“Enter the Dragon” is a Bruce Lee classic whether you like marital arts movies or not. What makes this movie so endearing is its story structure that adds to the martial arts action. Not surprisingly, this movie can be divided into eight distinct sections (corresponding to eight 15-minute sections in a 120-minute movie).
Watch any classic film and you can see the story structure at work. In “Enter the Dragon,” you can clearly see how each of the eight sections constitutes a mini-movie in itself.
Part 1: We’re introduced to Bruce Lee as a skilled fighter and learn a little of the philosophy behind the martial arts. Then we meet a man who wants Bruce Lee to infiltrate a martial arts tournament run by an organized criminal mastermind. Part I guides us from meeting Bruce Lee, setting up the problem, giving our hero a compelling reason to pursue the goal (in this case it’s a flashback about Bruce Lee’s sister who committed suicide rather than allow herself to be captured by one of the evil mastermind’s henchmen), and finally conclude with a plan of action where Bruce Lee prepares to head towards the tournament.
Part I of the story plants two setups for the future. First, Bruce Lee will get help from a female spy who has been sent there earlier. Second, Bruce Lee learns how his sister died and has a reason to seek revenge against the henchman responsible for causing her death.
Part 2: As Bruce Lee heads on a boat to the tournament, we’re introduced to our other heroes, Roper and Williams. Told in flashback, we learn about these two other heroes with sympathy. Roper is a skilled fighter and gambler who is in debt to the Mob. Williams is a skilled black fighter who was harassed by the police. Both of these characters gain our sympathy from the start so we’ll root for them as the heroes.
Once on the boat, we see another setup as Roper is a gambler, betting on fighting insects. We also see one bad guy, an obnoxious fighter who bullies others. When he confronts Bruce Lee, we learn about Bruce Lee’s philosophy of fighting without fighting when he tricks this bully into a boat and casts him off to the sea, trailing behind the boat while everyone laughs. This segment ends when the fighters arrive on the island.
Part 3: Everything appears to be going well as the fighters are wined and dined. We get to meet the villain face to face to size him up. Then we get another setup when Roper confides to Williams that he fears they’re being fattened up for the kill.
Later that night, each fighter is given a choice of girls to spend the night with. Bruce Lee picks the female spy, who tells him what’s going on on the island.
Part 4: The tournament begins and we see the bully from the boat fighting once again. Of course he loses, but he’s necessary because we need a villain to cheer against in this part of the movie and it’s still too early to directly attack the real bad guys yet.
Here we learn that Roper is still a gambling man ho fakes incompetence to boost his odds. When he gets the odds he wants, he unveils his true skill and defeats his opponent. This reveals both Roper’s character and his friendship with Williams, who helped plan the betting.
Bruce Lee gets to fight the henchman who killed his sister. Here we see Bruce Lee’s skill and get the satisfaction of seeing the henchman get killed by Bruce Lee when he tries to attack him with broken bottles.
The tournament concludes and we see that Bruce Lee, Roper, and Williams are indeed some of the best fighters in the group. At this point, we reach the midpoint or False Victory. Bruce Lee has achieved his goal of getting to the island and into the tournament, but that still doesn’t solve his real problem of dealing with the bad guys.
Part 5: That night after the tournament, Bruce Lee decides to sneak out and explore the island. He takes out several guards and explores the island before heading back to his room as he achieved part of his goal of finding out what’s going on, but he still needs more evidence. In the second half of Act II, things are starting to fall apart. In this part, the evil mastermind has discovered that someone has been snooping around his island and he uses his other bodyguard, Bolo, to ruthlessly kill the incompetent guards. This ups the suspense because we know someone will have to fight Bolo, who has proved he’s extremely tough.
The evil mastermind confronts Williams and accuses him of sneaking around the island. The evil mastermind fights Williams and gets the upper hand when a bird flies in William’s face, distracting him long enough for the evil mastermind to start pummeling Williams and finally defeating him.
Part 6: The evil mastermind invites Roper to view his operation and reveals the purpose of the tournament, which is to find the best fighters to work for him in his drug smuggling and sex slave trade. Here we learn about Roper’s good side when he refuses to let a cat be cut in half and then give him additional motivation when he sees the body of his friend Williams dumped in a vat of water.
Once more Bruce Lee sneaks out of his room and reaches the radio to send a signal for help. Unfortunately, now he’s discovered and he has to fight numerous opponents to escape. Eventually he’s caught and held prisoner. The end of Act II is always at a low point for the heroes. Bruce Lee is captured, Williams is dead, and Roper is given a choice of joining a corrupt criminal organization that killed his friend.
Part 7: Roper is given a choice of fighting Bruce Lee. However, he turns down this request, showing he’s still a good guy after all. Instead, he must fight Bolo, the other skilled fighter. At first, Roper is losing, but he manages to break away and start beating Bolo up, eventually winning. The evil mastermind then orders his men to attack Roper and Bruce Lee, who fight to stay alive.
Part 8: The female spy frees the prisoners on the island, who then rush into the tournament area, battling the bad guys. This gives Bruce Lee a chance to hunt down and confront the evil mastermind, finally defeating him.
Each part of the story plants setups that pay off in later parts of the story. Each part of the story also represents a mini-story in itself and leaves with a cliff-hanger, making you want to know what happens next. All parts of the story work together towards the final confrontation between the heroes and the bad guys.
Although “Enter the Dragon” is an old martial arts film, it’s still follows the classic story structure that makes for an interesting movie. The martial arts action is just a bonus to the story. Without the strong story structure, all the best martial arts action in the world would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the hero’s goal. Once we have a clear understanding of the hero’s goals, then the martial arts action simply enhances the story.
In today’s movies, there’s a preponderance of special effects. When those special effects support a story (“Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings”,”Terminator,” etc.) then the story becomes much stronger. When special effects are meant to substitute for story structure (“Clash of the Titans,” “The Last Airbender,” etc.) then you’re still left with an unsatisfying story.
The secret is simply to create a compelling story first, which forms the foundation of every movie.