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In Bruce Lee's Action Career, One Movie Stands Above The Rest

The world of martial arts is populated by legends, but there is no martial artist more legendary than Bruce Lee. The actor's reputation as a modern superman lives on to this day. His contribution to martial arts wasn't through fighting; it was through his dedication, his philosophy, and how he popularized martial arts in film (especially in the West) that he earned respect and admiration both on and off the screen. Even if his cult of personality didn't convince audiences en masse to practice martial arts, Lee remained an influential force as a mid-century action star through his films, including "Fist of Fury" and "The Way of the Dragon," and television roles, like Kato on the 1966 show "The Green Hornet."

Despite having more than 30 credits to his name, per his IMDb profile, it still feels like Lee's career was cut short with his death — which remains shrouded in mystery, per Newsweek — at age 32 in 1973. With the possibility of more movies starring Lee taken off the table, audiences have embraced the body of work he left behind. Even though fans love all of his films, many carry their favorites in their hearts. While the adage "to each his own" is applicable here, there is only one movie of Lee's that stands out above all the rest — and it happens to be his final starring role.

Enter the Dragon comes out on top

"Enter the Dragon," Bruce Lee's final completed film released one month after his death in August 1973 (via IMDb), stands out as his magnum opus. It's the movie that defines him as a movie star. It's also a testament to his skills as an influential martial artist. The movie is his highest-rated film on Rotten Tomatoes with a 95% critic's approval rating. The Hollywood Reporter's 1973 review (republished in 2018) begins by proclaiming "Bruce Lee's last movie is the only one that gives him the star treatment he deserved," before subsequently stating the star's "charismatic presence is remarkable in 'Enter the Dragon.'" Elsewhere, the San Francisco Chronicle's 1998 review of the movie notes the movie "goes far beyond the philosophical, of course. Its best sequences, and the only real reason for seeing it again, involve Lee's phenomenal physical and emotional presence."

Lee's final film tells a revenge narrative that carries a surprising amount of emotional depth compared to many other action flicks. Its spy thriller plot focuses on Lee (played by Lee), a talented martial artist recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the seedy island compound belonging to Chinese drug lord Han (Kien Shih). The kicker here, of course, is that Lee has personal reasons for being involved. Han's men killed his sister, and Han himself was once part of the same Shaolin temple as Lee. Despite this, Lee approaches the entire mission with a stoic mind (via IMDb). THR's review labeled the character as "a strange, otherworldly presence, a man of wisdom who excels at action, who speaks of the emotional content of the fight scorning the notion of anger."

Bruce Lee's final movie wins out thanks to its action and enduring legacy

"Enter the Dragon" has, arguably, some of the most dramatic and well-shot action sequences of any Lee movie. Every fight in this film is a treat, but Lee's ability to make even simple moves seem complex is most evident in his fight against O'Hara (Bob Wall). Most of the time spent in this fight is hangtime, with each fighter only making an occasional strike after long moments of suspense. If you blink, you will miss both the action and its brutal outcome. Another reason is in its writing, with some amazing dialogue penned by Lee (as an uncredited screenwriter) and Michael Allin.

The third and final reason "Enter the Dragon" is Lee's best film is due to its influential legacy, which extends beyond Lee and the fights to the noteworthy supporting cast and setting. Take, for instance, the character Williams (Jim Kelly). Based solely on his appearance, we can see the Williams blueprint in "The Boondocks," where the character Bushido Brown bears a striking similarity to the afro-sporting karate master (via YouTube). Like Williams, he participates in an underground kung fu tournament in Season 2 (via IMDb). Other popular media, such as "Mortal Kombat," adopt the secret island tournament premise seen in "Enter the Dragon" (via The Wrap).

As far as final movies go, "Enter the Dragon" is a good one, and it holds a special place in the hearts of fans and in the history of martial arts cinema. It is, in fact, one of the best kung fu movies of all time.