Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits
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.
The sixth and seventh dual-layer discs of Criterion’s 7-disc box set Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits are dedicated to a number of the set’s supplements, which include a couple of films: disc six presents Game of Death II while disc seven presents the Special Edition version of Enter the Dragon. Both films are presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1, Enter the Dragon coming from a 2K restoration sourced from a 35mm interpositive (I’m guessing it might be the one Warner Bros. used for their previous release, though can’t confirm) and Game of Death II coming from a “high-definition” master.
The presentation for the Special Edition of Enter the Dragon doesn’t look all that different from what the theatrical version looked like on the fourth disc: it has a nice grainy, film-like look, is rendered cleanly, delivering sharp looking details. The colour scheme has a cooler teal-like tint to it, like the theatrical version, which impacts the colours a little bit, but there are still some wonderful reds, yellows, and violets throughout. Where it negatively impacts the image in a more major way is in the black levels, which can look a little muddy in low-lit sequences . Blacks look better during nighttime sequences, looking rather inky, but they can still crush out shadow detail.
The print has been cleaned up and there are no flaws to speak of. The added material also doesn’t look any different from the rest of the film. Again, it looks strong and is pretty much on par with what the theatrical version offered.
Game of Death II, on the other hand, is a whole other story. It’s advertised as a high-def master, which may be technically true, in that some sort of digital material was taken and encoded in high-definition, but that’s about the extent of it. At it’s best, it looks like a noisy, crummy, very old high-definition transfer. At it’s worst it looks like a very mediocre standard-definition upscale. Detail isn’t terrible, and colours end up not looking too bad, but the image is very noisy all throughout. It’s also littered with damage: dirt, scratches, frame jumps, pulsing, marks, and more.
Admittedly I wasn’t holding out much hope for it, but I guess a small part of me was expecting something a little bit better.
Enter the Dragon (19780): 8/10 Game of Death II (1981): 3/10
Game of Death II comes with a rather lousy sounding English dub, presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. It’s harsh, distorted, and tinny, with no fidelity or range whatsoever. The dub is also quite mediocre, though to be honest, it does lend a little to whatever charms the film has.
The Special Edition version of Enter the Dragon comes with two audio options, both in English: the 5.1 remix (in DTS-HD MA) and the original mono presentation (in lossless PCM). The inclusion of the monaural track is also a first for this edition, as all previous digital disc releases of this version of the film (at least in North America) only included the 5.1 remix. This may be especially welcome by fans as (according to Criterion’s notes) the monaural soundtrack features Bruce Lee’s voice in the added temple scene, whereas the 5.1 soundtrack presents someone else (apparently John Little) dubbing over Lee’s voice.
Both tracks sound perfectly fine and it will come down to preference. They’re both clear, range and fidelity are both strong, Schifrin’s music has its booming, loud moments, and the action scenes sound great. The 5.1 remix is probably the stronger, more dynamic one, and it does an admirable job directing music and sound effects to the various channels (the score being the most noticeable aspect probably), but most everything is kept to the fronts.
Enter the Dragon (19780): 8/10 Game of Death II (1981): 3/10
Supplements are spread across all seven discs in the set, with the ones specific to a particular film usually appearing on that respective disc. Disc six only presents two supplements: the Game of Death sequel Game of Death II and the 1973 documentary Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend.
I wasn’t holding out much hope for Game of Death’s “sequel” (it wasn’t originally intended as a sequel, its original title being Tower of Death, with title changed in certain markets to cash in as a direct sequel) but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to getting a bit of a kick out of it. Like Game of Death the film edits in footage of Lee where appropriate and uses a stand-in for wider shots and fight-scenes where old footage won’t cut it. Interestingly most of the footage comes from Enter the Dragon, and the whole temple scenes from that film, which was cut from the theatrical version, is presented here and re-dubbed. The film also uses a fight scene deleted from the original Game of Death, which didn’t even feature the real Lee.
As to the plot, I’d be hard-pressed to explain it, but “Lee”—and his stand-in(s) — returns as Billy Lo, the character's name being the only thing that links to the previous Game of Death (and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s not his name in any of the other dubs). No longer an actor (I’m not sure what he is in this), he discovers that he and his friend are both receiving threats. Avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say some deaths occur and there’s an obvious conspiracy of some sort going on, that makes very little sense when all is revealed, and Billy’s brother comes in to help solve the mystery.
