No one has ever referred to Judge Kerry Birmingham as "Fist of Fury," but he was called "Crazy Legs Floyd" in the obscure martial arts film of the same name.
Our reviews of Game of Death (2010) (published February 15th, 2011), Game Of Death 2 (published June 11th, 2004), and The Way of the Dragon / Game of Death (published April 17th, 2013) are also available.
KARATE KUNG-FU! The new screen excitement that gives you the biggest kick of your life!
You'd be hard pressed to find an icon as mistreated and abused as Bruce Lee. One of the few legitimate icons to emerge from the latter half of the twentieth century, Lee may not have started the kung fu craze of the '70s, but he certainly fueled it to the peak of its popularity. After four films and a famously enigmatic death at the peak of his career, Lee had become that rarest of pop cultural identifiers: a cliché. So readily recognizable, so plied with imitable quirks, Lee was often imitated, but…as another cliché goes…never duplicated. Lee's legacy, like every icon, was one of identification without understanding; a wave of the open palm and a high-pitched "Hwaaaaaaah!" was enough for even children to understand: that's Bruce Lee. The Ultimate Collection brings together three of Lee's feature films (Enter the Dragon, conspicuously absent, was a Paramount production and does not appear on this Fox-produced set) and two films which exploit Lee's death with old and unused footage. Taken together, they amply demonstrate two things: what audiences liked about Lee to begin with, and what producers were willing to do to exploit that.
Facts of the Case
Lee's first starring role in a feature was in The Big Boss, alternately known as Fists of Fury (most of Lee's films are plagued by multiple, often confusing, titles). Lee plays Cheng, a former brawler trying to reform by swearing off fighting and moving into a new town with his many cousins, who set him up with a job at the factory where they work. Unknown to Cheng and the others, however, the factory is a front for drug smugglers. When two of the workers, including one of Cheng's cousins, accidentally find out, they are killed and disposed of by thugs in the employ of the factory's owner (the titular Boss). When the rest of his family begin to ask too many questions about their cousin's disappearance, Cheng must eventually break his vow of non-violence and avenge his family.
In Fist of Fury (see what I mean by confusing?), also known as The Chinese Connection, Lee plays early twentieth century historical figure Chen Zhen, who returns to Japanese-occupied Shanghai to find the master of his dojo dead under suspicious circumstances. When it becomes clear that it was foul play on behalf of the dojo's rivals, the Japanese karate school, Chen tracks down his master's killers…and becomes a wanted man in the process. Hunted by the police, his enemies, and his friends, Chen must hide from the law and track down the architects of his master's murder before any or all of them find him.
Way of the Dragon (or Return of the Dragon, in an obvious and misleading allusion to Enter the Dragon, released the same year) finds Lee back in modern times. Sent by his uncle to Rome to help out family friends, fish-out-of-water Lee (also directing) initially has trouble adjusting to his new surroundings, but quickly gets down to what he knows best when extorting gangsters threaten his friends' failing restaurant. After Lee repeatedly and unmistakably trounces the thugs, their boss eventually calls in a ringer, American martial artist Colt (Chuck Norris, Walker, Texas Ranger), who faces Lee in a final, coliseum-set showdown.
In Game of Death, Lee and a host of stunt doubles play Danny Lo, an up-and-coming martial arts movie star indebted to a sinister international entertainment syndicate that also wants Danny's singer girlfriend, Ann (Colleen Camp, Clue), under its thumb. When Danny won't play along, syndicate head Dr. Land (Dean Jagger, Bad Day at Black Rock) has Danny killed in an on-set "accident." But Danny isn't killed, only disfigured, and, with the world thinking him dead, he clandestinely plans to bring down Dr. Land's syndicate, culminating in the famous scene in which Lee fights his way up the levels of Land's headquarters.
Game of Death II, assembled posthumously from Game of Death outtake footage and apparently every snippet of unused film since Lee's birth, finds Danny out to track down the mysterious killers of his mentor Chin Ku (Jang Lee Hwang). When Danny meets an untimely end during the brazen mid-funeral robbery of Chin Ku's casket, Billy's previously unmentioned brother Bobby Lo (Lee double Tai Chung Kim) must avenge his brother's passing and pick up the trail of Chin Ku's killers.
