Bruce Lee has long been seen as one of the greatest martial artists in film history. For fans of the fighting movie genre, he’s also seen as a trailblazer who changed the shape of the industry and action filmmaking forever. A new Criterion Collection box set aims to secure Lee in the cinematic canon with an exhaustive package that features a comprehensive celebration and exploration of the short-lived career of the most famous martial artist in the world.
Criterion Brought the Big Boss
If you’ve previously enjoyed Criterion’s slick presentations then you probably won’t be surprised by just how well put together this collection is. The set features seven disks, five of those centered around each of his classic cinematic outings: The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon, and Game of Death. Each core film comes with an extensive collection of extras. Showcasing these is an impressively accessible and easy to use menu system that makes the boxset a pleasure to spend some time exploring.
As most Bruce Lee fans have watched all five of these iconic flicks many, many times, the biggest draw here are the Janus Film remasters. They’re stunning, and the extensive selection of extras (or supplements, as Criterion calls them) impress too. There’s also the very exciting fact that this collection has an in-depth interest in so-called Bruceploitation movies. This includes an HD version of the Golden Harvest produced Bruceploitation flick, Game of Death II.
Those Beautiful Transfers
Even though this piece will predominantly center on the roster of extensive features rather than the movies themselves–which we all know so well–I have to take a moment to celebrate the work done on restoring these martial arts masterpieces. All the movies have 4K transfers except for Enter the Dragon, which has a new 2K remaster. Each film looks wonderful and will be a world away from the VHS tape / rip versions we all grew up with. But The Big Boss restoration is particularly stunning; the level of visual depth and clarity is something this reviewer never had the chance to enjoy before now.
A Perfect Introduction
One of the funnest things about this set is the short-intro documentaries on each disk; concise-yet-thorough history of the movie you’re about to watch. It makes you feel like you’re at a film festival. The curated and thoughtful bite-size shorts establish the context and historical landscape of the film you’re about to watch. I imagine this is a particularly cool addition for viewers who are not as familiar with Lee’s work. Even for this lifelong fan, it was an exciting way to warm up for the main features. Especially as they’re so well put together.
An Aural Delight
Something that really stands out when you’re diving into this set is the impressive amount of restored audio track options. The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon each have Mandarin and Cantonese audio tracks. Lee would shoot in Cantonese and someone would later dubbed them over; these three films came out in Hong Kong first, hence the Mandarin dubs. We also get the English dubs we all grew up with. This was the first time I’ve watched the films without the often hilarious English language audio. It’s a really different viewing experience. All the films also include uncompressed monaural soundtracks; when pumped through your average modern day speakers it gives a truly immersive aural experience. If you’re a fan of audio commentaries, there’s also a solid and varied selection of those.
Viewers like me have always wondered why 12 northern British men dubbed every Hong Kong movie. For us, there’s an unprecedented chat called Match the Lips: Tales From the Dub Trade which features interviews with voice actors Michael Kaye and Vaughn Savidge. There’s not only great anecdotal recollections about the intensive recording sessions, but also some really interesting revelations. The reason there are such extensive English language dubs is not due to a broad American/British audience–who didn’t exist ’till years later–but because of the large amount of English speakers in the Philippines. This is a really lovely behind-the-curtains look at a very bootleg time.
An International Experience
The ease of access to the multitudes of content here is really appealing and particularly stands out in one area. Each disk includes a selection of domestic and international trailers as well as occasionally some alternate credit sequences for the featured movie. It’s an incredibly fun way of not only enjoying the films with a different twist but also seeing how some were marketed around the world. Plus, what makes it even better is that old martial arts movie trailers stand as some of the most outrageous and over the top examples of film promo.
Brucesploitation has long dwelled in the hearts of B-movie lovers and bootleg rippers. I never anticipated the day that Criterion would such a thing. But it does make sense seeing as the final “real” Bruce Lee movie on the collection arguably fits into the categorization. For those of you unfamiliar with the subgenre, the trend began after Lee’s untimely death in 1973. He was still the biggest Hong Kong star the world had ever seen; unscrupulous producers began finding lookalikes who would often change their names to sound like his. They also utilized old Lee footage, cobbling together movies about/allegedly starring the dead star.
This explains why Game of Death, which hit theaters 5 years after Lee’s death, is ultimately a mix of the original footage Lee shot and new sequences using a stand in. This is still in the canon of classic Lee, even though it only came about because of the huge success of multiple other Bruceploitation movies. Movies with titles like Bruce Lee: A Dragon Story and Goodbye Bruce Lee: His Last Game of Death. The trend didn’t end with Game of Death, though, and this collection also includes the sequel and controversial Bruceploitation movie, Game of Death II.
It’s really exciting to see this under-recognized aspect of Lee’s impact explored here. It feels monumental that Game of Death II is in this set along side his proper canon. To round out, there’s also a hilarious and loving Bruceploitation explainer from author Grady Hendrix. With that nicely comprehensive new program, come some really cool trailers for some of the films that the trend inspired. This set also includes Game of Death Redux. A new presentation of the original footage which will delight fans who want a pure Bruce Lee experience with none of the stand-ins or strangeness.
The Man Behind the Legend
Once you hit the supplementary discs of this collection you find the aforementioned Game of Death II in HD–starring Hwang Jang-Lee and a lot of old Bruce reaction shots footage–alongside a bunch of Lee documentaries. 1973’s Bruce Lee, the Man and the Legend is unexpectedly in depth, and at times bleak. It explores the time surrounding his death using much of the same footage of Lee’s funeral Game of Death used. There’s also a selection of high profile names talking about the icon and his impact.
There’s plenty here for new and old fans alike to dig into. It’s a great chaser to the beautiful versions of Lee’s catalog as once you’ve watched them all you can get a little deeper on the man himself. If you want more, the Enter the Dragon disk also features the previously released docs, Blood & Steel and Bruce Lee: In His Own Words.
If you need some more of Lee’s origin story that sticks closer to the truth than the world of Bruceploitation, there’s also The Grandmaster and the Dragon. This 2009 Australian documentary centers on Lee’s training partner and old friend William Cheung. Cheung shares the impact Lee had on him and his career, and recollects on their friendship.
The other supplementary disc also includes a longer special edition cut of Enter the Dragon. But the real treats here are the extras. For instance, an unprecedented interview with Golden Harvest (the studio behind Bruce Lee’s movies) producer Andre Morgan. He has lots of interesting things to say about Hollywood’s dismissal of Lee and martial arts movies as a whole. As a huge fan of Golden Harvest and Hong Kong movies, there’s a lot of enlightening insider anecdotes that I’d never heard over my decades of kung fu film fandom.
Morgan does a great job explaining the legacy of the studio; whilst also sharing some great memories of other icons like Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan, which makes for delightful listening. And Morgan crafts a vision of Golden Harvest as a sort of guerilla filmmaking utopian commune.
Even if that might not have been the whole truth; Golden Harvest did introduce the world to some of the most incredible martial artists on Earth; the legend himself, Bruce Lee, very much at the top of the pack. And this set offers up a rare almost archival collection of Lee, his work, his legacy, and impact!
The Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits Collection is available from Criterion now.
Header Image: Criterion