A review three months in the making!
I had received and was halfway through reviewing Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection when word came from distributor Shout! Factory that the set had been recalled, that the release had been delayed until mid-October, and to stop working on my review until further notice. This week a new, identical-looking set arrived, and I began anew, midway through Way of the Dragon (1972).
The delay was prompted by scathingly bad word-of-mouth about the transfers, which some accused of being nothing more than upscaled standard-def jobs of unpardonably putrid quality. These complaints took me (and probably Shout! Factory, too) by surprise. While the films didn't exactly resemble, say, Lawrence of Arabia, neither did they look upscaled to me, though they weren't nearly as sharp or richly colored as the best-looking transfers I've seen of early ‘70s era scope movies emanating from Asia. Further, I own earlier and supposedly superior Japanese Blu-rays of Way of the Dragon and Game of Death, and saw parts of the other two films when they ran on NHK-BS's movie program. Again, little if any difference between those transfers and Shout! initial or corrected sets.
My area of expertise is in Japanese, not Hong Kong cinema, but it seems quite likely to me that original distributor Golden Harvest was unprepared for the worldwide success of these films when they were new, and never could have predicted their continued international following 40 years later. For instance it's my understanding that, for a time, in Japan print runs of Japanese movies were so low that as few as 20-30 35mm theatrical prints were struck, so, they did so off the original negative, a chancy method of printing not done in America since the silent era. Was that then the practice in Hong Kong? Could be.
The "fixed" transfers have variously been reported to be all-new video transfers or maybe the old ones tweaked slightly to bring better color out of the faded existing elements. Again, I couldn't see a huge difference, just a slight improvement. Given the circumstances of how these movies were likely stored and cared for all those years, I'm willing to give these transfers considerable leeway.
Among the extra features is an original Japanese trailer for Fist of Fury, and it looks slighter sharper and a lot cleaner than the movie as featured on Blu-ray. Similarly, a Japanese print of Game of Death, included as an extra and presented in high-def but so obscurely tucked away among the supplements that I didn't notice it until after watching the "official" transfer, also looks better overall, though others may be bothered by its burned-in Japanese subtitles. These, I'm sure, are closer to how audiences experienced these movies back in the 1970s but the difference isn't huge. Could they look better than they do? Probably. But even with unlimited resources, I'm dubious they could ever reach the visual heights we all wish were possible.
Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection is a dizzying jumble discs primarily consisting of four of the five starring feature films Bruce Lee made in Hong Kong prior to his untimely death on July 20, 1973, just six days before the premiere of Enter the Dragon, the international production that would cement his already exploding international following. (As rights to Enter the Dragon are controlled by Warner Bros., it's also the one starring film not included here.)
This set offers The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon (both 1972), and Game of Death, the latter film having been started in 1972-73 but put on hold when the offer to make Enter the Dragon came along. Game of Death was subsequently reworked after Lee's death and finally released in 1978. All four are on Blu-ray utilizing these at least tweaked video masters, along with standard-def DVD copies.
Also included are three feature-length documentaries in standard-def DVD format. (These were apparently mislabeled on the initial pressing, but corrected here.) Scorecard: four Blu-ray discs and seven DVDs. The set is attractively but imperfectly packaged in a thick, horizontal hardcover case that includes a full-color 64-page book. It's clearly modeled after MGM/Fox's (James) Bond 50 Blu-ray set.
Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco's Chinatown but moved to Kowloon with his Hong Kong parents and there appeared in twenty films as a child actor. He moved back to the states at 18 and eventually alternated between teaching martial arts, often to celebrities like James Coburn, Lee Marvin, Roman Polanski, and Chuck Norris, and his own movie and TV roles, most famously as Kato on the Batman-inspired The Green Hornet. Lee tried to establish himself as a serious actor and filmmaker, even collaborating with Coburn and writer Stirling Silliphant on an ambitious screenplay called The Silent Flute, and reportedly pitched the series that, without Lee, eventually became Kung Fu with David Carradine in the role Lee hoped to play himself.
Producer Fred Weintraub wisely advised the disgruntled Lee to return to Hong Kong to establish himself as a star there first. As it turned out, Lee was already a celebrity there, The Green Hornet having been a big success.
The One Set in Thailand with the Drugs Smuggled in Blocks of Ice
Lee's first leading role was in the film now officially called The Big Boss. Originally the movie, with its subplot of drug smuggling, was to be exported abroad under the title The Chinese Connection, to cash in on the success of William Friedkin's The French Connection. However, somewhere along the way the titles for this and Fist of Fury got mixed up, and for years this was variously known under all of these titles.
