There are a few things to acknowledge about Shout! Factory’s new release, The Bruce Lee Legacy Collection. For one thing, while Bruce Lee fans have surely been clamoring for such a thorough release on Blu-ray, what is actually included in this 11-disc collection are four Blu-rays and seven DVDs, as opposed to a full Blu-ray library.These four Blu-rays cover a quartet of Lee’s biggest films, The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon and the posthumously completed Game of Death, but contain the exact same material as their corresponding DVDs. This counts for the bonus features on the discs, as well as the picture quality. Sure Blu-rays are, by nature, better quality, but these transferred standard definition pictures are about the same on Blu-ray as the experience one would have of inserting a DVD into a Blu-ray player. Thus, their inclusion is questionable at best (except as a marketing ploy).
Completest fans will also note the absence of Lee’s best known film (at least in the United States), Enter the Dragon. This is, of course, because Warner Bros still holds the right to that film and it released its own 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray earlier this year.
These concessions aside, it’s easy to point out that The Bruce Lee Legacy Collection is a Lee fan’s dream come true for a boxed set. Let’s look at the packaging to begin with. This is no standard “boxed set” offering with discs on the clamshell packed into a thin cardboard sleeve. Rather, this collection is, in itself, a commemorative Bruce Lee book with the first six (double sided) pages holding the 11 discs and the following 64 pages covering highlights from Lee’s career in full color, glossy pages. The book portion reaches back to the 1966 – 67 TV show The Green Hornet, on which he played Kato, and proceeds film by film (a chapter on each) through Game of Death with detailed articles and beautiful representations of posters and promotional art. Even without the videos on the discs themselves, this makes for a mighty fine coffee table volume and tribute to the world’s most famous martial artist.
What warrants 11 (well, really, seven) discs worth of material are the incredibly thorough extras here. While Warner’s Enter the Dragon disc is mostly comprised of previously released bonus features, “Legacy” shows Shout! Factory at their most thorough, sparing no expense to gather old and new extras to pack every single disc to the very excesses of their capacities. In fact, each individual disc outdoes most recent Shout! Factory releases by that proverbial country mile in the extras category alone.
Of course the main attraction of this boxed set is, and ought to be, the films themselves, with the in-depth documentaries clocking in as a viable second place. In addition to the absence of Enter the Dragon, The Bruce Lee Legacy Collection (obviously and logically) omits the episodes of Lee’s star-making work in The Green Hornet and his copious work as a child actor in Hong Kong films. Luckily, the documentaries cover all of these subjects in detail and the feature discs kick off with Lee’s first major motion picture The Big Boss (aka, Fists of Fury). This 1971 Lo Wei-directed film was Lee’s first major project for the big screen and his first project of any kind after (frustrated with Hollywood) leaving the USA for Hong Kong and the productions of Raymond Chow.
The Big Boss contains many of the trademarks of most of the films of Bruce Lee (nee Lee Jun-fan). In addition to the high-kicking, super-heroic action, The Big Boss also deals with Chinese people being oppressed by an external power. In this case, Lee portrays Cheng Chao-an, a young Chinese man who moves to Thailand to work in an ice factory with his cousins. It isn’t long before Cheng runs afoul of the title “Big Boss” in Thai factory owner Hsiao Mi (Han Ying-chieh), his heroin trade and his murderous henchmen.
The Big Boss goes farther than the cartoonish (if skilled) fighting of The Green Hornet and even beyond the blood-streaking martial arts of Enter the Dragon for an often ultraviolent and even occasionally sadistic film rife with Dawn of the Dead style day-glow blood and dead bodies broken up by occasional comic relief and nudity. Especially in the original Cantonese language audio (as opposed to the almost cartoon-sounding English dubbing), The Big Boss proves to be an engrossing drama of drugs, romance, family loyalty and culture clashes all centered around the talented acting of Bruce Lee, not to mention his martial arts prowess. However, as great as this film often is (and it is great), it can also devolve into clichés, black-and-white morality and occasional stock characterizations (Maria Yi’s Chiao Mei is less a tough Lois Lane love interest than a typical damsel in distress).
The discs for The Big Boss are packed (as are they all) with extras, including a still gallery, Trailers and TV spots, interviews, revisits to the filming locations, scene extensions, alternate title sequence and finale and a short subject documentary on film composer Peter Thomas.
