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Enter the Dragon (1973)

Fifty years ago, the martial arts film entered the U.S. mainstream with the success of this high-octane action thriller. Bruce Lee stars as a martial artist and intelligence agent who infiltrates a tournament on crime lord Han’s forbidden island. His goal isn’t just to win. He wants to destroy Han’s criminal empire and avenge his sister’s murder at the hands of O’Hara, one of Han’s bodyguards. His biggest success, however, was conquering the international box office, bringing in more than $400 million in grosses by 2022. That comes to over $2 billion adjusted for inflation, making this one of the most profitable films of all time and still the highest-grossing martial arts film ever made.

Impressed by the box-office returns on Lee’s earlier films, Warner Bros. hooked up with his production company, Concord, to finance the feature. In a move to make it more marketable around the world, they added American star John Saxon and African American karate champion Jim Kelly to the cast, launching Kelly’s career as a film star.

There’s no underestimating the film’s impact. It introduced espionage elements into the martial-arts genre; inspired a string of blaxploitation films; led to the development of MMA (mixed martial arts) as a sport; influenced manga, anime, and such video games as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat; and led to successful U.S. releases for many of Lee’s earlier films. The only person not to profit personally from Enter the Dragon’s success was Lee, who died of a brain edema at 32, less than a month before its U.S. premiere. In his place, a new generation of Asian action stars came to the fore, including Jackie Chan, who has a small, unbilled role here as one of the villain’s guards.

d. Robert Clouse, 103 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics