Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, Part 3: GAME OF DEATH & Bruce Lee’s Legacy

In which Bruce Lee crosses over into myth and legend

This being my final piece of coverage on the Criterion Collection’s phenomenal box set Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, it’s safe to say that this is the home video release of 2020. With each disc that highlights a particular feature film being packed to the gills with supplemental material, there are also two entire other discs (making a total 7) that feature nothing but incredible bonus content enough to satisfy even the most profoundly passionate Bruce Lee fan. I’ll go in depth on some of those features below after offering brief reviews on Game Of Death, Game Of Death Redux, and Game Of Death II.

Game Of Death (1978)

I hate Game Of Death ‘78.

It absolutely, 100%, without a shadow of a doubt HAD to be included in this exhaustive Bruce Lee box set, and Criterion was right to feature it as its own film with its own Blu-ray dedicated to it. After all, it became the second highest grossing “Bruce Lee” film behind only Enter The Dragon and features some of the most iconic imagery of Lee’s entire career.

But I’d argue that this is the worst single film to be given the Criterion Collection seal of approval. It’s simply unbearable to sit through after watching each Bruce Lee film get progressively better than the last, seeing Lee grow into a formidable, multi-threat talent before and behind the camera… and then to see his humanity absolutely desecrated in a cash-grab film produced by his own collaborators from Golden Harvest pictures and Enter The Dragon.

To clarify, Game Of Death is a film released many years after Bruce Lee’s tragic death that was retrofitted into a feature film in such a way as to use some of the real footage which Lee shot as writer/director/star of his own version of Game Of Death. Having passed away before he could finish the project, Golden Harvest caved to fan pressure and cashed in on the memory of their departed star and managed to piece together just about the most crass, disrespectful, and dubious major feature film I can recall.

Writer/Director Robert Clouse creates a character named Billy Lo, a rising movie star much like Lee himself was, only Lo is indebted to some weird organized crime group in Hong Kong that is inexplicably run by white people. Lo is played by multiple Bruce Lee lookalike actors throughout the film and frequently they are hidden behind giant sunglasses, surgical bandages, bad camera angles, inexcusably dark lighting, or in one instance just flat out hiding an actor’s face behind what appears to be a cardboard cutout of Bruce Lee’s face. It’s mind boggling. Clouse writes around his absent star by having hugely uninteresting villain characters deliver all the exposition and making all the major plot movements happen, which is pretty inexcusable in any movie that hopes to engage its audience. It’s laughable that the script involves Lo faking his own death after a facial injury and therefore needing to spend huge portions of the film in bandages or behind a “disguise”. And if Game Of Death had stopped there, perhaps it might have been just a wild curio for cynical audiences. It might even be enjoyed as the trashy exploitation it is. Except that Game Of Death goes even a step further into pure desecration territory when it includes real live footage from Bruce Lee’s actual funeral, even going so far as to show us the open casket of the fallen legend. And frankly that just turns my stomach. It’s not the visual of our fallen hero so much as it is the sheer disrespect of the entire enterprise. Don’t intercut your trashy exploitation film with real, vulnerable images of sobbing Hong Kongers mourning a fallen idol. Just don’t do that. Golden Harvest and Robert Clouse should have known better.

But then… against all odds, as Game Of Death reaches its climax, there appears the real Bruce Lee in his yellow track suit, working his way up a pagoda and fighting a few different martial arts masters, culminating in a battle with the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is over 7 feet tall and a real life student of Lee’s. It only lasts for about 12 minutes of the total film… but it’s so damn energizing as to convey an almost supernatural thrill. Here is our hero back from the grave displaying all the charisma and raw talent and deep philosophy which made us fall in love with him in the first place. I hate to admit it, but had I been alive and consenting in 1978… I probably would have shelled out the money to buy a ticket to this crass piece of shit JUST for those glorious 12 minutes of bursting vitality and singular poise.

Game Of Death can’t be excused or shrugged off as a silly or fun exploitation picture because if those with whom we collaborated and shared our dreams can’t resist selling out our memory for a quick buck, who can we trust? Game Of Death would be an unconscionable tragedy if it weren’t for those glorious moments when the true legend shines so brightly for one last fight.

Game Of Death Redux

Hands down the coolest piece of supplemental material on this entire box set loaded with supplemental material, Game Of Death Redux almost single handedly washes the taste of Game Of Death ’78 out of one’s mouth. Don’t miss my interview with Game Of Death Redux producer and editor Alan Canvan for a whole lot of background on how this project came to be and how it ended up being included in this box set.

