Sign up for our weekly newsletter
Waterfront Festival

The Influence of Enter The Dragon on Western Martial Arts Films

23 July 13 words: Helen Gellion
Forty years after Bruce Lee's untimely death we take a look at how one man made his mark on a genre
alt text

Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury

If you ask anyone to name a martial artist in film, the likelihood is that they will say Bruce Lee. There is no denying that he was an outstanding martial artist, and along with his desire to express to the world his philosophies on martial arts and life, an icon was created that has inspired and shaped martial arts cinema ever since.

Amazingly it has been forty years since Bruce Lee died, and in celebration Enter the Dragon is being re-released. The first ever Chinese martial arts movie that was a Hong Kong/US co-production, it’s the most iconic and financially successful martial arts film released. We look at its influence and the impact it has had on the evolution of martial arts in Western cinema since it first hit our screens forty years ago.


alt text

Enter The Dragon's iconic poster

The appeal of Lee’s talent paired with his cool charismatic persona reached its height in Enter the Dragon and flung the movie world into martial arts madness. After only five films, the tragic loss of the young Lee brought about a wave of exploitation films starring actors renamed Bruce Li or Bruce Le in a desperate attempt to replace the icon. It wasn’t all cynical, it did inspire the cult classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, a film that Tarantino paid homage to by casting lead Gordon Liu in two roles in Kill Bill.

In the late seventies, an unknown stunt man from Enter the Dragon, Jackie Chan, starred in the great director/fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping’s Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master; introducing Jackie Chan’s own brand of Kung Fu comedy and making him a star. Western cinemas began importing seventies dubbed Asian martial arts movies due to demand from Lee’s worldwide fame, usually shown as B movies at cinemas. Only Chuck Norris, from his acclaimed role in Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon, was given a Western martial arts film, Breaker Breaker, which kick started the run of cult Norris films in the eighties.

In the West, martial arts movie achieved mixed success in cinemas but the video boom kept it alive. Jackie Chan pushed his Kung Fu comedy success to create bigger and more daring action stunt work in classics such as Project A and Police Story; not to mention singing the film’s end credit songs. Unlike Lee, Jackie Chan attempted an unsuccessful crossover to Hollywood films and would have to wait fifteen years before he succeeded.  Maybe it was the singing…

Chuck Norris continued his run with Lone Wolf McQuade and Missing in Action, while Japanese martial artist Sho Kasugi became a household name with Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja. The genre was about to get another boost as two essential films emerged from the proverbial mists like ninjas: Rocky director John G Avildson made Karate Kid, the cocktail of Eastern martial arts teachings and Western underdog story was a huge mainstream phenomenon that, ironically, didn’t star a martial artist.

alt text

Jean Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport

Then came Bloodsport making a rising star of the muscles from Brussels, Jean Claude Van Damme and his jump kicking talents - Van Damme is a confessed Bruce Lee fan and the storyline was similar to Enter the Dragon, not to mention starring two of the bad guys from latter. Bloodsport caught the attention of the studios who excitedly started to invest in this genre bringing about numerous bigger budget martial arts movies, usually starring Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Segal.

The early nineties saw Van Damme and Segal dominate - four of the top ten highest grossing martial arts films of the nineties were Segal movies - but new blood was needed as muscle bound action heroes were on their way in popularity to thrillers and ‘big twist’ endings.

Unfortunately, we only briefly glimpsed Bruce Lee’s son Brandon’s martial arts talents in Showdown in Little Tokyo and Rapid Fire. Whilst The Crow was not a martial arts film, it was this picture that would have catapulted Brandon Lee into Hollywood stardom and possibly given the public the fresh new action hero it needed.

alt text

Jackie Chan in Rumble in the Bronx

Hong Kong was in its Golden Age of cinema, yet this dipped in the latter half of decade as the key players, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and director/choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, headed overseas. Hollywood welcomed Jackie Chan’s eventual breakthrough Rumble in the Bronx, leading to the huge success of Rush Hour, coupled with Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4. These represented the first successful crossover of Asian martial arts movie stars to big hit Western cinema since Bruce Lee, twenty years after Enter the Dragon.

As the nineties drew to a close, there was one last breakthrough movie in Western cinema. The Wachowski brothers cleverly using master director/choreographer Yuen Woo-ping to choreograph The Matrix’s stunning fights. This showed that Western lovers of film who grew up with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as idols were now seeking out the Asian cinema expertise for their own films. And to great effect.

Hong Kong cinema was at a low point and director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, a Chinese-Hong Kong-American-Taiwanese production, became a much needed worldwide hit. Although this featured more sword fighting and wire work than martial arts, it gave prestige to the genre in Western cinemas. Followed up by Jet Li’s Hero and The House of Flying Daggers, and Stephen Chow - another huge Bruce Lee fan - brought a comedic twist to our screens with Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle.

alt text

Kung Fu Hustle

In Western cinema, The Matrix had shown that the combination of wirework and CGI meant that a lead actor could receive only a few months of martial arts training to present action films that incorporated martial arts into their fight scenes. This can be seen in the Bourne franchise and Taken, among others. While these weren’t essentially martial arts films, the influence and passion was present. Actors such as Brad Pitt cited Bruce Lee’s influence while training for Fight Club and Tarantino’s Kill Bill was a huge homage to all that’s great in martial arts movies including Uma Thurman’s outfit which was an update on Lee’s yellow and black jumpsuit from Game of Death. He was also another director to use the legendary Yuen Woo-ping’s brilliant choreography.

One significant film that gave the martial arts film genre a good shake was Ong Bak. It saw Thailand’s Tony Jaa, another Bruce Lee fan, whose Muay Thai fighting skills and jaw dropping stunt work amazed and excited martial arts movie fans the world over. The main attraction was the cinematic return to skilled martial artists performing in front of the camera. This created a smaller surge of martial arts films including popular martial artist star Donnie Yen’s comeback in Hong Kong, leading him to star in Ip Man, the story of Bruce Lee’s famous Wing Chun teacher.


alt text

Enter caption here

In this young decade, British director Gareth Evan’s The Raid showcased the Indonesian martial arts of Pencak Silat mixed with his Western style filming, which undoubtedly we’ll see more of. As for what else we can expect, who can tell in the fickle world of martial arts cinema. Martial arts movies have taken a roller-coaster journey through the decades and although some films have become more CGI reliant, one thing is clear, today we are lucky enough to have an amazingly array of talented martial artists who are willing to demonstrate the beauty and strength of their disciplines for the cameras.

So how important was Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon? It holds a place as one of the most profitable and highest grossing – taking into account inflation - martial movie of all time. Granted there have been other successes but when you think that Enter the Dragon achieved worldwide success in 1973 and has continued to influence and inspire filmmakers and martial artists for over four decades, you begin to realise just how groundbreaking it was. If you’ve not seen it, shame on you – get it on now.


We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now