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Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits

by on July 17, 2020
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James Dean appeared in three films. John Cazale appeared in five films (all Best Picture nominees or winners). Bruce Lee did do films in Hong Kong as a child and teenager. His attempt into Hollywood in the 1960s led to playing Kato in The Green Hornet TV series (cancelled after one season), one good scene in the James Garner film Marlowe and developing the series Kung Fu, only to have it taken away from him when studio heads didn’t think an Asian person could be the star of a television series.

Frustrated, Lee returned to Hong Kong and that’s where his true rise in cinema began. Lee will always be remembered for four complete films and one ambitious project just didn’t happen and was botched up years after his 1973 death. The Criterion Collection has released a seven-disc collection of Lee’s 1970s film output As a nod to The Film Yap’s own Christopher Lloyd and his review of Enter the Dragon (which you can read HERE), I am going to write about each individual disc. One at a time instead of all together because that’s what happens in film reviews and kung Fu fights.

THE BIG BOSS (1971) – Lee plays a young man who returns to his hometown along with a jade necklace and a vow to never fight anyone again. He gets a job at an ice factory that turns out to also smuggle heroin on the side and will off any employees who dare to challenge them. The Big Boss star was supposed to be James Tien as Lee’s cousin (who would appear in two more Lee films) and does the fighting in the first half of the film. As filming went on director Lo Wei and producer Raymond Chow saw something in Lee’s performance and his character takes over in the second half. As a bus load of hooligans go to the factory to beat up the workers, one baddie bumps into Lee, breaking his jade necklace and thus unleashing a cinematic fury that we’re still talking about today. Folks who want to see Lee open a can of whup-ass, be patient with this film because the second half, especially the climatic showdown, delivers.

FIST OF FURY (1972) – The master of a martial arts studio has died. Former student Lee returns home in the rain to attend his master’s funeral. As the school is trying to pick itself up, a rival group of Japanese martial art students and their oily cohort taunt the Chinese school.

Fist of Fury has its share on kung Fu film staples both good (Close ups! Zooms!) and not as good as it used to be (A kettle drum noise for a groin kick, broad fey acting from the oily cohort). This film has more blood than The Big Boss and more of Lee’s signature screaming as a he pummels his foes. The Big Boss is good, Fist of Fury is really good. There’s even an homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the film’s final moment.

A CLARIFICATION: The Big Boss was released in the United States as Fists of Fury (plural). Fist of Fury (singular) was released as The Chinese Connection, an attempt to cash in on the name of the Best Picture winner from 1971. An odd move since The Big Boss is the film involving heroin smuggling. These are also how 20th Century Fox listed the films on their DVD release in 2001. This Criterion collection has corrected all of this. Movie executives…

THE WAY OF THE DRAGON (1973) – After being directed by Lo Wei twice, Lee got the chance to write, direct and co-produce his attempt at what he called a Spaghetti Eastern. A successful attempt to globalize martial arts. Set in the modern day, Tang Lung (Lee) travels to Rome to assist his cousin’s Chinese restaurant, which is being harassed by a gang of nogoodniks. These nogoodniks will not fare well once crossing paths with Tang Lung vis fists, feet, Nunchaku, etc.

Lee was a co-director of the action scenes on this film (was uncredited in his assistance on Fist of Fury). The other notable enjoyment of this film is Lee’s lighter performance (non-fighting) in this film. It starts as a fish-out-of-water tale with some light comic moments. Arriving at the Rome airport, he goes to a restaurant, cannot read the menu and accidentally orders four bowls of soup. Not to admit he’s made a mistake, he downs all four bowls. It’s moments like these (and some disguises he wears during Fist of Fury) that show early on that Lee could do more than scowl and scream and whup your ass.

The film’s big selling point is a very memorable climatic fight between Lee and seven-time U.S. Karate Champion Chuck Norris (before his own film career took off). Taking place in the Roman Colosseum. OK, a soundstage for the actual fight, but Lee and co-producer Raymond Chow got a camera inside the actual colosseum for exterior shots so kudos to them. The Lee-Norris (beardless, but his body hair makes up for it) bout is still one of the highlights of martial arts cinema. Two gladiators who respect one another while beating the hell out of one another. Three for three.

ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) – Released in the U.S. a month after his death, Lee sadly never got to see himself turn into a global cinema icon. More of a James Bond film with martial arts, Lee character (named…wait for it…Lee) goes undercover for a government agency to investigate a crime lord’s remote island where he hosts a martial arts tournament every three years.

John Saxon and Jim Kelly (who would get his own film Black Belt Jones a year later) co-star as tournament participants are also part of the tournament for different reasons. These two were a casting safety net and they both fine for what they bring to the film, but this film is all Lee. As a character, Lee is all business this time around, the Kung Fu Man with No Name. This time, Lee also is total charge of the fighting sequences and they still hold up almost a half-century later, even if they attack one at a time. Enter the Dragon is still one of the most influential action films of all time. Do the fight scenes in The Matrix look like a John Wayne saloon brawl? No. The bouts with Robert Wall and Bolo Yeung, his takedown of most of the security crew in the underground lair and the famous climax in the room of mirrors with the ruthless crime lord Han are still outstanding. It should also be noted that Shih Kien, who plays Han holds his own in his onstage bout with Lee and he was 60 at the time of filming. He belongs in the All-Aging Ass-Whupping Team photo.

