Bruce Lee Ultimate DVD Collection Review
In Bruce Lee’s tragically short career, he featured in only 6 films, but made an impact on the world unlike any other martial artist had previously done, or is likely to in the future. As well as encouraging thousands to take up the practice of various martial arts, his unparalleled ‘cool’ persona, and attitude, introduced the large majority of Western audiences to Hong Kong films for the first time. Although it might be pushing it to call either of the Game of Death films a “Bruce Lee movie” (he died before their completion, but more on that in their respective sections), they are nevertheless both presented in this collection, making it a must-have for fans and enthusiasts of his work.
The Big Boss (1971)
Lee’s first movie is rarely regarded as his best, but it is by all means a wonderful indication of what is to come. Lee plays Cheng Chao-An, a young man who moves from the rural countryside to Thailand in order to live with his relatives. He soon finds work in an ice-production factory, but shortly after he starts work there, his cousins, who are also employed there, inadvertently find cocaine hidden in one of the ice blocks. After going to talk to the boss about it, they go missing, thus leading to Cheng to do some investigating of his own.
This is undeniably the most unbalanced of all Lee’s films. Cheng swears that he will not fight anyone, and so for just under the first half of the film, he takes abuse, and insults, without retaliating. This obvious attempt to build tension does not entirely succeed. Although it is indeed extremely satisfying once Lee finally snaps and starts fighting, it would have been equally as good if it had happened a quarter of an hour earlier. The fight scenes are good, if not quite at the standard of Lee’s later films, but are occasionally unnecessarily violent; despite sympathising with Cheng, one can’t help but think he goes a little too far in a couple of scenes. There is also a very awkward erotic scene, which accomplishes virtually nothing in regard to the plot, is not particularly enjoyable, and just seems very out of place in regards to the rest of the film.
Fist of Fury (1972)
Often regarded as Lee’s best movie, and not only one of the best martial arts films, but also one of the best films to come out of Hong Kong, it is clear why so many people enjoy Fist of Fury.
Lee plays Chen Zhen, a loyal member of his dojo, and seemingly reserved martial artist. However, when his master dies, he is so full of grief that he literally tries to dig up his master’s grave as the others are trying to bury him. Eventually it takes a fellow member of the dojo to strike him over the head with a shovel to restrain him. The scene is a little comic due to its over-the-top nature, but it does convey how much Chen respected and liked his master. So when the rival Japanese school come to taunt Chen and his friends at their master’s funeral, presenting them with a sign that translates to “The Sick Man of Asia” it’s obvious he’s not going to take it too well. Lee’s acting is nothing short of outstanding, and without a doubt one of the most intense performances committed to film. You can practically see the fire in his eyes when the Japanese are disrespecting him, but Chen’s friends manage to convince him to stay calm, as their master would not have wanted him to fight.
Nevertheless, only a few minutes later and Chen is strolling into the Japanese school, ready to teach them all a lesson. What begins as a one on one fight with a Japanese volunteer soon develops into an all out brawl, with Chen easily managing to take on all of them by himself. After showcasing his roundhouse kicks and sheer strength (at one point taking two of the Japanese, one in each hand, and throwing them across the dojo) he takes out what would later become an iconic symbol, his nunchaku, and proceeds to inflict pain upon all those still standing. This scene would later be referenced in Kill Bill Volume 1, when Uma uses her katana to slice the legs of several of the Crazy 88 in a capoeira style ‘dance’. Then on the way out Chen literally makes two of the Japanese eat their words, forcing the derogatory sign that they had previously presented down their throats. The other fights are equally good, Lee’s performance astoundingly good, and Nora Miao is the best love interest of all Lee’s films, with restrained but touching acting, and good chemistry with Lee.
Way of the Dragon (1972)
Way of the Dragon is Lee’s directorial debut (as well as being the only film to be fully directed by Lee), and it’s immediately clear that it’s a labour of love. The fight scenes are more realistic, showing off Lee’s own form of martial arts, Jeet Kune Do, at its best, and avoiding flashy jumping kicks that would presumably be little use in a proper fight. That said, there’s a scene where Lee wields a nunchaku in each hand, using them both simultaneously, so don’t presume that the fight scenes lack any punch (if you’ll excuse the dismal pun).
