Normally, I devote this column to several new releases. But the Criterion Collection release of Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits deserves its own special consideration. There are five films included, and a hefty amount of special features. But more than that, this box set is a great introduction to what made Bruce Lee such a special performer, and why his legacy lives on to this day.
The Big Boss
The Big Boss is not Bruce Lee’s first movie, but it is the movie that made Bruce Lee Bruce Lee. Lee had actually already made 21 movies before he made The Big Boss, and he had also gone off to Hollywood, hoping to strike it big. The best he could do there was a sidekick role in The Green Hornet while also being offered increasingly frustrating, stereotypical, and racist parts. But Lee continued to believe that he was destined for stardom in Hollywood. However, he also had some money problems, so when Ramond Chow offered Lee a two-film contract to make movies in Hong Kong, Lee reluctantly accepted. It would be a fateful decision.
The first of those movies was The Big Boss, and, interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem like a Bruce Lee movie at first. Lee is in it from the start, playing Cheng Chao-an, a Chinese man who moves to Thailand to live with his family and take a job at an ice factory. But in the first half of the film, the story seems to belong to James Tien as Hsu Chien, one of Lee’s new roommates. It’s Tien who gets into the first fight of the film, and Lee spends a large chunk of this first half standing around, fidgeting with a jade amulet that he wears as a promise to his mother to never get into fights. At the time, no one was sure if Lee was going to be a star, and while filming The Big Boss, Lee was almost in a trial period. The gist of it was that whichever of these two leads – Lee or Tien – ended up having the most charisma would end up the lead of the film while the other actor got killed-off halfway through. Based on what a star Lee became, it’s probably not a spoiler to point out that it’s Tien’s character who ends up dead early, and it’s Lee who takes over from there.
Of all the films on the box set, The Big Boss is the most unpolished. The direction is slapdash, and a lot of the fights that don’t involve Lee aren’t very impressive. However, Lee’s stardom shines through nonetheless. It’s clear from the first frame that Lee has an American swagger the rest of the cast doesn’t have, and it makes him stand out. And when Lee does finally get around to fighting it’s a thing of beauty. A trained dancer, Lee employed a one-two-three-pause approach to fight scenes, something that simply wasn’t done in Hong Kong cinema at the time.
Despite its numerous flaws, The Big Boss has plenty to enjoy, all of it involving Lee. At one point he kicks a man through a wall and the man leaves the outline of his body in the wood like a cartoon character. Later, in a big climactic fight, Lee snacks on some crackers in-between punches and kicks. And in one moment, Lee appears to jab his fingers into an opponent’s chest so hard that it draws blood. Bright, red, paint-looking blood. It’s a blast, and you can immediately understand why Lee would go on to bigger things from here.
Fist of Fury
Lee’s The Big Boss follow-up was Fist of Fury, a period piece based very loosely on a true story. Student Lee returns home to find his master murdered and his Jingwu School being taunted and tormented by members of a Japanese dojo. Lee’s fellow students want to keep the peace, but Lee isn’t having it. His character, Chen Zhen, springs into action, heading over to the dojo and destroying everyone in his path. A big reoccurring motif in Lee’s films involves scenes where he’s surrounded by a circle of opponents and manages to kick all of their asses while barely being injured himself. From here the film becomes about Chen Zhen’s revenge as he goes about in secrecy. This allows Lee to go incognito on several occasions, slapping on old man make-up at one point, playing a buffoonish delivery man at another. It’s another indication that Lee was more than just a guy who could fight. He could act, and he wanted to prove it.
Fist of Fury is a lot more polished than The Big Boss. And while the plot is a very loose framework to simply hang a series of fight scenes on, it never fails to entertain. Lee’s character is so powerful here that one well-placed punch to a man’s chest is enough to kill. And he’s so strong that he can lift two people over his head and spin them like dolls (they are dolls, in fact, which you can clearly notice, despite the film’s best intentions). And just like The Big Boss, the best part of the movie is Lee, who seems even more confident here – probably because he knew from the start he was going to be the lead and not competing for that part with a co-star.
