including The Guardian and The Observer. It holds a place in the U.S National Film Registry, under the Library of Congress, as “culturally significant.” Its lasting impact has crossed into movies, anime, television, video games, and comic books.
When Enter the Dragon was first released, it was like nothing America had ever seen before. Lee’s onscreen presence was positively magnetic. And it was the first time an Asian male had been represented so powerfully, and as so sexy, by Hollywood. The timing helped. The ‘70s were the perfect time for Bruce ‘the Little Dragon’ Lee to enter the West. And in his legacy, martial arts films changed forever.
The Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s
Enter the Dragon wasn’t the first Kung Fu film to make it to American shores. Just four months prior, Five Fingers of Death was distributed in the U.S. A product of the legendary Kung Fu movie grindhouse Shaw Brothers Studio, Five Fingers of Death starred Lo Lieh, who typically played villains, as the film’s antihero. It’s a gratuitously bloody film, especially for those days, and it performed well for a foreign film in Western markets. It’s unlikely international distribution coat-tailed on television show Kung Fu, which premiered in late 1972. Starring David Carradine, who coincidentally went to high school in Oakland near where Lee would open one of his first Kung Fu schools, Kung Fu became one of the most popular television shows of the early ‘70s.
For years, there was a persistent rumor that Kung Fu was originally Bruce Lee’s idea and that the producers stole it in order to replace Lee with a white actor. There is evidence that Lee had been considered for the role of Caine, a notion that Carradine perpetuated in his book Spirit of Shaolin. However, in Matthew Polly’s comprehensive biography Bruce Lee: A Life, plenty of evidence is presented to show that the character of Caine was a parallel development. Lee did write a treatment about a Kung Fu master set in the old west around the same time that Kung Fu was being developed, but that was a different character named Ah Sahm.
Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, used that original treatment of Ah Sahm to develop the series Warrior, which is currently in its third season on Max. Ironically, Warrior ran contiguously with CW’s redux series Kung Fu, but Kung Fu was canceled last May. Warrior has yet to be renewed for what would be its fourth season.
While Lee is renowned as a martial arts movie star, he only saw three of his martial arts films make it to the silver screen. The others were The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), and The Way of the Dragon (1972). The Way of the Dragon was the most interesting because it was written, directed and choreographed by Lee (The Big Boss was only partially choreographed by Lee and it shows). The Way of the Dragon also contains the epic duel between Lee and Chuck Norris, which is considered by many to be the greatest cinematic fight scene of all time. Following Lee’s death, it was retitled Return of the Dragon and released to the United States in 1974 to capitalize on the success of Enter the Dragon.
Lee was working on another project, Game of Death, but he paused production to make Enter the Dragon, so it was left unfinished. In another effort to capitalize on Lee, Game of Death was completed in 1978 using impersonators, clips from other films, some deplorable “special effects,” and shockingly, actual footage from Lee’s funeral. There’s only about 11 minutes of unseen footage that Lee shot exclusively for the film, including some of his most brilliant fight scenes.
Nonetheless, those final fights in Game of Death are pure Bruce Lee magic. He’s at the top of his game, facing off with opponents like his real-life training partner, Guru Dan Inosanto and six-time NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his first cinematic acting role. If ever there was a film to fast forward to the fight scenes, Game of Death is it.
Ultimately, Lee is known for two outfits. Most prominent is the Game of Death yellow jumpsuit which has been donned in so many homages like Uma Thurman’s jacket in Kill Bill (Tarantino has admitted how much Lee influenced his filmmaking) to a signature line of sportswear from Onitsuka Tiger. The other outfit is the shirtless ensemble with black Kung Fu pants and slippers attire Lee wore in Enter the Dragon. A ripped and yoked physique is required to make that one work, but fighters clad just like Lee proliferate almost every aspect of pop culture. Although he dons a similar outfit in Fist of Fury, it’s Enter the Dragon that sealed it as signature Lee.
The Wake of the Dragon
Enter the Dragon was a total game-changer in cinema. Firstly, it opened the door for the martial arts genre to explode in the mainstream of the West. Asia has been making martial arts movies as far back as the ‘30s. But even though it was filmed in Hong Kong, Enter the Dragon was produced by Warner Bros., making it the first major martial arts film from Hollywood. And it set the tone for martial arts movies to follow.
Enter the Dragon centers around a fighting tournament, and consequently, martial arts competitions became a cinematic cliché that is perpetuated in the genre to this day. Classic films like Kill and Kill Again (1981), Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport (1988) and Kickboxer (1989), as well as Chuck Norris’ The Octagon (1980), echo the underground tournament motif. Meanwhile, The Octagon was the inspiration of the octagonal cage used by UFC. Some even credit the opening fight scene in Enter the Dragon as the precursor of MMA. Lee faces off against Sammo Hung and ends up taking him to the ground in a wicked lock.