Enter the Dragon was also the inspiration for the short parody film A Fistful of Yen in the 1977 comedy Kentucky Fried Movie. Both films have my gratitude.

GAME OF DEATH (1979) – A little background: The original plot for GoD was that Lee plays a retired martial arts champion confronted by Korean thugs to assist in a pulling off a heist inside a heavily guarded pagoda. When Lee’s character refuses, the mob abducts his siblings and force him into the job.

The climax would be a series of fights inside the pagoda, each level a different style of fighting with a tougher opponent.  Lee shot almost 50 minutes of footage before getting the green light to make Enter the Dragon. GoD was shelved, Enter the Dragon was made and Lee died.

Between Lee’s death and the eventual release of GoD, a slew of what is now called Brucepolitation films came out. These films used actors with looked/sounded/fought like Lee and were given names like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bruce Liang, Dragon Lee, Bruce Lai and many many more along with “sequels” and films with similar sounding names to Lee’s actual films. Enter the Game of Death and Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger are just a couple examples.

Golden Harvest originally balked at the idea of making their own Brucepolitation film, but eventually buckled. A writer was brought in to change the plot to a martial arts star named Billy Lo and his girlfriend (Colleen Camp) getting pushed around by the local crime syndicate, played by Academy Award winner Dean Jagger and his associate, the deadly walking cane using Hugh O’Brien. Another Academy Award winner (Gig Young) plays an American reporter and friend of Billy’s. This would also be Young’s final film performance before he committed a murder/suicide act with his wife.

Eleven minutes of footage Lee shot was used in the film. Golden Harvest sprinkles the film with random reaction shots from Lee from previous films. Four actors have been credited as playing Billy through a series of dark glasses, fake beards and many shots with his back to the camera. The worst move (besides using the actual Lee funeral news footage in this film) was a cardboard face mask on Lee put on the face of the actor. Ed Wood would have called the move tacky. Writer Grady Hendrix calls Game of Death “tacky cinematic necrophilia.”

It should also be noted that in this film, an assassin sneaks onto the set of Billy’s latest film (GoD recreates the final moment from Fist of Fury), posing as an extra. While the film crew announces that blanks will be used in the prop guns, the assassin puts a real bullet in his gun. Fifteen years later, while filming The Crow, Brandon Lee (Bruce’s son) would die on set from an accidental shooting by a squib load in a gun.

Tacky cinematic necrophilia aside, added by the forever death connection between Bruce and Brandon Lee, the actual fight footage of Lee at the end of Game of Death is still very good, especially the final battle between Lee and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar (one of Lee’s real-life students). There’s also a Bond-esque opening and closing credit sequences with a score by John Barry and the closing credits song performed by Colleen Camp. For you fellow film nerds, Lee’s yellow and black jumpsuit that he wears at the end of the film was the inspiration for the outfit worn by The Bride (Uma Thurman) in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Producer Raymond Chow and director Robert Clouse (the same men who made Enter the Dragon) attempt to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Lee’s footage and wannabe James Bond open/close aside, Game of Death still leaves a bad taste.

NOTE: Despite the badness surrounding Game of Death, my rating of this collection still stands. There is a commentary track and some special features about the making of this ghoulish, cinematic cash-in and Golden Harvest made a lot of money off this. I’m appreciative for more insight into this cinematic smear.

There are not one but two discs filled with supplements. Speaking of Brucepolitation films, Disc #6 has the Golden Harvest 1981 cash-in Game of Death 2, feature more archive footage of Lee. This time around Billy is killed 30 minutes into the film (actual funeral footage used again!) and his kid brother (Tae-jeong Kim, who was one of the faux Lee’s in Game of Death) will avenge his brother’s death. This is followed by the 1973 documentary Bruce Lee: The Man and The Legend. More news footage of the funerals in Hong Kong and Seattle (Lee’s final resting place) and blink-or-you’ll-miss-them appearances by George Lazenby, James Coburn, Steve McQueen and Chuck Norris. Annoying Narrator Guy (who sounds more like a narrator for a Rankin-Bass cartoon than serious news) talks us through Lee’s life and career using photos and footage that look like it cost the filmmakers nothing to beg, borrow or steal.

After three bad cinematic tastes, Disc #7 bounces back with a special edition of Enter the Dragon, featuring a few extra minutes plus a commentary track by producer Paul Herrer (the same one from the Warner Brothers video release). There are also two ten-minute documentaries that could have gone at least 90 and still be entertaining. Producer Andre Morgan discusses the history of the Golden Harvest film company and Grady Hendrix delivers a wonderful whirlwind essay about the Bruceplotation films (with trailers!). There’s also interviews with two voice-actors (both British) who did a number of the dubbing jobs for martial films in the 1970s.

Four of the five feature films get a 4K digital restoration (Both Enter the Dragons get the 2K treatment) and they look great by comparison. They don’t look like The Godfather or Apocalypse Now, but there are trailers for all the films in this collection and the trailers really show the comparison. For me, this is the first time I got to experience The Big Boss, Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon with subtitles and not dubbed. Dubbing martial art films have been a cinematic punchline for a half-century, but hearing those films in its native tongue takes out any of the snark.

To build a bridge between these five noteworthy films and their influences, both serious and comic, The Criterion Collection has created a greatest hits package of extraordinary magnitude. Film fans have your gratitude.

Matthew Socey is host of Film Soceyology for wfyi.org.

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