The Big Boss is set in Thailand, where mainland Chinese man Cheng (Bruce Lee) joins his uncle and a throng of various relatives working at an ice factory. The simple plot has drug smuggler Hsiao Mi (Yin-chieh Han) ordering the murder of various Cheng relatives when they either refuse to cooperate with the illegal operation or merely witness something they shouldn't. Cheng is eventually appointed foreman, wined, dined, and thrown into the arms of a local prostitute, and it's not until Cheng's entire clan is bumped off before he takes matters into his own powerful hands.
Reportedly the movie was intended primarily as a vehicle for Lee's co-star, James Tien, but he disappears after the first half-hour, so unless they switched parts that seems unlikely. What is interesting is that Lee's familiar screen persona, such as it was limited to just five starring movies, wasn't quite yet crystalized. In The Big Boss Cheng is written as something of a country hick, the kind of part often played by Jackie Chan early in his starring career. Lee's character is naive and goes along with the drug smugglers' endless stalling for almost the entire movie, even as family members get bumped off two-by-two.
Lee, intriguingly, clearly resists playing him that way, and apparently he argued quite a bit with veteran director Lo Wei through Lee's first two pictures, which contain some genre clichés Lee desperately wanted to avoid. As a result, Lee doesn't really get to play character he was aiming toward until the next film, Fist of Fury.
Nonetheless, The Big Boss is a startling movie. I'd seen it several times before but don't recall ever watching it with this much graphic violence intact. It may not be the best showcase for Lee but it is, no doubt, the bloodiest. Partly this is to compensate for the picture's obvious cheapness, for example the Thai mausoleum standing in for the ringleader's palatial mansion. I also wonder to what extent, if at all, Western audiences even understood the basic set-up of Chinese migrant workers exploited in what to them was as foreign country as Hong Kong is to most Americans.
The authenticity of the set-up is further supported by the use of existing locations, contrasting the obvious soundstage exteriors of Fist of Fury, including a real brothel for several scenes, populated by bona fide ladies of the night as extras.
In addition to confusion over the film's title, The Big Boss has endured an equally long list of alternate versions, most of which are covered on this Blu-ray disc. Not counting at least one recent, unauthorized version (which pilfers modern movie music, among other things), there are three completely different musical scores supporting multiple versions in multiple languages. Included here are the original Mandarin and English-dubbed versions, scored by Wang Fu-ling, another English version scored by Peter Thomas, which features more realistic accents. (The older English track is thick with obviously Australians and Brits, of the type common to Shaw Bros. and Toho films of the 1970s.) (Movie rating: *** out of *****)
The One with Battling Chinese and Japanese Martial Arts Schools
Lee's second starring role, in the movie that, because of that mistake, used to be known as The Chinese Connection but now officially called Fist of Fury, is more emphatically Bruce Lee's film from start-to-finish, with a big martial arts set piece early on and other signature elements introduced here for the first time, such as Lee's expert use of nunchaku*, in scenes so influential they inspired a generation of self-inflicted cracked skulls by clumsy teenaged boys around the world.
The movie, again directed by Lo Wei, starkly contrasts The Big Boss. Where that film was shot on location with about 80% of it using real exteriors, Fist of Fury was filmed almost entirely on soundstage sets, including exterior sets as amazing lifelike as those found on Sesame Street. In one low angle shot of Lee looking up to a building's second floor, the rafters of the soundstage are clearly visible.
The movie is set in Shanghai in 1910. Like the Chinese migrant workers in Thailand angle of The Big Boss, this is lost on some audiences unfamiliar with Asia, partly due to Lo Wei's incredible sloppiness. In one of the few real exterior scenes, in front of a city park, modern, 1970s automobiles are plainly visible, while Western extras wearing singularly seventies fashions casually stroll past the camera. In other scenes one of the supporting characters can be spotted wearing a modern gold wristwatch.
Where Lee had played a young man holding it all in until the end of The Big Boss, in Fist of Fury he plays a man completely unable to control his emotions, despite his expertise in the martial arts. The film opens with Chen Zhen (Lee) returning to the Jingwu School to marry fiancée Yuan Li'er (cute-as-a-button Nora Miao, who had a small role at the beginning of The Big Boss) only to discover the entire school is about to bury their beloved master, Huo Yuanija, a real-life historical figure scholars believe may have been poisoned with arsenic.
Chen is overcome with grief, throwing himself upon his master's coffin, already in its muddy grave.