There’s also Jet Li’s Unleashed (2005), Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Redbelt (2008), Channing Tatum’s Fighting (2009), the entire Undisputed franchise (2002-2017), the MMORPG-inspired Double World (2020), and the list goes on. Speaking of gaming, Enter the Dragon’s underground tournament motif also has a tremendous influence on fight-based video games like Mortal Kombat (first release 1992) and Tekken (first release 1994), as well as their successive films. Mortal Kombat’s Liu Kang and Tekken’s Marshall Law even dress like Lee with that signature Enter the Dragon ensemble.
Beyond the hackneyed tournament storyline, Enter the Dragon can take credit for energizing two major movie subgenres: Brucesploitation and Blaxploitation. While Brucesploitation includes any Bruce Lee knockoff, it truly takes off in the wake of Enter the Dragon. Filmmakers banked on the idea that all Asians look alike. No celebrity has been more impersonated than Bruce Lee, so much so that there is a cadre of actors that have made their careers as Bruce Lee clones, taking names like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Dragon Lee, Bruce K. L. Lea, and so on. There was even a film titled The Clones of Bruce Lee (1980) that starred several Lee impersonators simultaneously.
One of the most exploitive examples of Brucesploitation is Dragon Lives Again (1977) starring Bruce Leung. Also known as Deadly Hands of Kung Fu or Bruce Lee Goes to Hell, Lee encounters James Bond, Dracula, the Exorcist, Emmanuelle, Kwai Chang Caine, Popeye, and more. And if that seems unexpected, check out Crazy Safari (1991), which mashes up Hong Kong’s Mr. Vampire franchise with South Africa’s The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) franchise. Crazy Safari stars N!xau, the original Bushman from The Gods Must Be Crazy, who gets possessed by the spirit of Bruce Lee to deliver an astonishingly good impression. Even Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen stepped into Lee’s Kung Fu slippers with sequels of Fist of Fury; Chan in New Fist of Fury (1976), and Yen in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010).
Blaxploitation precedes Enter the Dragon but not by much. Shaft, a pioneering film of that genre, was released only a year earlier in 1971. However, with Jim Kelly as Williams, Enter the Dragon became one of the earliest inclusive films, propelling Blaxploitation forward and cementing Kelly as a bona fide action star. He went on to leading roles in Blaxploitation films like Black Belt Jones (1974), Three the Hard Way (1974), Golden Needles (1974), and Black Samurai (1977), among others.
There are echoes of Bruce Lee within anime too. Like Liu Kang and Marshall Law, Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star appears dressed like Lee in Enter the Dragon. Dragon Ball also repeats the martial tournament platitude and what’s more, Krillin fights a Bruce Lee impersonator” in episode 20, again bare chested in black Kung Fu pants and slippers like in Enter the Dragon.
Naruto also centers on tournaments and its character Rock Lee is often compared to Lee. Although Rock forgoes the Kung Fu pants ensemble, he adopts the same rice bowl haircut as Lee. Cowboy Bebop’s Spike Spiegel often quips strategies that sound a lot like Lee, and there are numerous Bruce Lee Easter eggs throughout the series. Even Sailor Moon has a nod with Sailor Jupiter’s fighting postures, which are clearly lifted straight from Bruce Lee poses.
However, the most outrageous Bruce Lee animation isn’t Japanese. In 1975, the Chinese-made film Chinese Gods features a cartoon Bruce Lee, resurrected from the dead with his third-eye open. Lee appears toward the end, so it’s a lot of crude animation to sit through before seeing him. Most of the movie is based on Chinese mythology, and Lee’s appearance is shocking, but, spoiler alert, most anyone watching it now watches it for Lee so the surprise is ruined. Chinese Gods is Bruceploitation at its animated worst.
Many of those anime were based on manga, so Enter the Dragon has a presence there too. Lee has also infiltrated American-made comics. Marvel’s Shang-Chi was originally modeled after Lee, and a character named Lee Jun-fan appeared in Marvel’s Earth-616 (Lee Jun-fan is Bruce Lee’s birth name). As for DC, Lee played Kato in The Green Hornet, a spin-off of the 1960s Batman television series. And of course, there have been numerous Bruce Lee comics from several independent publishers, as well as a comic strip from the Los Angeles Times. These were all fictionalized accounts of Bruce Lee’s life.
Return of Enter the Dragon
There have been a few attempts to remake Enter the Dragon. Back in 2007, Kurt Sutter was tasked by Warner to make a noir style remake titled Awaken the Dragon with K-pop star Rain filling Lee’s Kung Fu slippers. The project fizzled, but in 2014, Spike Lee said he was going to remake Enter the Dragon with some rumors of Ken Jeong in Lee’s role. The following year, Brent Ratner said he was considering a remake too, but now in retrospect, both claims feel like grabs to get media attention. Then in 2018, David Leitch was in talks for a remake.
However, nothing can touch the original. When it comes to Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee broke the mold for what a martial arts movie could be. Lee rocked the world with Enter the Dragon and today, a half century later, nothing can even come close.
Enter the Dragon is returning to the big screen for the 50th Anniversary on Aug. 13 and 16 through Fathom’s Big Screen Classics. It is also available to rent through Amazon Prime and YouTube.