September 25, 2020  (Web Review)

Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits

Criterion, 7 discs, 506 min., in Mandarin, Cantonese & English w/English subtitles & English-dubbed, R, Blu-ray: $124.95, July 14

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Famed martial arts artist Bruce Lee, who tragically died in 1973 at the age of 32 from a bizarre case of brain edema, starred in five kung fu films (one posthumously) between 1971-78, all of which are collected in this handsome boxed Blu-ray set. After a decade in America where he appeared most notably in the TV series The Green Hornet, Lee returned to Hong Kong and made his kung fu debut in writer-director Lo Wei’s The Big Boss (1971), playing Cheng Chao-an, a Chinese immigrant working in a Thai ice factory who uncovers a heroin smuggling ring and must fight hordes of bad guys before facing off against the titular character. In Wei’s follow-up, Fist of Fury (1972), set in 1910s Shanghai, Lee is Chen Zhen, a martial arts student caught up in a deadly rival between competing Chinese and Japanese martial arts schools. Expanding on the character created in The Big Boss, Lee here adopts his trademark facial tics and vocalizations during battles while also developing many of what would become his signature kung fu flourishes. In The Way of the Dragon (1972), a contemporary film set in Rome, Lee writes, directs, and stars as Tang Lung, a martial arts expert who comes to the aid of the owner and staff of a Chinese restaurant that is being threatened by thugs who want to purchase the property. Although it gets off to a slow start—with Lee mugging too much for the camera—The Way of the Dragon includes more humor than the earlier films and features one of Lee’s most famous cinematic battles, pitting him against Chuck Norris in the Colosseum. In director Robert Clouse’s 1973 kung fu classic Enter the Dragon—the first English-language film here—Lee stars as mono-named Lee, embarking on an undercover sortie against a drug lord/white slavery ringmaster who a) sponsors rough and tumble martial arts tournaments at a remote island fortress, b) runs a hidden opium factory and sex slave ring, and c) has a convenient aversion to guns (allowing the fists of fury to fly unchecked). Joining Lee, who choreographed the justly famed fighting sequences (and, in one scene, plays opposite a live cobra), are the late black belt John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Bob Wall, and Sammo Hung (who would go on to act in and direct numerous kung fu flicks). The final film in the set, Game of Death (1978), also directed by Clouse and released five years after Lee’s death, is a bit of a cinematic mess, using archival footage and stand-ins for Lee to tell the story of Billy Lo, a martial arts superstar who resists being recruited by a crime syndicate. Also featuring Colleen Camp, Gig Young, and Hugh O’Brian, the film only becomes thrillingly alive during the last 30 minutes, when the real Bruce Lee appears in a yellow jumpsuit (in footage from an unfinished project by Clouse) to square off against a trio of enemies, including the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits offers a fitting tribute to an iconic martial arts master whose skill and charm stand out much more than the pedestrian plots driving these films. Presented with 4K digital restorations, the films are backed by copious extras, including an alternate version of Enter the Dragon, the justly maligned 1981 film Game of Death II featuring archival footage of Lee from his earlier films, audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, interviews (with Lee biographer Matthew Polly, producer Andre Morgan, author Grady Hendrix on the “Bruceploitation” subgenre of films following Lee’s death, Lee’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell, and several of Lee’s collaborators), the archival documentaries Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend (1973) and Bruce Lee: In His Own Words (1998), and a mini-magazine with an essay by critic Jeff Chang. Recommended. (R. Pitman)