Rivals from a Japanese dojo appear, mercilessly taunting the mourners. Chen repays them with an unauthorized visit to the school, where he takes on all comers, beating everyone to pulp. Later he's denied entry into that city park "No Chinese and Dogs Allowed" (What if they left their dogs outside?). Passing Japanese offer to let him in Chen pretends to be a dog. Instead, Chen destroys the sign with a flying kick.
Most of the plot revolves around the serial-style retaliations by the Japanese school, headed by Hiroshi Suzuki (Riki Hashimoto, the actor inside the Majin costume for Daiei's 1966 film trilogy) aided in several scenes by Petrov (Robert Baker), a visiting Russian, and the somewhat baffled Jingwu School trying to make sense of things while Chen, often wearing Maxwell Smart-type disguises, wreaking vengeance on his lonesome.
Though set in 1910 Shanghai the movie deliberately evokes the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during 1941-45, still fresh in the minds of many Hong Kong people barely 30 years later. The Japanese are not merely convenient movie villains, but ruthless occupiers, to a one monstrous, and who treat the Chinese as subhuman animals. This is offset somewhat by the character of Wu En (Paul Wei, the first of two amusing performances in a Bruce Lee film), the dojo's spineless Chinese collaborator. But the film exploits Chinese-Japanese tensions still burning hot in 2013 though, contradictorily, nowhere was Fist of Fury a bigger hit than in Japan itself. (And this despite perhaps the most ludicrous depiction of Japanese geisha in film history. Here a chubby, phony imitation looks more like a stripper at Minsky's Burlesque.)
The film offers several outstanding fight scenes, with many famous stunt players, including a young Jackie Chan, doubling others. But the Chen character is one-note, like the vengeful hero of a spaghetti Western (which Joseph Koo's score reminds one of): Chen is hysterical at the opening, methodical but deadly during the middle section, and an out-of-control killer by the end. (The Fist of Fury title is an apt one.) (****)
The One Where Bruce Lee Battles a Hairy Chuck Norris at the Roman Colosseum
Way of the Dragon, first released in the U.S. as Return of the Dragon in order to cash in on the success of Enter the Dragon, was directed by Bruce Lee himself and partly filmed on location in Rome. Some describe it as a martial arts action comedy, but while there's certainly a lot of humor in the film, the death count in its final reel rivals The Big Boss.
As with that film, Lee plays a country bumpkin, here called Tang Lung, sent abroad to help his family. His Uncle Wang (Wang Chung-Hsin) and various cousins operate a Chinese restaurant in Rome threatened by the local mafia. Tang's cousins are at first dubious about his ability to help until he dazzles them with his fighting skills, effortlessly beating the racially diverse group of thugs (including one black and a white guy who looks like Wolfman Jack) to jelly.
At the suggestion of the consigliere's outrageously gay Chinese interpreter Ho (Paul Wei Ping-ao again, here looking like a Chinese Charles Hawtrey), the gangster boss ups the ante, hiring three foreign martial artists. Tang easily defeats the unnamed Japanese fighter (Ing-Sik Whang) and martial artist Bob (Robert Wall), but even Tang is intimidated by master fighter Colt (Chuck Norris), with whom he appropriately rendezvous at Rome's famous Colosseum.
Most of the humor is confined to the film's opening scenes, filmed on location, with Tang utterly bemused by the activity at Fiumicino Airport, at sea trying to order lunch at a Western-style restaurant, etc. Most of the film, including nearly all of the Colosseum climax, was actually filmed in Hong Kong, but there's enough location work in the film to keep things interesting. At one point Tang and love interest Chen Ching-hua (Nora Miao again) visit the Piazza del Popolo, though once again Lee's character is depicted as something of a philistine, bored by the incredibly beautiful if Western world sights and preferring to sit in his hotel room eating Chinese noodles. "Hong Kong is better," he says repeatedly.
Some of the location scenes are clumsily shot, with several shots totally out of focus. The 5.1 mix of the sound effects compensate somewhat. At the airport, there's much impressive directionality though it like the rest of the film goes overboard, making the bustling airport as noisy as the deck of the USS Enterprise. During the fight scenes, Tang's nunchaku sound like whirling helicopter blades and, in the film's most outrageous/ingenious sound effect, Tang prepares for battle by stretching his muscles, which making hilarious noises like cracked knuckles.
