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Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits
I seem to remember before the time of the great pandemic where there was a minor swell of nostalgia around Bruce Lee in 2020, and even after watching Criterion's set devoted to his filmography, I still was not sure why, until I googled and lo and behold, Lee would have turned 80 this year. The guy who wore a mask and played Kato in shows like Batman and The Green Hornet had a kinetic sort of charisma that dazzled on screen and found himself light years ahead of those he worked with, and ultimately his dreams of Hollywood success would have to be placed on hold until he went to Asia and conquered Hong Kong cinema first, before tragedy struck just before his American success was to be realized.
Unbeknownst to Lee, his work on The Green Hornet was well-received in Hong Kong, and it was suggested that he go there to help show his viability to American audiences. Thus begat The Big Boss, where Lee played Cheng, a Chinese man who moved to Thailand and live with his adopted family, and at the ice factory where he worked, he learns that it is used for drug smuggling. Following the killings of two of his cousins, Cheng's resistance to fighting (a promise he made to his family in China) is put to the test as his Thai family is bullied by the crime boss Hsiao, and eventually Cheng and Hsiao meet for a fight for revenge and/or victory.
Not being sure how many people are well-versed in Lee's non Enter the Dragon work I had no idea what to expect in The Big Boss other than whatever Saturday afternoon prototypical kung-fu film broke out, but Lee's agility and versatility when he is not fighting is quite the surprise. There is some Chaplin or some Lewis to some of the lighter scenes in the film that make it fascinating, and his martial arts work had to feel like a revelation to audiences back in the day.
Lee, producer Raymond Chow and director Lo Wei would reunite for Fist of Fury, which has Lee as Chen, a Chinese martial artist returning to his school and learning about the death of his teacher. He endures verbal and physical taunts by the Japanese, along with a good amount of discrimination, until Chen eventually confronts the master of the Japanese dojo.
Like The Big Boss, there is a reluctance to go for an easy win for the protagonist, that he has some regret on his actions, but manages to go out with the morally right thing for each character to do. Whether it's turning himself in to authorities or leaping at the line of Japanese police in defiance, these are things that only these characters would do, and Lee emotes them nicely (and even more comic touch in Fist.)
This brings us to The Way of the Dragon, which Lee wrote, directed and produced (along with starred), and perhaps is the purest film he was able to make. Lee is Tang, a Hong Kong martial artist who goes to Rome at the request of a family member to help them with their restaurant, which is being extorted by a local crime boss. Tang trains the restaurant staff is his type of fighting which is met with initial resistance, but once results are shown with it, the staff turns away the henchmen. The crime boss (Uncle Wang) eventually brings in several world-class martial artists to try and kill Tang. This is the one where a young, mutton chopped, startingly hairy Chuck Norris Code of Silence fights Lee in the Colosseum.
The early moments of Lee in Rome make for their own comic moments again, but there is a more noticeable sense of comfort Lee has in what he's doing. It's this confidence that Lee uses in other things that he is comfortable with, like the scenes with Norris and Bob Wall (who we see a few times over Lee films) where there is trust in what the other is doing and allowing to be done that highlights their talents. But there is also the sense of message when it comes to fighting styles that Lee's purposing of many things into his own and its communication to the restaurant staff serve as a platform for him, and when it comes to Bruce Lee, martial artist, The Way of the Dragon should serve as much as a legacy for him as his last completed film.
Enter the Dragon is next in Criterion's set, aka the one that was Lee's North American feature debut, which Chow produced and Robert Clouse (Gymkata) directed. Lee plays Lee, a Hong Kong martial arts instructor who is approached to infiltrate a private island owned by a crime lord named Han, as Han has an exclusive martial arts competition occurring on the island. Along with Roper (John Saxon, Nightmare on Elm Street) and Williams (Jim Kelly), Lee tries to not only find out more about Han's operation, but avenge the death of his sister.
Enter the Dragon on its own is good, but when you see the prior works of an aspiring, hungry Bruce Lee, it feels like a starring vehicle. For sure, the scenes where Lee fights O'Hara (Wall) really show off his fighting ability, along with his third act nunchuck using on the prison guards. But it lacks an emotional depth that Lee's other characters had had to that point, which is too bad. It is a minor nit, because the fighting stuff in Enter is certainly the most polished looking of Lee's work to that point. It is that point where Lee's work would essentially cease to be. Of note, there are two versions of Enter; the first version is the 99-minute cut, and the second (on the last disc in the set) is the 102-minute one.
