‘Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits’: Pure martial arts magic (Blu-ray review)
WASHINGTON — Now out on Blu-ray, here comes a new, high definition celebration of the myth and magic of one of cinema’s most famous martial arts experts. Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits (Criterion Collection, not rated, 2.39:1 aspect ratio, 509 minutes, $124.95) highlights a quintet of his most popular films.
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This fan watched the artistry of Bruce Lee back in the 1970s, often in drive-in theaters. His entertaining brand of energetic fighting was like staring down a simmering tea kettle ready to explode at any time.
The new seven-disc Blu-ray set contains films mainly from the 1970s. Lee tragically died in 1973 at the age of 32 before the release of his arguably best movie “Enter the Dragon.”
Here’s a quick rundown of this collection. All included films feature new restorations, either 4K or 2K. Every one of them now look far better than when they were originally released.
“The Big Boss” (1971, 100 minutes, 4K restoration)
Biographer Matthew Polly said audiences watched a film hampered by such a fluid script that Lee ended up pitted against actor James Tien and whomever was most charismatic onscreen was not killed after the first act.
The story covers Lee as Cheng Chao-an looking for a new life by living with his relatives in Thailand after swearing an oath of nonviolence to his mother. Yeah, some oath. He ends up single-handedly wiping out a heroin ring operating out of an ice factory.
Raves for his first major film role made Bruce Lee a superstar in Kung Fu cinema. Unsurprisingly, the film also caught the attention of American filmmakers. Even better, the visual presentation and choreography does not disappoint.
“Fist of Fury” (1972, 107 minutes, 4K restoration)
The second of a two-picture deal with Hong Kong filmmaker Raymond Chow that paid $15,000 total offers Lee as the impulsive Chen Zhen. Our hero is soon enmeshed in a frenetic story of revenge after his master, founder of the Chinese Jing Wu School in Shanghai, dies under mysterious circumstances.
A rival (and racist) Japanese school mocks and challenges the Jing Wu School. So Chen must defend its honor as well as find out the truth about his teacher’s demise.
The 4K restoration in this collection is one of the best of the bunch. A major highlight: An incredible visual sharpness, right down to an ability to see Lee’s knuckles change color as his fury mounts. The only way this film’s visuals could have been better would have been to offer it in a pure, ultra-high definition format.
“The Way of the Dragon” (1972, 99 minutes, 4K restoration)
In a first for the star, Bruce Lee writes, directs and stars in a martial arts story set in Rome. It revolves around the action of Tang Lung, who saves his cousin’s restaurant from the Italian mob. With Lee in control, the action is head-shaking. And the close-quarters, dynamic combat scenes used real martial arts stars. These include a final battle against an American named Colt (Chuck Norris). All these battles reliably deliver the realistic goods. The high definition in this film is sometimes soft, but interior scenes and fights are crystal clear.
“Enter the Dragon” (theatrical version) (1973, 99 minutes, 2K restoration)
The film that turned the martial arts hero into a Hollywood star has Bruce Lee playing a James Bond-styled agent. Lee’s character goes undercover at a combat tournament on a mysterious island fortress to expose the evil plans of Mr. Han. This film featured some of the greatest pure fight choreography created by Lee that has everbeen seen on the silver screen.
“Game of Death” (1973, 99 minutes, 2K restoration)
Lee’s unfinished magnum opus, reportedly created to explore his unique fighting style, Jeet Kune Do, turned into a real mess after his death. Filmmakers retooled the footage with a new plot and with doubles standing in to represent Lee. It only offers roughly 11 minutes of the real action star. The real Bruce Lee was onscreen mainly during the film’s various concluding fight scenes, one of which pits him against a lanky but powerful villain played by Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
The rest is shameless filmmaking schlock. One example: a paper image of Lee’s face is pasted on a mirror and used to cover an actor playing Lee as he looks at his reflection. I’m not kidding.
In addition to the five above, viewers also get a special edition version of “Enter the Dragon” (three minutes longer and a 2K restoration); and “Game of Death II,” (1981, 97 minutes) a woeful cash grab in 1981 as the creators cobbled together some previously seen footage of Lee, proceeding to embellish it liberally with, whatever.
Best extras: Commentary tracks
Well-known for offering an historical resource for any of the films chosen for re-release, the Criterion Collection delivers handsomely again with a small library’s-worth of digital material, both new and culled from other releases. It’s a package that’s simply superb for the super Bruce Lee fan.
First, six optional commentary tracks include Lee expert Brandon Bentley on “The Big Boss”; Hong Kong-cinema expert Mike Leeder on “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” “Game of Death” and “The Way of the Dragon”; and producer Paul Heller on the special edition of “Enter the Dragon.”
It’s worth noting that Mr. Leeder just packs his commentary with tasty observational nuggets and unbridled enthusiasm. He is scary with the details. He even spends five minutes on “The Big Boss” talking about a character eating a rice ball and deciding whether a film element was scratched to show him spitting out a piece of it.
More best extras: First person interviews, nostalgic film nuggets
Next, viewers get extensive solo interviews, both new and vintage, with some of Lee’s fellow actors and friends. Clips include his widow Linda Lee Cadwell; Wing Chun grandmaster William Cheung; actors Robert Wall, Jon T. Benn and Nora Miao; and martial arts instructor Gene LeBell.
Also new, Mr. Polly offers roughly nine minutes of nostalgic tidbits involving “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” “The Way of the Dragon,” “Enter the Dragon” and “Game of Death.”
For example, “Fist of Fury” was one of the first Hong Kong cinema-based movies featuring a white actor. But the assertive Lee made sure he was the star of “Enter the Dragon” by shooting an extra opening fight scene to start the film.
Even more best extras: Vintage film documentaries
Additionally, a trio of longer-form vintage documentaries are also included. This collection leads off with the 32-minute “Blood and Steel” from 2003. It covers that film’s genesis and the making of “Enter the Dragon.” Included are interviews with producers Paul Heller and Fred Weintraub, writer Michael Allin, cinematographer Gil Hubbs, and actors James Coburn and John Saxon and to name a few.
Second, fans will also enjoy a 90-minute, nearly-all access documentary from 1973 called “Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend.” This documentery offers an overtly dramatic, sometimes too-scripted and morbid look at the life, funeral and burial of Bruce Lee.
Its best moments focuses on Lee’s early years, his films and interviews with friends. Its worst blunder: a ridiculous male narrator who sounds ripped from a Movietone News reel and who embellishes footage with descriptive assumptions of many of the mourners’ emotional states and innermost thoughts.
Elsewhere, the 47-minute “Legacy of the Dragon” offers another retrospective of Lee’s career dating from 2001. This compact biography highlights his film combat and focuses on the “Game of Death”. It offers interviews with actor/fight choreographer Sammo Hung, martial arts instructor Dan Inosanto, producer Russell Cawthorne and actor George Lazenby.
One more note on “Game of Death.” Criterion adds “Game of Death: Redux,” a 34-minute version of Lee’s original vison for the film restored and produced by Alan Canvan. It presents all of Lee’s fight scenes and adds new dialogue and editing and, as usual, the combat is spectacular. (Reference the intense nunchuck battle).
Finally, viewers get in the package a pulp paper, 24-page mini tabloid. It features introductions to all of the films, photos, a full-color mini-poster and a lengthy essay by critic Jeff Chang.
• This story originally appeared in The Washington Times.
— Headline image: Montage, Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon” and part of “Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits,”
now available in Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.