The fights are marvelous, particularly the climax with an incredibly hairy Chuck Norris, filmed back in the day when shoulder hair was, apparently, considered virile, or something. The plot of the movie is both overly simple and, in the end, offers a twist near the end that doesn't make a lot of sense, but who cares? Way of the Dragon more than delivers the goods. (**** 1/2)
The One Where Bruce Lee Battles An Impossibly Huge Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Game of Death began as a movie Lee intended as a showcase of various martial arts techniques, particularly his own Jeet Kune Do. A huge amount of footage was shot prior to Enter the Dragon's start-up, reportedly 100 minutes worth. Bizarrely, when distributor Golden Harvest rebooted the film after Lee's death, precious little of this material ended up in Game of Death, though other bits would turn up in other faux-Bruce Lee movies released after 1973. Of the 100 minutes shot for Lee's version, a mere 11 minutes and 7 seconds was used.
Instead, Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse attempted to fashion a completely new film with a clear eye on the international market, something more akin to Enter the Dragon, loading it down with Hollywood actors while commissioning a musical score by James Bond veteran John Barry. On its own terms, Game of Death is quite entertaining. Some of the new material having nothing whatsoever to do with Lee is fun, scenes featuring actors and stuntmen pretending to be Bruce Lee range from clever to hilariously awful, and when the real Bruce Lee pops about an hour and 12 minutes into the film, his appearance is both startling and his three big fight scenes are spectacularly good. The movie doesn't serve Lee's original intentions well at all, but attempts to recover and sort through as much of that material as possible is laid bare in the Blu-ray set's various supplements, so in one sense the viewer now has the opportunity to see several different edits of this same raw material.
Game of Death is about a Bruce Lee-like movie star named Billy Lo. The picture opens with Bruce Lee's fight with Chuck Norris from Way of the Dragon, presented here as the climax of Billy's latest film, shot on a Hong Kong soundstage. (Norris is prominently billed in the credits, but appears only in stock footage from Way of the Dragon.)
The film is based on the premise of racketeers controlling Hong Kong's entertainment industry, and their attempts to threaten both Billy and his pop singer fiancée, Ann Morris (Colleen Camp) into singing onto their syndicate. This might seem far-fetched to western-world viewers, but in much of Asia (including here in Japan) there have always existed unsavory ties between gangsters and high-profile entertainment figures, and gangsters have frequently destroyed the careers of their enemies.
The bad guys are led by Dr. Land (Dean Jagger, cast against type) with Steiner (Hugh O'Brian) acting as his main henchman. Billy and Ann, meanwhile, have an ally in world-weary newspaperman Jim Marshall (Gig Young). Young was severely alcoholic by this time, and died in a booze-driven murder-suicide months after Game of Death was released. He looks soaked throughout, disheveled and noticeably slurring his speech at times, yet his basic humanity is the best thing about the new scenes.
For most of the picture, Yuen Biao and Tai Chung Kim, neither of who particularly resembled the late actor, alternately double Lee. Director Clouse keeps these doubles in the shadows, positions the camera favoring the back of Billy's head, or hides his face beneath various disguises, but it's always patently obvious when a "Leemitation" (as genre expert Bey Logan calls them) is used. Occasionally there are awkward cutaways to a tight close-up of the real Lee, using stock from one of the three earlier Golden Harvest films. When Billy fakes his own death, footage from Lee's real funeral is shown, including a brief shot of the real but dead Bruce Lee in his open casket. Other imitation Bruce Lee movies (including Game of Death II) use even more of this distasteful footage. Perhaps most notorious is a brief shot of what most reviewers describe as a cardboard cutout of Lee pasted onto a mirror's surface, with Lee's double filling out the rest of the body. That may be what it is, but to my eyes it looks more like a crude, stationary matte of Lee's face. Regardless, it's singularly unreal.
The pay-off, of course, is Lee ascension of the Tower of Death, three upper floors that match Jagger's Chinese restaurant (in new footage) not at all. Lee's fight with Dan Inosato (karate) and Han-Jae Ji (nunchaku) on the first two levels (intended as the third and fourth levels in Lee's version) are impressive enough, but it's Lee's inspired match with the seven-feet, two-inch Abdul-Jabbar that really wows. His spider-like limbs and Alien-like movements sharply contrast Lee, who resembles a 10-year-old boy next to the NBA legend. All three fights make the earlier tussles using double seem amateurish by comparison, and none of the stand-in scenes are really filmed in Lee's fighting style to begin with. Bizarrely, the movie doesn't quite climax with this visually sensational trifecta but rather ends with Lee's doubles fighting O'Brian's and Jagger's characters. (***)
Video & Audio
The video transfers of all four films are serviceable but not great for reasons described in much more detail above. The new or tweaked transfers seem to have very slightly better color, but the difference is almost imperceptible to the naked eye. The one exception is the aforementioned case of Game of Death, which as an extra includes a second version of the film in high-def, utilizing a much superior Japanese 35mm theatrical print. That version has burned-in Japanese subtitles, but that's the version I'll be watching from now on.