Bruce plays Tang Lung, who, when he hears gangsters are trying to take over his relatives’ restaurant, travels to Rome to help them out. Lee must have had a lot of fun making this, and it shows. The fight scenes are top-notch, the humour is endearing, despite markedly losing a little in the translation, and Bruce’s acting is perfect for the role. However it is the finale that viewers will remember this film for, with Lee taking on Chuck Norris (in his first major role) in the Roman Colosseum. It sounds more than a little overdramatic, but it works – the fight is a joy to watch, and Norris’ character, Colt, is shown to be human (unlike the villains in Lee’s other films), and so gives the fight extra depth.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
This is the film that introduced martial arts, and indeed Lee himself, to a Western audience. With a large budget, high production values, and a semi-American cast and crew, the studio must have believed that America was ready to receive Lee, and how right they were. Lee stars as, well, Lee, a martial arts master turned secret agent, who is sent to infiltrate the private island, complete with secret underground lair, of the criminal mastermind, Han. The plot seems to be straight out of a Bond movie, and it effectively is, as the writer ‘borrowed’ quite heavily from the plot of Dr. No.
He arrives at the island with the excuse of wanting to take part in the martial arts tournament that is being held there, but actually intending to investigate the island. Soon enough, he finds out everything, and continues to compete in the tournament. The climax of the film, a fight with Han in a hall of mirrors was truly an exceptional idea, but is partially ruined by the over-the-top, almost pantomime, nature of the villain, who takes off his prosthetic hand and swaps it for a variety of feline-esque claws. Overall, Enter the Dragon is the most professional of Lee’s movies, but still retains his raw energy, and the complex storyline (relative to his other films at least) is not at the expense of good fight scenes.
Game of Death (1978)
Often the subject of debate regarding whether to consider this a true “Bruce Lee movie”, Game of Death marks Lee’s last cinematic work, as he died during the production, in mysterious circumstances that have become the subject of many a documentary. He plays Billy Lo, a film star who refuses to be forced into joining an international syndicate. As a result, he is shot during filming (eerily, the same would happen to Lee’s son Brandon just 15 years later on the set of The Crow). Lo uses this opportunity to pretend that the shot was fatal, setting up a public funeral, whilst he pursues the syndicate.
As a result of dying before filming could be finished, Lee is replaced by a different actor for the scenes that he was unable to film (thankfully he finished all the action scenes, leaving just the majority of the dramatic scenes for the other actor). In an attempt to try and make it as unapparent as possible, the filmmakers make the other actor wear large dark sunglasses (even in dark scenes), and try and cover his face in shade as often as possible. It’s a great pity that Lee was unable to finish this film, as it could easily have been his best. This is most apparent towards the end, when Billy Lo fights his way up a pagoda to find the boss of the syndicate, facing a different opponent on each floor, including the 7-foot tall Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in what will go down as one of the greatest fights ever filmed. Lee’s fight with Danny Inasanto is also worthy of praise, with both men using nunchaku, yet not getting them tangled up once.
Tower of Death (a.k.a. Game of Death 2) (1981)
Calling Game of Death a Bruce Lee film is one thing, calling Tower of Death that is really pushing it. Stock footage of Bruce Lee is used, including deleted scenes from Enter the Dragon, however, as you can imagine, the filmmakers have lots of difficulty splicing and editing the clips together in a coherent form. What we are left with are a few scenes of Bruce Lee fighting at the beginning, then for the remainder of the film it is down to Tung Lung, who plays Lee’s younger brother, to entertain viewers.
Despite sounding quite awful, as long as you are not expecting this to be a Bruce Lee movie, and instead look at it as a straightforward kung fu film, then it really is quite enjoyable. The fights come thick and fast, with martial arts marvel Yuen Biao responsible for the energetic stunts. Whilst it might not belong in this collection, Tower of Death is as enjoyable as cheesy 80s kung fu movies come.
The majority of these films are presented immaculately, and it is safe to say that they are the best they’ve ever looked. All the films are presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, although the quality of the transfers seem to decrease as the films get chronologically older, so surprisingly, the earliest look the best.