It’s a pretty nutty film that doesn’t make much sense, and its last act is, well, bat-shit crazy, entering some James-Bond-meets-low-end-Star-Wars/Star-Trek territory. It’s incredibly stupid, even more so than Game of Death, but there are some aspects to it that I would argue are better than that film. For starters, even though they don’t compare to the 11-minutes Lee filmed for that previous film, the fight scenes in this one are decent, even if the last one goes on far past its welcome. Most surprising, though, is that this film does a far better job in editing in the Bruce Lee footage, with quick reaction shots that feel more organic to this film (despite grainier footage here and there), and there can be a far better flow. The film also uses these inserts in a more tasteful fashion than the previous film which, on top of everything else, used actual footage from Lee’s funeral. This film aims to pay tribute to Lee, even risking the break of the fourth wall, like with their use of footage from the films he starred in as a child. That footage is used, plot wise, as a flashback, but the film points out Lee’s age in the footage, and the flashback ends up turning into a touching little montage and tribute. Where Game of Death really tried to hide that Lee was gone, this film ends up reminding the audience he’s gone but to be happy he left behind what he did, even if it ends up taking one out of the “plot” of the film, which doesn’t really matter in the end.
By no means do I think it’s a good film, though; it’s not. It just goes about things in a better fashion. And again, there are aspects to it that are pretty out there, making it far more entertaining than it should be, but it’s not one I’d likely revisit often. I’m happy to have at least seen it.
Criterion also includes a couple of supplements for it: the film’s theatrical trailer and an alternate opening credit sequence, which uses the film’s original title, Tower of Death (even though I don’t actually recall a tower). Annoyingly, Criterion does not include any English subtitles for the Chinese text that appears in the film. I’m very sure I missed a plot point because it was delivered through a newspaper headline that’s not translated, though to be fair, story flow doesn’t seem to be a top concern for the film.
Out of the infinite number of documentaries out there about Bruce Lee’s life, Criterion includes the 1973 Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend, which they would have licensed from Fortune Star. Running 85-minutes it’s not bad for what it is, but since it came out so soon after Lee’s death I get the feeling it was made more to cash in on Lee’s name in a minor way, and because of that I felt it works to lift him up to a more mythical status. And I’m not questioning Lee’s talents, work, or career, he was an amazing athlete and broke through the barriers Hollywood had set up for him, it’s just that the documentary takes a very straightforward path through his life (after opening with his funeral) and work that only touches the surface. I haven’t seen it in a while, but I recall John Little’s Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey doing a better job with this subject, and it appears a number of Lee fans also consider it the best documentary about Lee (I base this on the opinion of at least one person I know and many online reviews and comments). That one was found on Warner’s 2-disc special edition DVD for Enter the Dragon and then the subsequence HD-DVD and Blu-ray editions. Warner’s new Blu-ray edition drops this documentary, so I assume rights issues stopped it from being included. I’m also guessing those same rights issues were still there for Criterion.
At any rate, Criterion includes the expected biographical documentary (which has gone through its own rather impressive restoration) and its fine, but there is better out there.
Moving on to disc seven, the big feature is the Special Edition of Enter the Dragon. I’ve never fully understood why this version exists, though it sounds like this is what would have been shown in China, Hong Kong and other territories. I know there were issues with violence at the time (and it’s both funny and sad how tame the film is now) but it appears the big cut(s) had nothing to do with violence, but instead was primarily a scene between Lee and a monk at the beginning of the film, along with a quick moment during the final fight scene where Lee’s character remembers something that the monk had told him in that scene. As far as additional scenes go, they seem quite harmless and I was never all that sure why they were cut.
Well, I finally listened to the included audio commentary featuring producer Paul Heller, which I had never listened to prior to this, and he explains the cut was made because they feared the Eastern philosophy spoken between the two would make American audiences tap out of the film early, so there was a decision to just get right to the action. Feeling it was no longer an issue, the scene was added back in 1998.
There’s a lot around that fear of scaring off American audiences found in the commentary, as Heller explains why they made a lot of the decisions they did (like casting John Saxon and Jim Kelly), which in the end was to make the film more friendly to Americans. And I have no doubt many today will listen to the commentary and judge harshly what Heller and others did to get the film made, but it’s all based on what Lee, Heller, fellow producer Fred Weintraub, and even friggin’ James Coburn went through earlier trying to get Lee’s career off of the ground: the racism that existed in Hollywood against Asian performers. They sadly had to play it safe because they didn’t want a repeat of a previous effort, what would become the show Kung Fu, where executives cast David Carradine instead of Lee in the role. And as Heller suggests they went the right way about it at the time because executives were eventually won over by the footage they saw, and they were able to deliver a film where Lee was prominent in the film, instead of edited down to the sidelines. It’s insane to think now because of Lee’s legacy, but there was a real fear that was shared by Lee and others working on the production that the film would be re-edited by the studio to make Saxon the film’s hero and Lee the “Kato” of the film.
Overall, it’s not a bad track in relation to its production, but there are some aspects that come off a little too self-congratulatory. Edited in once in a while (to fill in some of the many dead spaces in the track) there is audio of a phone call between Heller and screenwriter Michael Allin, talking about the script, though it’s all pretty fluffy and nothing more than patting themselves on the back for basically writing a martial arts version of a Bond film. Enter the Dragon is my favourite Lee film, but in no way am I going to give bonus points to the script. At the very least, they recognize the absurdity of it, and even laugh how they wrote around having no guns in the film, which I never realized prior to this would have probably been a real point of concern for American audiences.
