Before watching the movie:
This is lauded as possibly the best martial arts movie of all time, but I’m looking for something about the story to interest me and it seems like the barest excuse plot. British Intelligence goes to a martial arts instructor and points him at a crime lord. Oh, I guess there’s a tournament he’s going undercover in to get close to the bad guy. That’s a bit better than them just saying “go fetch”, but it’s still a pretty thin plot.
I would say the fights need to be exceptionally good to make up for the sketchy plot, but of course they are. That’s what everyone already cared about with this movie. I feel like I’m being weird for asking it to also have a story.
After watching the movie:
Lee practices and teaches martial arts at a Shaolin temple in Hong Kong, where he’s considered at just about the pinnacle of pure fighting without the crutch of relying on “styles”. Though he doesn’t believe in applying his skill to petty tournaments, Braithwaite, a British Intelligence officer comes to him asking him to accept an invitation he received to a tournament on the private island of a wealthy man named Han, who studied martial arts at Lee’s temple but perverted his skill in the pursuit of wealth and power. Lee’s father also reveals to him that O’Hara, Han’s bodyguard, was the leader of a gang of bullies that Lee’s sister killed herself to escape. British Intelligence wants Lee to infiltrate Han’s compound and find evidence they can bring to the authorities to prove that Han is involved in drugs and slave trading. Additionally, two Americans are in the tournament: Roper, a gambler in heavy debt, and his Vietnam buddy Williams.
The summaries I saw do this movie a disservice. There’s a very high amount of texture to this story, and it plays a little like a James Bond movie (Han even looks a little like Timothy Dalton now that he’s aged into playing a lot of corrupt antagonists), though Han’s operation is more realistic and depraved than some cartoon world domination plot. Some of the details don’t pay off as strongly as I expected, but they still add unexpected depth. It looks from the outside that the movie was put together a little cynically (the reason the two supplemental heroes are a white guy and a black guy are because the producers wanted to maximize marketability), but that cynicism doesn’t seem to penetrate the actual tone of the movie.
This is the first time I’ve watched a Bruce Lee movie and I always thought that people doing parody martial arts or spoofing Bruce Lee, they were exaggerating the whoops, but he really does scream like that during most fights. I don’t really understand it, but it doesn’t really detract from the fighting on display. I’m not really competent to appraise Kung Fu choreography, but it’s exciting and conveys story beats well.
This movie is deservedly legendary and undeservedly limply recommended. There’s plenty of meat on the plot beyond just “watch Bruce Lee flatten goons for two hours” and it plays more sincerely than a lot of other action movies I’ve seen. This is possibly the perfect Kung Fu movie, at least for Western audiences.