Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits
The Way of the Dragon
In the early 1970s, a kung-fu dynamo named Bruce Lee side-kicked his way onto the screen and straight into pop-culture immortality. With his magnetic screen presence, tightly coiled intensity, and superhuman martial-arts prowess, Lee was an icon who conquered both Hong Kong and Hollywood cinema, and transformed the art of the action film in the process. This collection brings together the five films that define the Lee legend: furiously exciting fist-fliers propelled by his innovative choreography, unique martial-arts philosophy, and whirlwind fighting style. Though he completed only a handful of films while at the peak of his stardom before his untimely death at age thirty-two, Lee left behind a monumental legacy as both a consummate entertainer and a supremely disciplined artist who made Hong Kong action cinema a sensation the world over.
Bruce Lee's directorial debut, The Way of the Dragon, is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on the third dual-layer disc of Criterion's 7-disc box set, Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation has been sourced from a 4K restoration.
As of this writing I have yet to watch Game of Death, but The Way of the Dragon so far offers the weakest looking image in the set and a lot of that may just come down to what source materials were used: instead of the original negative like the previous two films, this restoration was sourced from a 35mm internegative. Grain is heavier, and despite the fact it's still rendered well, there are a lot of moments scattered about the film that have more of a dupey or fuzzy look (to be fair, it looks like a handful of shots just aren't in focus). The first quarter of the film or so can be especially problematic, with weak detail levels. They do stabilize eventually and the rest of the film looks quite a bit sharper.
The film has a colour scheme similar to the two previous films in that it does have a yellow or green-ish tint to it, making the image lean warmer, though I think it might be heavier here in comparison to those other films. This does mess with the black levels a little more; a number of low-lit scenes have a muddier look to them while nighttime sequences offer blacks that are inky and deep, which is fine, but they're so deep they can eat up shadow detail.
The restoration has nicely cleaned up damage and there was nothing that stood out, a far improvement over the previous VHS I had viewed the film on probably 25 years ago (if not more). The digital presentation also does a solid job itself, no digital issues ever popping up. Overall it's clean and does retain a film-like look, things are just hampered by the tinting impacting the black levels, and the source materials being less than ideal.
Similar to the discs for The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, Criterion provides multiple soundtracks, all in 1-channel mono: the original Mandarin and the English dub, both in lossless PCM, along with the Cantonese and alternate English dub created for a Japan re-release, which are presented in Dolby Digital.
The PCM Mandarin and English tracks end up sounding like the better ones of the four. Fidelity is still lacking, and there is a flatness to both affairs (maybe from filtering out noise), but the music ends up sounding decent, and the distortion found in the other soundtracks is missing. The Dolby Digital tracks come off a bit harsher and noisier in comparison.
Both English tracks are a bit odd for this film, since aspects of the story revolve around a language barrier between Lee's character and all of the (oddly) English speaking Italians (or the villains are Americans in Italy, I'll admit I've never been entirely sure). Certain scenes where language/cultures are a bit of a barrier are basically left intact despite language, at the very least, no longer being an issue. Japan's English dub is an odd duck itself as the differences seem to be minor. The first big difference is that the film's main theme has lyrics for this dub (which I noticed was the case for the sample found on Fist of Fury) and I think some of the sound effects during the fights are different. I don't think any of the dialogue differs and the voices, for the most part, sounded the same between the original English dub and this Japanese one.
At any rate, the lossless tracks sound okay, maybe filtered a bit, while the Dolby tracks can come off a bit harsher. It will come down to preference.
Criterion spreads a number of features across the seven discs in this set, placing features specific to a film on the respective disc. Things start off again with an audio commentary featuring Mike Leeder and recorded in 2013 for the Shout! Factory edition of the film. Sounding again like it was recorded over a Skype call with a bad connection, Leeder gets into the production history of the film, including how Lee managed to wiggle himself in as director this time around and why the film ended up being located in Rome. Not surprisingly he also touches a bit on Chuck Norris' involvement and the planning behind his and Lee's fight scene. Leeder also talks about the UK edit of the film, which is how he first saw it. He touches on the censorship of Lee's films in the other commentaries though he gets into more detail about it here and it's absolutely insane how much material had actually been cut. During the track for Fist of Fury I felt Leeder might have been already grasping for content to cover but it doesn't feel that way here, managing to pack any many details about the film and Lee's techniques.
Criterion then includes another new interview with Lee biographer Matthew Polly, who looks at the film from the perspective of it being the first film Lee really had total control over. He explains Lee's original idea (it was supposed to be a period piece that took place in the States) and what work and films influenced him (elements of Zatoichi and Jerry Lewis can be found in the film). He also talks a little more about Lee's fighting style, called Jeet Kune Do, which called for bringing in individual elements and being adaptable to any fighting situation. Polly's interviews are usually brief (this one only lasting 8-minutes) but there's still a lot of great detail in them and they're worth watching, though maybe more for newcomers to Lee.
Criterion then includes a couple of alternate opening credits, though these ones only differ in small ways. One uses the alternate title, Return of the Dragon (it had been released as a sequel to Enter the Dragon in some markets), and this one also places Chuck Norris at second billing. Both also drop the rankings for the martial artists that appear in the film, these rankings appearing beside their respective names in the credits that accompany the version of the film found on this disc.
Also appearing here is the 2001, 47-minute documentary Legacy of the Dragon, which looks at the life and career (and untimely death) of Bruce Lee, gathering together many interviews with those that knew and/or worked with Lee, or were going to work with Lee, as is the case with one of the participants, George Lazenby (the former James Bond was in talks to appear in Game of Death). Though this documentary has been placed on the disc housing The Way of the Dragon, there is actually little about that film and far more about Game of Death, which, as fans know, Lee had started filming but never completed after going off to do Enter the Dragon in Hollywood. Though I knew the mess that is Game of Death as it exists is in no way representative of what Lee intended, I did not know what he had actually envisioned until watching this documentary, which goes into an extensive amount of detail about his original idea for the film. That film sounds far more interesting than how it exists today (also sounds like it could have potentially been his best film). I doubt there will be anything new for fans of Lee here, but newcomers or those that only know a little about him (like me) will more than likely get a lot out of it.
Criterion then ports over a few interviews found on previous releases for Lee's films: there is the 7-and-a-half minute Bruce Lee Remembered, featuring a handful of disappointingly brief interviews with some that knew him, followed by a 21-minute interview with Jon T. Benn (entitled Kung Fu? after a line he says in the film) that also doesn't deliver much outside of him explaining how Lee would actually hit you during filming (and he still gets recognized in the streets of Hong Kong apparently). The disc then closes with 2 theatrical trailers (around 4-minutes each) and a radio spot.
The archival interviews offer very little but the rest of the material is good, even the short documentary on Lee.
So far the weakest disc in the set, presenting a more problematic picture (due to colour grading and the print elements) and a slightly weaker collection of supplements.