I was happy to finally listen to the track and learn about the concerns around the production and why the film had been edited down to begin with. It doesn’t address one of the big concerns about the re-edit fans have with it, and that’s the odd dubbing over Lee’s character in the added opening scene. The 5.1 remix for the Special Edition, right from the first DVD release in 1998, featured this dub, and it sticks out. While Criterion does include that 5.1 remix for this version of the film, they also include the original mono track, which includes Lee’s actual voice. This should be a big plus for fans of Lee, but I’m still lost as to why his voice wasn’t used for the 5.1 remix during that scene to begin with, since it obviously existed.
At any rate, that closes off everything around Enter the Dragon, with the rest of the content found on the disc being more general in nature around Lee and his films. The first feature focuses on the Hong Kong studio that signed on Lee (after Lee turned down Shaw Brothers because they wanted a lengthy, exclusive contact with him), Golden Harvest, through producer/marketer Andre Morgan, who, right out of college, was hired initially by Golden Harvest to sell their films to the American market. Here Morgan talks a little about the studio’s early days (hanging on by a thread financially speaking), how their films differed from Shaw’s more polished films, which, in turn, appealed more to younger audiences, and how the studios works out deals with their more elite stars, like Jackie Chan. He also recounts the difficulties in selling these films to American markets (which ended up doing rather well with minority audiences when they were released) and then explains how Asian stars usually make their big breaks in Western films, using Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh as examples. With films like The Matrix and others featuring more Eastern influences that are not only limited to martial arts it almost appears as if the influence happened overnight, but Morgan makes it clear it was a long road for Asian films and performers to break through, and he thoroughly covers that here in the 16-minute interview.
Grady Hendrix next shows up for a 10-minute discussion about the Bruceploitation films that started popping up after Lee’s death. After going over the many different “Lees” that filled in the gap (usually with a name similar to the star), he explains what each one excelled at and then gets into the rather interesting backstory around the original films that started coming out, getting into more detail around some of the more, uhhhhh, interesting ones. He also talks about Game of Death, which he calls one of the tackier ones because of how it uses the footage, and then about an American lawsuit brought up against one of the films that was clearly mis-advertised to audiences. It’s a fun feature, Hendrix obviously a fan of some of the films, which is also accompanied by a collection Bruceploitation promos, which includes Call Me Dragon; Rage of the Dragon; Dragon on Fire; Bruce and the Iron Finger; Golden Dragon, Silver Snake, a radio ad for Bruce Lee: His Last Game of Death (which was the film that brought on the American lawsuit), and then the Jim Kelly starring Black Samurai. These look rather fun and I might have to track some of them down.
Match the Lips is a fun 12-minute addition, featuring interviews with professional dubbers Michael Kaye and Vaughan Savage, both of whom dubbed over Lee. The two primarily talk about the profession in general, at least at the time of Lee’s films, and the amount of work that went into doing a good dub, which sounds quite grueling for what sounds to have been very little pay. One not only had to translate what was being said, but to match the lip movements as best as possible they of course had to match the syllables and rhythms, and that process is explained here. It’s another fun addition to the set but incredibly educational at the same time, offering a look at a layer of the film (at least for international markets) that often gets overlooked.
The disc (and set) then closes with a 53-minute documentary called The Grandmaster & the Dragon, featuring interviews with Wing Chun Grandmaster William Cheung. While Cheung talks about Lee and his training, as well as the development of Lee’s own philosophy, he also offers a look at the way of life of a teenager at the time, who could be drawn to gangs like the Triads, which is why Lee’s parents objected to Lee’s obsession in martial arts as that was often seen as something gangsters were into. It’s a bit dry on the whole but works to fill in some of the gaps left out by the documentary on the previous disc.
Criterion also includes a fold-out booklet presented in a layout and look similar to film magazines of the 70s, complete with poster of the “Dragon” inside and a fake ad that includes a mail-in voucher for martial arts lessons (among other touches). There is a synopsis for each film, along with a collection of posters for each film. Critic Jeff Chang then provides a lengthy essay on Lee, his films, and the lasting impact he had in his short time. It’s a cute addition, and Chang’s essay is a good read, nicely closing off the academic angle to the set, but I do sort of wish Criterion included a lengthier booklet with more material.
I’m still disappointed Criterion wasn’t able to include documentaries found on Warner’s editions for Enter the Dragon (the Warriors Journey documentary, as well as The Curse of the Dragon, a documentary about the deaths of Lee and his son, Brandon) but, overall, the last two discs nicely close off the set, offering a few good surprises and material that should make fans happy.
Criterion’s two supplement discs close off the set wonderfully, even if some content still hasn’t made it from previous editions, but fans should be happy with the new content, along with getting the Special Edition of Enter the Dragon with the original monaural track, as well as the Bruceploitation film Game of Death II.