A 1971 action film about the international drug trade surely would have reminded many audiences of the contemporary film The French Connection, hence The Big Boss’ intended US release title of “The Chinese Connection”. The operative word, in this case, is “intended” as The Big Boss was released internationally as Fists of Fury, while Lee’s next film, the non-pluralized Fist of Fury (1972) hit US screens as The Chinese Connection due to an accident of title-switching.
Fist of Fury was also produced by Chow and written and directed by Wei and takes place during the Japanese occupation of parts of China. Lee portrays Chen Zhen, a martial arts student who returns to his school to find his master murdered. Chen is faced not only with the mystery surrounding his teachers death but the constant taunting of the Japanese of the local dojos as well as the omnipresent corruption, racism and oppression he sees around him (the Chinese are referred to as “the low men of Asia” and are equated with dogs). Needless to say there is a final battle, but things are not as black-and-white as one might expect.
Fist of Fury is among the most influential of the early Hong Kong action films and largely due to Lee’s performance and the phenomenal ending, Chen Zhen has been played by six additional actors (to date) in a long series of films up until the year 2010. Fist of Fury’s bonus features also include trailers and TV spots as well as an alternate title and beginning as well as two documentaries and a still gallery.
There has been much debate over just how much “assistance” Bruce Lee gave to the directors and fight choreographers of his films (it is known that some scenes of Enter the Dragon were directed by Lee). Lee indisputably was, however, the sole writer, director and spectacular star of his second 1972 film entitled The Way of the Dragon (retitled Return of the Dragon for its US release). Again, Lee plays a young Chinese who travels to a foreign land (this time Italy) to help his family deal with the local oppressors. Lee’s character Tang Lung soon teaches his fellow restaurant workers the art of Chinese boxing and together they take on the protection rackets of the Italian Mafia.
Like the rest of the films, Way of the Dragon is a good (if occasionally dated) drama with some great martial arts. In the case of Lee himself the arts seem almost impossible to believe, especially as he defies gravity, moves impossibly fast and twists his body into shockingly improbable contortions, like a one-man Justice League. One could find all kinds of high-minded reasons to enjoy Way of the Dragon, but let’s face facts… the reason to watch this movie is Bruce Lee’s final battle with none other than Chuck Norris… at the Roman Coliseum.
Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon (1972)
This climactic battle between Norris and Lee requires seatbelts and has a height restriction in order to ride. Children and pregnant women should not take this ride without consulting a physician first. Safety goggles and crash helmets are recommended for this mother of all fight scenes and professional athletes should take special care before looking directly at this battle for fear of accidentally testing positive for testosterone boosting. There may be no filmic melee more deserving of the word “awesome” that does not actually include light sabers.
In addition to the fact that Bruce Lee battles Chuck Norris at the finalé of this film, bonus features include interviews with martial artists Wong Jing, Simon Yam, Sammo Hung and Jon Been, a still gallery, alternate title sequence, trailers and TV spots and… did I happen to mention that the finalé of the feature presentation features Chuck Norris in battle with Bruce Lee at the Roman Coliseum? Because, if I failed to mention this… Chuck Norris vs. Bruce Lee.
After Way of the Dragon, Lee went on to begin his most ambitious project yet, Game of Death, intended to be the biggest worldwide demonstration of Lee’s martial arts style-of-no-style “Jeet Kune Do” (“Way of the Intercepting Fist”). After 100 minutes of footage was directed by Lee, Warner Bros. invited Lee to star in Enter the Dragon, during the post-production of which Bruce Lee died of an apparent cerebral edema (possibly exacerbated by pain medications). Thus, Game of Death was never completed by Lee and Lee’s vision (he was working from an incomplete screenplay) was not to be seen. Instead, much of Lee’s footage (albeit out-of-order) was incorporated into a new film (also entitled Game of Death), written by Jan Spears, produced by Raymond Chow and directed by Enter the Dragon’s Robert Clouse.
Instead of being a level-by-level battle through martial artists in a five-story pagoda, the new Game of Death (released in 1978, five years after Lee’s death) focuses on “Billy Lo”, an obvious representation of Bruce Lee. Lo is a martial arts movie star who dies in the making of one of his films. The twist is that Lo, unlike Lee, doesn’t die, but undergoes reconstructive surgery in order to take revenge on the foreign criminals who attempted to take him out. Hence martial artists Kim Tai-jong and Yuen Biao are able to double for Lee for three-fourths of the film.