But wait! Before Enter was filming, Lee's work on shooting Game of Death was underway. He halted it but as we know was unable to resume it. Using the film that was available, Lee (and several stand-ins) is Billy, a martial arts star that is trying to head away a crime syndicate who wants to use him for various endeavors. An attempt on Billy's life is made and he needs surgery for the wound, but also decides now's a good time to fake his death! So, using footage from Lee's funeral as part of the story, Billy goes after Steiner (Hugh O'Brian, The Shootist) and Dr. Land (Dean Jagger, Twelve O'Clock High), while trying to keep his fiancée Ann (Colleen Camp, Police Academy) away from their clutches. There is even a co-starring role by Gig Young (They Shoot Horses Don't They?), making two Oscar winners in this.
And, well, it's not good. Sure, the Lee fight scenes in the pagoda as he gets to the top (to face Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) are good, but there is a lot of effort spent in quick cuts from past films, using cardboard cutouts over people's faces, using multiple stand-ins for fight and action sequences, and convenient camera shots, there's a Ed Wood type of feel to its disjointedness, combined with the unease of having film from the funeral in here, it is something that seems to serve as the spawn of the Brucesploitation genre, which we will get into in a bit. The second Game of Death is included on the next to last disc, and there is a little less Lee in this compared to the first, though it does use different films from his work (along with with old film of Lee when he was a teenager), and strangely feels a little more coherent than the first film.
After gorging over nearly nine hours of Bruce Lee, I have a deeper appreciation of how the stardom came to be, how the fall was tragic and deeply felt, and the numerous cracks at the cash cow are a little shameful yet oddly understandable? Given the films usually cost less than $1 million to make and made several times that, why not give it a go I guess. And after seeing Criterion handle a different Hong Kong martial arts legend and friend of Lee's recently, why not take a shot at the King I guess.The Blu-rays:
Heading to both Enter the Dragon films first, since they have 2K restorations, and each look great. Background detail is good and present nice dimensionality to the Hong Kong (and island) backdrops. Hair and beads of sweat on Lee were noticeable before and remain so now, with colors and flesh tones reproduced loyally, and both versions look pristine, with a nod to the theatrical over the extended. But you will not go wrong either way.
Then you have 4K digital restorations of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon and Game of Death. The Big Boss one gives full use of the backdrop for Hsiao's compound, with backgrounds appearing clear and stable, visible film grain and colors that look natural and not oversaturated. Black levels fluctuate a little but given the source material it is forgiven. Fist of Fury is a bit better, with more image detail and more consistent black levels, colors that look great and no smearing or artifacts that were found during viewing. Game of Death is a level below the others, as the palette is a little simpler but colors are slightly muted and the Jabbar battle sequences come off as darker than they should. Game II borrows more sources and thus is a little all over the place in terms of quality, kind of looking like a retrospective documentary, but without all the contemporary interviews to make it look better than it should. The package as a whole is very good for those that Criterion decided to spruce up.The Audio:
I watched all of the films with the Mandarin LCPM track, occasionally listening to the English dubs. That said, The Big Boss, The Way of the Dragon and Fist of Fury come with Mandarin and English LCPM mono tracks as well as a Cantonese Dolby Digital Mono Track, with Boss and Dragon getting an English Dolby Digital Mono track. Each of the tracks sound clear as can be, with little in the way of hissing or cracking noise to distract from the presentation. The dub tracks are fine, even funny more than I was expecting. Game has two English LCPM tracks (one from the Japanese master) that sound fine, ad Game II has a English Dolby Digital mono track that given the nature of whatever the film is supposed to be is worth a chuckle or two.
The theatrical release of Enter has an LCPM English mono track which sounds great, and I would imagine since the film is almost the gem of sorts for the filmography. Dialogue is clean and the music and sound effects sound fine for the one-channel, with the Special Edition having an additional 5.1 surround and DTS-HD MA lossless 5.1 track, which I checked out for a minute or two. Dynamic range was nice to have given the immersion of the prison sequences, and there was a dusting of low end to make things sound good also. I really liked listening to all of them.Extras:
If you've poured through The Legacy Collection or even Warner's 40th Anniversary release of Enter the Dragon, then a lot (not ALL) of the extras there are going to be familiar to you. So I'll move along title by title.