Here is our best ever glimpse into the vision Bruce Lee truly had for Game Of Death. Here is an almost 40 minute short film that flows and fits and functions as a real movie. Golden Harvest would have done SO much better to have released something like what Canvan put together and ship it around the world to honor Bruce Lee’s legacy and give fans the footage they were clamoring for instead of the mockery that is Game Of Death ’78. But I digress.

Canvan makes a point here to tighten up the footage and really take into account both the filmmaking prowess Lee would have striven for in his final product, as well as the thematic elements of the lessons about life and Kung Fu that Lee would have wanted to convey. And most importantly… fans just get something special here, a resurrection of footage many of us had never seen before. It feels like we’re getting to watch a “new” Bruce Lee movie and it’s as charming and beguiling and utterly badass as Bruce intended. Game Of Death Redux cannot be missed, especially if you’ve always wondered what was going on with Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s sunglasses in that final battle.

Game Of Death II

Believe it or not, Golden Harvest doubled down on their shameful exploitation of Bruce Lee with an entire sequel to the ill-advised Game Of Death. And, against all odds… it’s a drastically better film than Game Of Death! As only Golden Harvest could do, with their vaults of real Bruce Lee footage ripe for, well, harvest… Game Of Death II follows the Billy Lo character as he tries to look out for his brother (using dubbing and shots from every Bruce Lee film under the sun), gets murdered, and then we abandon Billy completely and simply follow his brother, who gets vengeance for Billy by burrowing down, into the ground, fighting progressively more challenging villainous martial arts masters in an underground futuristic bunker.

While Game Of Death II ALSO briefly shows footage of the actual Bruce Lee funeral, the rest of the movie feels like the playful homage to Bruce Lee that perhaps Game Of Death thought it was. It’s not a great film by any stretch, but by spinning its own narrative and crafting its own “Shaw Brothers meets James Bond” style, it at least doesn’t feel like it has to hide its “not Bruce Lee” protagonist and kill any hope for a few fun martial arts scenes in a classic villainous lair.

The Package & Beyond

Criterion has outdone itself with Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits. You come to this because you want a beautifully put together box containing all of Bruce Lee’s major works in one set, a feat not widely available before. But you stay for a frankly expansive supplemental experience featuring new interviews, archival commentaries and behind-the-scenes features, classic interviews, and two entire discs worth of supplemental material on TOP of the discs featuring the primary films. One those bonus discs is where you’ll find Game Of Death II, and another feature length documentary called Bruce Lee: The Man And The Legend, which is perhaps where Golden Harvest pulled from for all that footage of Bruce Lee’s funeral which was so offensively used in Game Of Death. This documentary is less crass than Game Of Death, but not by much. There’s incredible footage inside of the Lee family home and following Linda, Brandon, and Shannon through their mourning. It’s worth a watch even if the narration is melodramatic.

On the final disc there’s a different cut of Enter The Dragon and a whole lot of great featurettes, perhaps most notably one featuring cinema expert Grady Hendrix talking about the phenomena of Brucesploitation films. It’s humorous and insightful and just plain wonderful.

Perhaps, most importantly, what Criterion is able to contribute to with the release of this set, is a collective remembrance and rediscovery of Bruce Lee. More than just a movie star, Bruce Lee was a global phenomenon, a Chinese American cultural tsunami, and a meaningful thinker, philosopher, and teacher. Through gathering so much of Bruce Lee’s most widely known achievements into one gorgeous package, Criterion makes it easy for new fans and devotees alike to have one definitive place to go when they want to become acquainted with Bruce Lee or sit at the feet of a legend and soak in something new from his legacy. For me, Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits isn’t just a slick new product to own, but more like a beloved novel that will stay with me for life and be revisited over the years with reverence and awe thanks to the indelible subject on whom it is focused. It’s not hyperbole to say that experiencing Bruce Lee as deeply as this box set allowed me to was something akin to standing on cinematic holy ground. Bruce’s story is one of tenacity. It’s also an immigrant story. A Chinese story. An American story. A triumph and a tragedy. There is so much to glean from both the human being that Bruce Lee was, and the iconic, legendary status which he now (and forever) occupies in our collective conscience. Sure, they’re just a bunch of slapdash kung fu exploitation films if that’s how you want to see them. But if you want to seek out why Bruce Lee has attained the legendary status he has, you’ll be able to find that here.

And I’m Out.

Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits is now available of Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection

Part 1 covered the first two discs in this box set: The Big Boss & Fist Of Fury

Part 2 covered the second two discs in this box set: The Way of the Dragon & Enter The Dragon

Previous post SPINEMA Issue 44: Mondo Woos Hans Zimmer’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 Score to Vinyl
Next post PAYDIRT Impresses With Style, But Otherwise Falls Short