Lee (Bruce Lee) is a master of martial arts, and after showing a pupil of the Shaolin Temple where he lives that he is the greatest fighter around, he meets with first his high priest, who inquires after the levels of spirituality he has attained in his training, and then with a government official who tells Lee he has a mission for him. There is a criminal mastermind, Han (Shih Kien) who runs prostitution and drugs rings from his island and he must be taken down, and soon, so Lee has been selected for his fighting skills and grudge against the villain's chief henchman to join the tournament that is held at the base, where really he will be infiltrating Han's defences...
Possibly the most famous martial arts movie of all time, even now after all these years, is Enter the Dragon, which became a worldwide success on the strength of the fame of its star Bruce Lee. Of course, it helped that he had been struck by tragedy three weeks before it opened when a swelling of the brain meant he died far too young at the age of thirty-three: the resulting publicity meant that there were legions of fans, old and new, clamouring to see what their idol had brought to the screen for the final time (they didn't know about Game of Death at that point). Therefore to many, this was the greatest martial arts movie ever made.
But is its reputation, which remains considerable, justified? If it was going by Lee's star power alone, then the answer would have to be yes as he moves like a whirlwind through various opponents, a flurry of precisely deployed limbs and the occasional fighting yell to make us well aware of how much effort this overwhelming skill takes. Indeed, if Enter the Dragon was simply Lee beating up a selection of villains for an hour and forty minutes then there would be few complaining, but as it is there has to be the Dr. No-style story to contend with, and the appearance of other stars jostling to share the spotlight.
Not that there's anything wrong with Lee's cohorts Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly), it's only that they're poorly utilised. They should really have complimented Bruce, while too often it feels as if they're taking attention away from him: can there be anybody pleased that Roper lets Lee stand aside to tackle Bolo Yeung late on in the movie, well, anybody except Saxon's agent, that is? Kelly in particular is frustrating, as cool in his own way as Lee with the wisecracks and appetite for the ladies, but we hardly see him fight as much as Saxon, not an actor renowned for his kung fu or karate, and the Williams character is thrown away halfway through the story, utterly unecessarily.
Elsewhere, on the other hand, you can see why this has been taken to the hearts of so many, as much as for the potential it showed in Lee for future, unrealised projects as it showed him in action here. While you stand by in admiration at the manner in which he dispatches the henchmen (see if you can spot Jackie Chan amongst them) in one lengthy sequence, you can't separate the feelings of what the international movie world lost when Lee succumbed to illness. The trappings of Enter the Dragon's plot may be cheesy, the spiritual element is dismissed within minutes of the opening, and the tournament leaves less room for one-on-one combat than you might expect, but it does entertain, though not merely because of nostalgia. Among the regrets has to be that the American studio putting up the money felt the need to include any assistance to Lee's hero at all: imagine this film with him solo, cutting a swathe through the evildoers single-handed. Music by Lalo Schifrin, who was truly on top form when he composed it.