A Criterion Collection box set for the ages
Assembling the 5 films most associated with the legendary Bruce Lee all in one boxed set on Blu-ray for the very first time, Criterion Collection has dropped the mic with Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits. As a young man who grew up extremely proud to own the slick Bruce Lee VHS boxed set which featured a continuous dragon design across the spines of the 4 included films, I’ve counted myself a Bruce Lee fan since my youth. But it’s tough for kids to understand things like licensing deals and exploitation. I never understood why I couldn’t get Lee’s most famous film, Enter The Dragon, included in my sweet matching VHS set. Nor did I understand why, when I purchased a 2 pack of other Bruce Lee “films”… they were indeed neither “films” or even pieces of entertainment which starred “Bruce Lee”. But now those great curators of our time, The Criterion Collection, have combined their powers of both curation and license procurement to bring us what will almost certainly be the greatest home video release of 2020 and a new gold standard for Bruce Lee physical media available in the United States. Assembling The Big Boss, Fist Of Fury, The Way Of The Dragon, Enter The Dragon, and Game Of Death in one gorgeous box, filled with new restorations and packed with bonus features, Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits ranks among the most exciting home video releases I can recall.
The Big Boss (1971)
A film that’s more fascinating than fantastic, The Big Boss will forever be a part of history as the first starring role of one of cinema’s most dynamic worldwide phenomena: Bruce Lee. What I learned from Criterion’s excellent and plentiful bonus content in this Blu-ray release, however, indicates that The Big Boss as we know it may never have come to pass. There’s a dynamic where Lee’s character, Cheng Chao-an, is travelling to find work in Thailand with some of his extended Chinese family, led by James Tien’s Hsiu Chien. We’re bouncing back and forth between Cheng Chao-an and Hsiu Chien as the first half of the movie plays out precisely because director Lo Wei was waffling between which character would live through the movie and become the lead! The result is almost a perfect introduction to a phenomenon in that Lee restrains himself and holds back from fighting until eventually his characters’ rage boils over, Tien’s character has been killed, and Lee can just absolutely explode into fully formed and legendary martial arts violence.
While Lee is electric and Lo Wei accidentally handles him almost like Spielberg handled the shark in Jaws, the plotting of The Big Boss is extremely frustrating. This small group of our “good guys” work at an ice factory and their corrupt manager and the titular big boss are using that factory as a cover for smuggling heroin. Well-meaning factory workers keep disappearing as they learn of their boss’ daliences and then get offed. We keep seeing the same scenario play out over and over again where our heroes trust the boss or accept the boss’ explanations, get sucked into the boss’ lies, and then end up distracted or dead. This is, of course, intentional, showing the tools of corruption and how easily they sway men, but it undercuts any dramatic tension. We know the bosses are bad. The audience spends the whole movie many steps ahead of the main characters. This makes for an experience that feels drawn out.
Those complaints aside, it’s clear why The Big Boss became a smash hit as you have not only the unprecedented furious star power of an unleashed Bruce Lee but also a blue collar class hero who rises up and crushes the corrupt forces who have taken so much from him. Audiences love when the little guy is able to stick it to The Man and it’s entirely satisfying here to see Cheng Chao-an cast off any inhibition and just murder some fools. Of course, Chinese censors required that Chao-an be arrested for his actions in the end… because we can’t allow blue collar workers to take TOO much power back. But overall The Big Boss satisfies with a thrilling back half after somewhat limping through its first half. No doubt this would be a middling-to-forgotten piece of exploitation cinema were it not for the game-changing presence of a burgeoning legend.
Fist Of Fury (1972)
One of the most renowned martial arts films in all of cinema, here in Fist Of Fury Bruce Lee portrays Chen Zhen, the aggrieved and vengeful star pupil of a master who he believes has died under nefarious circumstances. Once again my roots with this film go deep, but in my youth I only had a vague sense of the interconnectedness of the “Chen Zhen” cinematic universe which Fist Of Fury has spawned. I’d always been under the impression that Chen Zhen was indeed a historical figure who had grown into legend. It turns out Lee’s Chen Zhen was the very first screen portrayal of the fictional character and the many adaptations and connected films all stem from here. Jet Li’s Fist Of Legend (a film I long considered to be the best kung fu film ever made and even still consider Jet Li’s masterpiece) is a remake of Fist Of Fury, which I’m not sure I knew in my younger days. But that didn’t stop me from countless rewatches of Li’s film. Eventually I had a magical Fantastic Fest experience with a packed and electric audience in which I saw Donnie Yen’s “sequel” to Fist of Fury in which he paid homage to Bruce Lee to great effect in Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen in 2010. Yen apparently also portrayed the character in a tv show prior to this film, and Jackie Chan also starred in a film called New Fist Of Fury, which I have yet to see. Countless other exploitation titles purport to be sequels or remakes as well. My point in bringing all this up is simply to note that Bruce Lee’s iconic portrayal here is so legendary that Chen Zhen will almost certainly live forever, being portrayed by the stars of future generations both as a way to pay nationalistic homage to China and to honor the memory of Bruce Lee.
About that nationalistic homage. Many Hong Kong films I watched growing up had the rails all the way off. Some of the greatest on screen violence and melodrama was coming out of that glorious time and place. But Chinese cinema has more and more come under the censorial control of the Communist government there over the past several decades. Fist Of Fury takes place in Shanghai in 1910, a time in which tensions were high between China and Japan and the Japanese were “occupying” Shanghai in a significant way. Fist Of Fury portrays the Japanese as the villainous rogues who poisoned Master Huo Yuanjia (who apparently WAS a historical figure) and mock our Chinese heroes and bully them. Bruce Lee is able to champion Chinese martial arts and channel rage against those who killed his master to become an avenging legend here in Fist Of Fury. By harkening back to a time and place where China might really bristle at being chided as the “sick men of Asia”, Fist Of Fury taps into a sense of aggrievement and Bruce Lee becomes a one-man wrecking machine proving martial arts superiority and national pride. The film was a phenomenon and that legendary hero of China is ripe for revisiting in today’s global powerhouse Chinese government.
I find Fist Of Fury to be instantly better than The Big Boss, and it sustains a higher level of quality than that film throughout. Lee is the uncontested star of the show here, and the trademark mannerisms and talents we all associate with Lee are on full display. Glorious dojo battles with one man versus dozens, expert nunchaku displays, righteous anger, technical prowess… it’s all here. If The Big Boss broke Bruce Lee out as a star, Fist Of Fury cemented him as a legend.
I’m not sure exactly how I’ll handle covering all the supplemental material included in Criterion’s unprecedented box set Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits. But needless to say, there’s a treasure trove of content in this box set this piece won’t be the last of my coverage. I’ve already spent countless hours watching archival interviews, new interviews captured exclusively for this release, and listening to commentary tracks from Hong Kong film professional and expert Mike Leeder (among other tracks). It’s an almost bottomless treasure trove for aficionados.
The package itself is gorgeous. I love the artwork and will treasure this set forever. The fact that it brings together ALL of Lee’s greatest hits into a single set is historic. And it’s impossible to overstate how fantastic all the bonus content is. Providing trivia, historical context, philosophical underpinnings, unpacking of racial strife, and more, this set will go a long way to not simply making you a fan of Bruce Lee’s, but also a student.
And I’m Out.
Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits is now available of Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection
Part 2 covers the second two discs in this box set: The Way of the Dragon & Enter The Dragon
Part 3 covers the final discs in this box set: Game Of Death & Supplemental Material
This interview highlights Game Of Death Redux producer/editor Alan Canvan