The problem is that the continuity makes very little sense and while these two stand-ins are capable martial artists, Game of Death makes it clear that there is only one Bruce Lee. It’s painfully obvious when the real Lee is being utilized and the faux Lees are in frame instead (even when their features are obscured by motorcycle helmets, bandages, fake beards and wide ’70s sunglasses. What’s more, the MacGuffin of Lo’s reconstructive surgery allowing for the new face(s) also fails to make sense as the real Bruce Lee is seen toward the beginning of the film (in outtakes and actual footage from Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon), then is replaced by his stand-ins for the bulk of the feature and then the real Lee is back for the actual Game of Death fight scenes he had already filmed.
That said, much of the film is very exciting and the revenge subplot was influential in and of itself. Even better, when Lee’s actual Game of Death footage is finally seen, the audience gets Bruce Lee at his very best… swaggering, shouting, battling his way through nemeses and being the all-around entertainer he was. He battles Dan Inosanto, Ji Han Jae and the incredibly tall (and surprisingly light-on-his-feet) Karrem Abdul-Jabbar in a drawn-out fight scene that has to be seen to be believed. Lee’s perfection is seen clearly in the excellent continuity of the final scenes (which stand out due to the continuity lapses of the final film). The tears and stains in Lee’s clothes and his wounds look increasingly worse, yet natural in each scene.
So influential, in fact, was Game of Death, even in its incomplete form, that Lee’s yellow-and-black track suit and sneakers have become a pop-culture shorthand for badass martial arts, to the point that The Bride’s final battle in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 features Uma Thurman in her own leather version of the suit itself.
Much more of Lee’s original footage can be found in the bonus features, such as the “Game of Death Outtake Montage” and the “Game of Death Bloopers”. The disc also sports such extras as the documentary “Game of Death Revisited”, a documentary that explores the concepts surrounding Lee’s original vision, filming locations, deleted scenes, alternate endings, an alternate opening, trailers and a still gallery. The Blu-Ray version even contains the entire Japanese print (with the full Japanese titles and subtitles) and although the disc claims this feature is “in HD”, this is actually a somewhat scratchy and grainy transfer from the film, which might be a treat for the true grindhouse fans among us.
The first eight discs (well, actually four with duplicates) are, indeed, packed with excellent extras, but the next discs in the collection go deeper, starting with the 1973 documentary Bruce Lee: The Man, The Legend (by Ng Shek) and the slightly more simply titled 1977 documentary Bruce Lee: The Legend (by Russell Cawthorne). While some common ground is covered, each feature has its own take on Lee’s life and influences. The 2011 documentary I Am Bruce Lee (by Pete McCormack) is much more modern and reflects its post-MTV era creation with constant music on the soundtrack, multiple camera angles on each interviewee and celebrity interviews that go beyond those who worked with the legend and expanding out into those who were influenced by the man.
Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death (1978)
Ed O’Neill, Kobe Bryant, Mickey Rourke, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and many more join the usual contributors like Lee’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell, daughter Shannon Lee and frequent collaborator Bob Wall. I Am Bruce Lee’s bonus features also include the entirety of Lee’s Hollywood audition (which ultimately led to his casting in The Green Hornet and Lee’s personal films in which he trains actors like James Coburn, Steve McQueen and, yes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. All of the documentaries show Lee on set, training, interviewing and relaxing and each one demonstrates one thing the films also excel at: Bruce Lee loses his shirt more often than William Shatner.
The final disc, simply entitled “Bonus Features” (as redundant as that might seem) is another treasure trove of extras including two full-length interviews with Bob Wall, a detailed interview and demonstration with Dan Inosanto, contributions from martial artists, actors and directors remembering Lee, still galleries, “Return of the Dragon in 60 seconds” and a documentary called “Legacy of the Dragon”.
The extras really make this package (again, the book portion alone would be worth buying in itself), but there are sure to be detractors to this set out there. As comprehensive as this is, the forty years since Lee’s demise have produced no dearth of Lee material. Some fans might clamor about the exclusion of the 2000 documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (like, Enter the Dragon, also owned Warner Bros.) and any number of other rarities that are hard to come by.
However, considering the quality of this package and its seam-ripping packing-in of bonus features, this is the most comprehensive collection of Bruce Lee films, documentaries, interviews and extras to date. Bruce Lee fans will love the collection (even considering the duplicate discs) and non-Bruce Lee fans will likely find a reason to fall in love with the Hong Kong hero. Be aware that this is as complete as it gets (if not totally complete) and is not a full Blu-ray High Definition experience, like many fans would ache for, but viewers knowing what they’re in for will agree, this is worth every hour of the time it takes to view every disc… repeatedly.