The first three movies typically include myriad audio and subtitle options, though foolishly on Shout!'s part none of these options are listed anywhere on the packaging where they'd be most useful, nor are the advantages and disadvantages of these options explained. (I searched the Internet before choosing which audio track to listen to.) The Big Boss, for instance, includes what's billed as a second "Rare Original English Dub Never Heard Before." Okay, but how does it differ from the 5.1 and 2.0 mono mixes? The music underscoring The Big Boss, is completely different depending upon which language one chooses, while most of the others feature different sound effects mixes while in still others Bruce Lee's own voice and/or fighting sounds can be heard while on other tracks he's dubbed by others.
In any case the first three films typically include two Mandarin tracks and two English tracks, each offered in their original mono and remixed for DTS-HD 5.1 audio. A Cantonese track is also offered. Fist of Fury has an additional 5.1 Cantonese mix, but apparently the mono Mandarin option was inadvertently replaced with a duplicate Cantonese track for the "corrected" edition. The Way of the Dragon also includes a 5.1 Cantonese mix, as well as an English mono mix heard only in Japan. Apparently that release includes Lee's original grunts and groans which the standard English dub does not, though again, none of this explained anywhere on the packaging or menu screens.
English audio for The Game of Death's Japanese release is also included, along with DTS-HD Master Audio in 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, as well as Dolby Digital 1.0, but as the Hong Kong cut was severely edited, no Cantonese (or Mandarin, for that matter) audio is included.
Finally, the mono English track on Fist of Fury simply vanished for a time near the climax though the 5.1 mix remained intact on the initial pressing. Whether that was completely corrected for the new edition I'm not sure.
Each film is loaded down with innumerable supplements, though like the audio choices the material is described nowhere on the packaging and their menu screen descriptions are often woefully inapt. Each film contains a still gallery, scads of trailers and TV spots, typically for their Hong Kong, U.S., and Japanese releases, and most contain alternate title sequences reflecting title changes and titles created for various territories. The films also include audio commentaries by Hong Kong cinema scholar Mike Leeder, who knows his stuff but either was rushed to prepare these or simply didn't bother to organize his comments as well as he might have. The audio quality of these commentary tracks is also quite poor.
Beyond that, here's a rundown of additional extras particular to each title, much of which is ported over from earlier UK and Hong Kong DVD releases:
The Big Boss: "Return to Pak Chong: The Big Boss Revisited," "Bruce Lee: The Early Years," "Interview with Tung Wai," "Rare Scene Extensions," "Bruce Lee vs. Peter Thomas."
Fist of Fury: "Remembering Fist of Fury," "Interview with Yuen Wah."
Way of the Dragon: "Celebrity Interviews," "Kung Fu? Jon Breen Remembers Shooting of the Film."
Game of Death: Outtake Montage, Bloopers, Deleted Scenes, "Game of Death Revisited" (this is a 39-minute edit of Lee's original footage, not a retrospective), "Game of Death Locations," Game of Death (complete Japanese theatrical version in high-def).
In addition to the standard DVD copies of all four films, the set includes three bonus DVDs. The first features Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend (1973), an alternately interesting and unsavory film made in the wake of Lee's death. Bruce Lee: The Legend (1977) goes to the well once again, this time utilizing some good footage from Lee's career as a child actor.
Disc Two is headlined by I Am Bruce Lee (2012), previously released to Blu-ray but in standard-def here, and mostly a talking heads piece. It includes various bonus features related to the film. Disc Three is a final dumping ground of more miscellanies, close to five hours worth (!). Included is "Game of Death Revised: Bob Wall Talks About His Experiences on Game of Death," "Way of the Dragon: Bob Wall Talks About His Movie Debut," "Master of the Game with Dan Inosato," "Legacy of the Dragon," "The Grandmaster and the Dragon: William Cheung and Bruce Lee," "Return of the Dragon in 60 Seconds," "Bruce Lee Remembered," and "Fist of Fury Interviews." Whew.
For hardcore Bruce Lee/Hong Kong action film fans, Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection offers a mountain of supplemental material supporting four of the five (legitimate) films to have starred Bruce Lee, presented here with adequate video transfers and myriad if confusing audio options. Though muddled and imperfect, it's a Herculean attempt at collating everything Bruce Lee not controlled by other parties, and in spite of pressing problems and other annoyances, it's still a great set and a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
* Usually mistakenly called "numchucks" in English, this martial arts weapon originates in Japan, specifically Okinawa, adding to the irony of Lee's character using it against the Japanese.
Kyoto-based film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.