The Way of the Dragon
After being directed by Lo Wei in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee was ready to take total control with The Way of the Dragon. This was intended to be Lee’s big moment to show the people back in Hollywood what a powerhouse he was, and how he was ready to come back to LA. Lee wrote, directed, and starred in The Way of the Dragon, and once again, he’s the best part of what’s happening on screen.
Unfortunately, the film is a step-down from Fist of Fury. For one thing, the tone is all over the place. Lee was a big fan of Jerry Lewis. He was also a funny guy. So he wanted to showcase that, and as a result, large chunks of The Way of the Dragon are devoted to big, broad comedy – most of which falls flat. What does set the film apart though is the location – it’s set in Rome, which was a big deal at the time for a film out of Hong Kong.
The plot involves Lee’s character Tang Lung heading to Rome to help protect Chen Ching-hua (Nora Miao), a restaurant owner who is being hassled by a crime syndicate. Lee works his way through the gangsters, all of it building towards a big climactic fight in the Colosseum where Lee has to battle none other than Chuck Norris. Only one quick shot was filmed in the Colosseum, while the rest was filmed on a stage. And while it’s obvious, it doesn’t distract from the fight, which is about as cool as you’d expect. It also involves Chuck Norris’ body hair, which stretches from his chest and all the way around his shoulders and back in a clean line. At one point in the fight, Lee actually grabs hold of a hunk of Norris’ chest hair to pull himself up, blowing the hair away from his hand when he’s done. It’s gross and amazing.
In the end, Lee was worried The Way of the Dragon wasn’t good enough to send to Hollywood. But the studio, Golden Harvest, sent it there anyway. And while that angered Lee at first, it ended up being enough to bring him back to a Hollywood production.
Enter the Dragon
If there’s one movie everyone knows Bruce Lee for, it’s Enter the Dragon. I’ll confess that up until this box set arrived on my doorstep, this was the only Lee film I had seen. Sure, I knew who Bruce Lee was. And I’ve seen plenty of clips of him over the years. But this was the Bruce Lee movie in my mind. And while I hate to sound like a generic Westerner here and say “The Hollywood production on this box set is better than the Hong Kong films,” it’s simply true. Part of that has to do with how polished the pic is.
Since Enter the Dragon is a Hollywood movie it looks slicker, cleaner, and better put together. The plot has Lee as a James Bond-like figure sent to a mysterious island to compete in a martial arts tournament being run by an evil crime lord with a fake hand. Also along for the journey are two American fighters – Roper (John Saxon), who has a lot of baggage, and I mean that literally – he brings about fifty suitcases to the island; and Williams (Jim Kelly), a Black man who we see being harassed by white cops early in the film (he kicks their ass and steals their cop car). But this is Lee’s film, and it’s the best example of what a huge Hollywood star he could’ve been had he not died tragically right before the movie opened.
While this is the most well-produced film here, the fights are oddly a step-down. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of fights with whip-crack punches, and they’re all entertaining. But they’re also toned down. Gone are the scenes where Lee takes on rooms of 50 guys without blinking, replaced by more standard one-on-one fights. They’re fine on their own, but if you watch all of these films back-to-back as I did, you begin to miss the moments where Lee fights an entire room of men with ease.
Game of Death
The strangest film on the set, Game of Death, was released five years after Lee’s death. Lee had begun shooting scenes for the film before he landed the Enter the Dragon gig, and the plan was to go back and finish the movie after Enter. Sadly, Lee died, and only about thirty minutes of footage remained. But in the wake of Lee’s death, an odd subgenre called “Bruceploitation” sprung up, in which actors who sort of looked like Lee, or had names like Bruce Le, would star in movies that were marketed as Bruce Lee films. It was an odd concept, but audiences enjoyed it, and Golden Harvest, who owned Lee’s Game of Death footage, eventually decided to get in on the action.