Starting with The Big Boss, the visual quality is quite simply stunning. Despite its age, extremely little grain is present. The brightness and contrast levels are very accurate, but what stands out is just how sharp everything is, without major edge enhancement. It should also be noted that this is the least cropped of the available versions of the film. Fist of Fury is also presented excellently. The colour levels are accurate and not over-saturated, blacks are consistently strong, and again there is very little grain. Whilst not as sharp as the previous two, the transfer of Way of the Dragon is otherwise just as high quality. It should be noted that the beginning airport scenes are quite blurry, but judging by all other versions of the film, it is due to the camera not being focused during filming, and not because of a bad transfer. With the visual quality of the first three being admirable, it is disappointing that Enter the Dragon is not as good. At times it is faultless, but then it fluctuates – colours go from crisp and accurate to looking washed out, and a fair amount of grain is evident in some scenes, whilst in others it is non-existent. Thankfully, Game of Death does not suffer from the same problems, it is very crisp, has accurate colour levels, and very little grain is present. Tower of Death is a little less sharp than the others, but the saturation, brightness, and contrast are all high quality.
Fortune Star really should be commended for these transfers, especially due to the notoriously bad preservation of Hong Kong films.
Sound is also impressive, as well as being high quality, the range of available tracks is second to none. For The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon, and Enter the Dragon, in other words his Chinese-language films, you have the choice between Cantonese 5.1 Dolby, Cantonese DTS, Mandarin 5.1 Dolby, Mandarin DTS, and the original Cantonese mono soundtrack. Re-read the last sentence, as impressive as it sounds, you must surely be able to notice one major error. That’s right; Enter the Dragon is in English, which brings me onto my only real fault with this collection. There is no English language option for Enter the Dragon, only Cantonese and Mandarin, which just does not seem right, and more-or-less spoils the viewing of the film. That’s the only real fault though, the other films, Game of Death and Tower of Death both have English 5.1 Dolby, English DTS, and the original English soundtrack.
All the tracks are impressive, the DTS has a slight edge over the 5.1 Dolby, in clarity and power, but both tracks make good use of all speakers, and have effective bass levels. The mono track is a nice addition, die-hard fans will probably be pleased, but understandably, others have no real reason to use it. It’s there if you want it though.
The extras are all placed conveniently on a separate disc. First up, are the Bruce Lee Photo Galleries & Trailers, split up into still photos, an automated slideshow of those stills, and both an original and new trailer for each of the six films. The trailers are fairly entertaining, and it’s interesting to see the contrast between the old and the new ones, the former using instantly recognisable classical music and minimal editing, the latter using quick cuts and CGI transition effects.
Next up are Celebrity Interviews, including discussions with many A-list Hong Kong actors and directors, including Sammo Hung (friend of Bruce, actor in Enter the Dragon, and responsible for making sure the legend of the Little Dragon lives on, with films such as Enter the Fat Dragon), actor Simon Yam (Fulltime Killer, PTU), actor Paul Pui (Lost in Time), director Wong Jing (City Hunter) and many more. Running in at just over 9 minutes, it’s one of the more interesting extras on offer, although it’s definitely a little short.
The next selectable extra is 11 minutes worth of Unseen Footage, although some of it is far from unseen. It isn’t nearly as entertaining as it could have been, as it is just set to music, without any commentary explaining what is going on, or giving anecdotes about the filming.
The Bruce Lee NG Shots are more of the same, but infinitely more amusing. It shows Bruce Lee filming his infamous nunchaku scene from Game of Death and it really does justice to how hard it must have been. It’s nice to see Lee laughing after he messes up a few times, as it’s a side to him so rarely shown in the films. After about a minute of outtakes from his fight with Inasanto, there’s a further two minutes of outtakes, all from Game of Death. We see Lee laughing several more times, which is very refreshing.
Finally, there’s the 3 minute long Enter the Dragon Alternate Opening Credits. The name really says it all, not very exciting at all, even purists won’t find it particularly fascinating.
Not exactly an extra, but the collection also comes with a 32-page glossy booklet consisting of photos and quotes from Lee and film critics.
That’s it. A very disappointing selection of extras from something claiming to be the ‘Ultimate Collection’. Thankfully, the near-perfect transfers, and large selection of high-quality audio options, make this set more than worth buying regardless of the extras. If you are a fan but don’t already own Lee’s films, or want to upgrade from your VHS versions, then this collection is a must-buy.