Disc One: The Big Boss
This is the only film to have two commentaries; Mike Leeder (whose tracks from the 2013 releases are here) provides biographical information on Lee leading up to the film and pointing out the co-stars and directors of his films, along with his arrival to Hong Kong. He covers how this film was different from other Hong Kong films, and notes some of the early signs that Lee would be a star, and includes some production anecdotes on it, and the impression it made on him. It is a good track, as is the one from Brandon Bentley (from 2016). He covers how the cast got their roles, what the locations are like now and some of the films that were inspired by this. It gets into some of the notes and themes on the film, as well as some misconceptions of it, and it serves as a nice complement to the other track. Separate but informative.
After that, "On the Big Boss" (10:30) is a series of looks at each film by Lee biographer Matthew Polly, and in this he covers Lee's Hong Kong work, his perception before he came to the country, and how he got the film deal with Golden Harvest. These tracks are largely historical but help give you a look at where Lee was at a particular point. "Bruce Lee: The Early Years" (13:52) is an interview with Lee friend Gene Lebell as he recounts meeting Bruce and thoughts about him, and working with him, what he learned from him, as well as working with Bruce's son Brandon before the latter's unfortunate death. There is some alternate footage that includes several opening credit looks (4:46), an alternate ending (:45) and extended scenes (2:23). "Bruce Lee vs. Bill Thomas" (2:28) covers the soundtrack Thomas created against the one in the final cut of the film, and notes the differences in each. Three trailers (9:01) and a TV spot (:32) are the other extras.
Disc Two: Fist of Fury
Leeder's commentary gets into the context of the Chinese and Japanese messages for the early 20th century and helps illustrate the differences between this film from other Lee films. More backstory from cast is included, and story nuances are touched upon. Jackie Chan is pointed out here too and the influence of this film on other Hong Kong films is mentioned to boot, as well as highlighting Lee's acting depth."On Fist of Fury" (10:05) hits on where the film was in Lee's career, the basis for it and its messages, and the evolution in fight styles from the first film. Two different opening titles are here, one for the Japanese version of Fist (5:28), the other for the alternately titled "The Chinese Connection" (2:01). "The First Lady" (17:54) is an interview with Nora Miao, who appeared in Lee's first three films. She recalls her work with Golden Harvest and how she got this particular part, along with her unusual way of landing a part for The Way of the Dragon. She also talks about eventually working on her own too. "Blade of Fury" (12:29) includes Riki Hashimoto (head of the Japanese dojo in the film) as he remembers working on set, his impressions of working with Lee and thoughts on his untimely death. "Master of Bushido" (12:59) sits with Jun Katsumura (who appears as a bodyguard in the film) and goes over his thoughts on working with Lee and his demise. Yuen Wah (Lee's stunt double) also shares many of the same things as the other subjects do about their time with Lee on and off set (10:23). Four trailers (17:54) follow.
Disc Three: The Way of the Dragon
Mike Leeder chats about the intent of this film for Lee, its differences from past Lee films and why Asians loved it the way they did. More biographical information about the supporting cast is shared, and how the cast was landed are touched on. Particular moments in the film by Lee are also given attention to boot. "On The Way of the Dragon" (8:35) includes Polly's thoughts on the significance of this film and the needs Lee had for control of it, and the further evolution of fighting style in this, and how it ran over budget and schedule before its release and success. "Legacy of the Dragon" (46:52) is a 2001 documentary on Lee where friends and students (even George Lazenby!) chat about Lee's rise in films and fighting style. They also share their sadness on his death, and working on things like the Game of Death and Brucesploitation films, and the luck in finding the additional footage to help flesh the first Game film out a little more. It is a good documentary to check out amongst the abundance of material here.
Two different looks at alternate opening credits (4:51) follow, along with "Bruce Lee Remembered " (7:33), which is centered more on the impact of Lee on Hong Kong actors and cinema, thoughts on him and his charisma. "Kung Fu? " (21:43) features an interview with Jon Benn, who plays the Boss, and came from the United States and acted in Hong Kong films for a couple of decades. He talks about how he got the role and thoughts on Bruce and his death, and how it worked being owner of the "Bruce Lee Café" in Hong Kong. It was not a piece I thought I'd like, but it was fascinating. Two trailers (8:35) and a radio spot (:32) conclude things.