The solution was to completely toss out the idea Lee had, which involved his character traveling up different levels of a pagoda and fighting different fighters on each level, and come up with something altogether goofy. Using only about 10 minutes of Lee’s original Game of Death footage, as well as footage from some of Lee’s other movies, Game of Death concocts a narrative about Billy Lo, an international movie star who is targeted by a crime syndicate. To make this work, the filmmakers employed various stand-ins and doubles, most of whom really do not look like Lee at all. To hide this, the doubles are usually seen wearing big sunglasses or hiding in shadows. And in one truly jarring moment, a cardboard cutout of Lee’s actual face is taped to a mirror while a stand-in sits behind it. Yes, it looks as terrible as it sounds.
Oddly enough, despite this being one of the weirdest films you’ll ever see, and despite Lee barely being in it, there are moments here that became iconic to the actor. This is the movie where Lee wears the yellow tracksuit with the black stripe that Quentin Tarantino would have Uma Thurman wear in Kill Bill. And this is also the movie where Lee fights the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I can’t call this a “good” movie, but it’s certainly a fascinating one.
Own or Rent?
No question: this is a must-own. If you’re a Lee fan, or someone like me and curious to see what Lee was all about, you can’t go wrong here. Even if all the films aren’t fantastic, they’re all watchable and entertaining in their own unique way. Then you have a wealth of special features. Among everything included here, two were my particular favorites. One recurring feature involves Lee biographer Matthew Polly giving a breakdown on each film. Polly has a great way of explaining and recounting information here that makes it all seem fresh and fascinating. He delves into each production, providing context and backstory and bits of trivia. The other feature I’d like to note involves Paperbacks From Hell author Grady Hendrix talking about the “Bruceploitation” subgenre. Hendrix is a font of knowledge for such esoteric things, and he, too, is a captivating speaker. Throw in multiple documentaries about Lee’s life, a new presentation of Lee’s original Game of Death footage, and interviews with the people who knew the man, and this is an unbeatable piece of physical media.
Special Features Include:
- 4K digital restorations of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Game of Death, and The Way of the Dragon, with uncompressed original monaural soundtracks
- New 2K digital restoration of the rarely-seen 99-minute 1973 theatrical version of Enter the Dragon, with uncompressed original monaural soundtrack
- New 2K digital restoration of the 102-minute “special-edition” version of Enter the Dragon
- Alternate audio soundtracks for the films, including original English-dubbed tracks and a 5.1 surround soundtrack for the special-edition version of Enter the Dragon
- Six audio commentaries: on The Big Boss by Bruce Lee expert Brandon Bentley; on The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Game of Death, and The Way of the Dragon by Hong Kong–film expert Mike Leeder; and on the special-edition version of Enter the Dragon by producer Paul Heller
- High-definition presentation of Game of Death II, the 1981 sequel to Game of Death
- Game of Death Redux, a new presentation of Lee’s original Game of Death footage, produced by Alan Canvan
- New interviews on all five films with Lee biographer Matthew Polly
- New interview with producer Andre Morgan about Golden Harvest, the company behind Hong Kong’s top martial-arts stars, including Lee
- New program about English-language dubbing with voice performers Michael Kaye (the English-speaking voice of Lee’s Chen Zhen in Fist of Fury) and Vaughan Savidge
- New interview with author Grady Hendrix about the “Bruceploitation” subgenre that followed Lee’s death, and a selection of Bruceploitation trailers
- Blood and Steel, a 2004 documentary about the making of Enter the Dragon
- Multiple programs and documentaries about Lee’s life and philosophies, including Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend (1973) and Bruce Lee: In His Own Words (1998)
- Interviews with Linda Lee Cadwell, Lee’s widow, and many of Lee’s collaborators and admirers, including actors Jon T. Benn, Riki Hashimoto, Nora Miao, Robert Wall, Yuen Wah, and Simon Yam and directors Clarence Fok, Sammo Hung, and Wong Jing
- Promotional materials
- New English subtitle translations and subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic Jeff Chang
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