I was really excited to see this seminal martial arts film, the avowed masterpiece that cemented Bruce Lee as a legend. Even cooler, I got to see it on a big screen. And let’s just make the obvious statements first. Bruce Lee is phenomenally charismatic, a born performer and a great martial artist. When he’s on screen in this movie, the film just crackles with energy, particularly in the second half. It’s amazing to me just how much Lee communicates wordlessly in this film, but he just has this incredible visceral physicality mixed with a real intensity. His rubber-faced expressions and wordless vocalizations would be copied by countless imitators, but there’s nothing cheesy about it when Lee does it somehow. Such is the intensity and veracity of his performance that the emotion really comes across. Some of the fight scenes here, like the O’Hara fight, a lengthy battle with guards in an underground complex and the climactic face-off between Lee and the villainous Mr. Han, are just brilliant and pulse-pounding. But there’s a lot of other trivia going on here too, unfortunately. John Saxon gives a really good performance as another fighter and Shih Kien is really wonderful in the villainous role. Jim Kelly is less successful, more of a fighter than an actor, and unfortunately not given a lot of fighting to do. Saxon and Kien are responsible for the only scene without Lee that actually works, a chilling sequence of Han taking Saxon’s character on a tour of his underground lair. But Saxon pales in comparison next to Lee, unfortunately, and I could care less about these other characters’ side plots. Will Saxon fall in love with the beautiful woman he meets on the island? What of the mysterious female agent sent to the island ahead of Lee? Will the arrogant fighter from New Zealand ultimately disc – I DON’T CARE. It feels like even the film that’s considered Lee’s best isn’t quite the Lee film he deserved. Why, I wonder, couldn’t the filmmakers just build a film around Lee and his incredible talent? Why is he only a co-lead here and not just the main character? It doesn’t seem difficult to take a guy as entertaining, brilliant, charismatic and breathtaking to watch as Lee and just build a movie around him, but somehow it didn’t happen. This movie is dull and uninteresting for surprisingly long stretches, but it wants to spend a lot of time focusing on lengthy flashbacks about characters that we don’t care about or in lengthy party scenes that just fill time without accomplishing anything. It’s kind of shameful actually, a little embarrassing, to realize that Bruce Lee was never in a great martial arts movie, but it’s true. I don’t know how the film world let this happen, though I certainly think he would ultimately have gotten a movie worthy of him had he not suffered an untimely death. But still, in 1973, when this movie was made, there was no reason not to simply let him be the star he so obviously was. I wish I could exuberantly and effusively recommend this movie. I can’t. It’s worth seeing, but it’s not a great movie, certainly not the masterpiece it should have been. When Lee’s on screen, the film is brilliant and compelling; when he’s not, it’s just a frustrating reminder that great talent should never be squandered. 3 stars.
tl;dr – film is brilliant and startlingly thrilling when focused on Bruce Lee; but it spends a significant amount of time on side characters & boring filler – Lee deserved better, but this is okay. 3 stars.