Enter the Dragon was one of the first martial arts movies I ever watched and it remains, to this day, my favourite in the genre. Its premise has been reused countless times since then; I am not aware of any, but it is entirely possible that there were movies before it that used the framework of a martial arts contest to tell a story.
What makes this film stand out in my opinion is how taut Bruce Lee seems throughout the movie. Every moment that he is on screen, he looks poised to explode. My favourite moment, however, comes after one such explosion has just occurred.
In his first match in the tournament, he faces off against the man responsible for his sister’s death. To call it an one-sided contest is to do it a disservice. The closest equivalent in the movies is the scene where a black mamba strikes Budd in Kill Bill Vol 2. At one point, in desperation, the man tries to attack Lee with a broken bottle. It turns out to be the tipping point — Lee not only disarms him, he goes a step further and kills him. The camera focuses, however, on Lee’s face, and how his muscles slowly relax into something resembling normalcy.
The sequence is somewhat foreshadowed by earlier exchange between him and his master:
Shaolin Abbott: What is the highest technique you hope to achieve ?
Lee: To have no technique.
Shaolin Abbott: Very good. What are your thoughts when facing an opponent ?
Lee: There is no opponent.
Shaolin Abbott: And why is that ?
Lee: Because the word “I” does not exist.
Shaolin Abbott: So, continue…
Lee: A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.
As wonderfully phrased as that is, one does wonder if the “I” did not exist during that fight. I am not entirely convinced that it did not — his last words to the villain are, after all: “You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple. ”
But when his face slowly relaxes after that fight, you get a palpable sense of seeing him enter his own body after it has hit all by itself.