I’ve seen bits of this before but never sat through it and properly watched it, and it was something of a revelation. Yes, it’s dated, sexist and formulaic with some of its plot points having become dreadfully cliched, even if they might not have been at the time, and Bruce Lee squawks like a chicken; but the action is terrific and the plot is quite tight and makes more sense than many an action-thriller does today.
Bruce Lee’s hero (also called Lee) is recruited from his Shaolin temple to investigate a brutal drug smuggler who runs his business from his own private fiefdom, an island from which he runs a martial arts competition each year. The drug smuggler, Han (Shih Kien), is an alumnus from Lee’s temple, an embarrassment to them since he has taken their fighting skills but none of their ethical instruction, and he is also responsible for the death of Lee’s sister, giving Lee and his masters sufficient cause for them to get involved in the “worldly” affairs of police business. In addition, Lee is an ideal candidate to investigate because he is a viable candidate for the martial arts competition and so can travel undercover.
Parallel to Lee’s story, we also follow two other candidates for the competition, Williams and Roper (Jim Kelly and John Saxon), friends from Vietnam with contrasting post-war experiences; Williams has maintained his integrity in the face of the racist establishment while Roper is in hoc to gamblers and needs the prize money from Han’s competition if he is to pay off gangsters to whom he owes money. Both characters are going to get drawn in to Lee’s mission.
The action is nicely paced and, whilst still fantastical, more humanly possible, more tangible and more brutal than we’ve come to see over the subsequent decades. Just as a historical marker of martial arts action films, this film is an interesting watch but it’s also a pleasingly entertaining watch for its own sake.