Disc Four: Enter the Dragon (Theatrical)
In "On Enter the Dragon " (9:36), Polly gets into the film at that point and the importance of casting people from various ethnicities to help the film transcend racial barriers. Lee's fighting trademarks are spotted and discussed, as it the reception of the film. "Blood and Steel " (30:12) includes interviews from various friends about how they came to Hong Kong to work on a Bruce lee film, and discussing various story ideas as the film was shaking out, along with the difficulties of American and Chinese film crews working together. Saxon and other members of the cast recount their respective time on set, and working with Lee as an actor, fighter and stunt performer. The Paul Heller produced documentary also gets into his legacy. I recalled this piece on one of the Warner releases and liking it then, and still do. "Bruce Lee: In his own Words " (19:21) gets into his philosophies and inspirations for his martial arts style, and why it works for him. "Linda Lee Cadwell" (16:24) features insight from Lee by his widow, while "Tung Wai " (3:20) looks at working with Lee from a stunt perspective. Four trailers (9:15), Eight TV spots (5:40), a radio spot (:58) and a press kit from the time of production (7:40) are the other things here.
Disc Five: Game of Death
Leeder gets into the differences from the other films again, but also takes time to spot the bad effects and editing, and the challenges that Lee stand-ins had when it came to filming this. The funeral footage is discussed as are the influences on Asian crime for the story in this film, and the type of impact Lee would have today if still alive. "On Game of Death " (6:59) features Polly getting into the intent and history of this, and the effects of it on Brucesploitation films, and other films in general.
The notable extra here is "Game of Death Redux" (34:54), where the known shot footage we have of Lee includes new dubs, sound mix and edits. You can certainly see the potential of a good film here, and its inclusion is a good one. "Game of Death Revisited" (28:49) features Wall talking about working with Lee and Jabbar, and how Game was reimagined after Lee's death. Working in Hong Kong is recalled as well, and working with white actors in Hong Kong is hit on too. Some more alternate footage is here too, including opening credits (1:56), alternate endings (3, 3:52), deleted scenes (4, 6:55) outtakes (3:40) and bloopers (2:55), to go with some trailers (5:37).
Disc Six: Game of Death II (1:36:51)
The big extra here is "Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend " (1:26:10), a 1973 documentary about Lee's origins. But it first starts with his funeral, and the footage of Lee's widow and children being guided around in the chaos of things is eerie and a little bit gross, as the feature then moves to people packing up the house where Lee was, and Lee's widow taking the body back to Seattle for the eventual funeral. Lee's child acting beginnings are shown (including footage!) his work in college before finding the martial arts. Workouts and competitions are shown too. If you skip the first 10-15 minutes where you wind up cringing, this is a fascinating documentary. The other extras are an alternate opening and some trailers.
Disc Seven: Enter the Dragon (Special Edition) (1:42:48)
This is essentially the Warner version that a few of us know, and includes Heller's commentary, but includes some different extras. "Risk and Reward " (16:11), where Golden Harvest producer Andre Morgan talks Hong Kong films in America, the task to sell them to same and the impact of them since Lee's death, along with Jackie Chan's impact on American audiences from Golden Harvest's perspective. "Brucesploitation" (10:21) gets into the genre, where Bruce Lee and Popeye find James Bond, Emmanuelle and others in one film, and the promos for some of these films are included too (13:13). "Match the Lips" (11:54) looks at the effort of and challenge in dubbing Lee's films, why it's done for Hong Kong films, how it is done and recollections on working with Lee at that time. "The Grandmaster and the Dragon" (54:41) looks at the relationship between Lee and Wing Chun, some anecdotes of Lee, and how Lee worked. The friendship is discussed after the two stopped working together and includes fondness of Lee after his death.Final Thoughts:
With Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, Criterion gives you as exhaustive and comprehensive a look at the martial arts legend as you are going to find in one package. By no means is it a complete package; between the Warner re-releases of Enter the Dragon and the Shout Factory Legacy Edition there is a lot of overlap, though in Criterion's defense they do try to cover as many bases as possible, and the new transfers on the early films are good to great, along with the restored ones. Given that I doubt we're going to get a package like this again any time soon, I'm slapping the DVDTalk Collector Series label on this puppy.