It should be fairly obvious just from reading the plot synopses above that the plot of one Bruce Lee movie is more or less interchangeable with any other. Someone is murdered for some reason that is never what it appears to be initially. Gangs or drug dealers or both are typically involved. Lee shows up, often has a chaste romance, then makes with the avenging. Lee fights some hopelessly outclassed thugs a few times, then moves on to more skilled henchman, then fights the sinister mastermind behind it all. Sprinkle liberally with nunchaku, flashes of nudity, and unconvincing disguises. This simple combination of seemingly limited elements yields films of surprisingly differing quality.
The Big Boss, for being the film that launched Lee as a mvoie star, is remarkably staid and, well, often boring. It's not often one can say that about a movie in which entire families are slaughtered and bodies are dismembered with circular saws, but The Big Boss is the exception to the otherwise tried-and-true cinematic rule "No movie in which entire families are slaughtered and bodies are dismembered with circular saws can be boring." Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Lee himself is virtually a non-presence in the first half of the film. Arriving in the city with his grandfather, Lee's vow of non-violence is introduced almost immediately, and his dedication to his oath is reinforced seconds later when he fails to thwart a group of thugs harassing a comely street vendor. Lee quivers with rage, then, touching the medallion around his neck that symbolizes his vow, he calms down and quietly abides the outrage. This is the Lee seen throughout the first half of the film. Fight? Quiver, touch, calm. Quiver, touch, calm. It sounds risqué, but even in context it really is a tease. Instead, we witness Lee's cousins and co-workers, in rapid succession, get too nosy about their friends' disappearances and then disappear themselves, inadequately disposed of by what are apparently Asia's sloppiest drug cartel. Rather than get Lee in the action where the viewer wants him, we are treated to Lee…getting a promotion. Lee having dinner with his bosses. Lee losing favor with his suspiciously dwindling crew of factory workers. Yes, it's Lee doing social commentary (done better, if no more subtle, in Fist of Fury), and it makes for some maddening viewing.
This, of course, can't last forever. When Lee finally takes center stage, he goes a little crazy and starts to take down the drug dealers, symbolically ditching his medallion, and it's finally the Bruce Lee we want to see. Once we get past the clumsy Bruce Lee-as-corrupted-man-of-the-people stuff, we are treated to what is referred to in the ancient texts as "a great deal of asskickery." It's a good sign of things to come, and this prototypical version of Lee's screen persona would come to fruition in his next few films.
Fist of Fury is one of the few films in this set that could be referred to without reservation as a good movie. Ostensibly a period piece but with no clear connection to history outside of Chen Zhen and the broad strokes of the plot, Fist of Fury is the quintessential Bruce Lee movie, featuring Lee in his most complex and demanding role. Chen is by turns petulant, aggrieved, romantic, whimsical, and defiant. While Chen is more multidimensional than Lee's character in The Big Boss, he is similarly his own worst enemy; his quest for vengeance is a difficult one, but it isn't helped by making his rivals literally eat their words and his dressing up in disguises such as a mildly retarded telephone repairman. Lee minimizes the social commentary here, but its succinct address…Lee kicks down a sign which reads "No Dogs or Chinese Allowed" outside a park…speaks more about oppression in general and the Japanese occupation in particular than most films do in reels and reels. Lee stretches his comedic chops with the goofy disguises, his leading man qualities in the few scenes he shares with a would-be fiancee, and his dramatic tendencies in Chen's fierce determination that makes him both a hero and a killer. It's hard not to root for Chen when he barges into the Japanese dojo, summarily takes out every student there, and then stands defiantly, nunchaku out, in the center of a circling mob of karate students too afraid to rush him all at once. If The Big Boss was a tease, this is the real deal: pure Lee from start to finish, every bit the fighter his reputation made him out to be.
Also strong, but not quite as well-rounded a film, is Way of the Dragon, Lee's debut as a director. Lo Wei, director of Lee's previous features, was often cited as more or less secondary to Lee on set; whether or not this is true, there is no appreciable difference between Lee's direction here and Lo's on the previous films. Lee plays things a bit broader here, playing a stranger in a strange land sent to do another's work for people who don't want him there. He doesn't know the language, doesn't know the people, and doesn't know the city of Rome at all. The family friends he came to help look down on him and the pack of leering gangsters that terrorizes them laugh at him. Lee can play the bumpkin well, but it's only a matter of time before the small fact of his knowing kung fu comes into play. The plot, such as it is, is really just a series of skirmishes moving from the gangsters saying "We want you to sell the restaurant" to "We really want you to sell the restaurant" to "No, seriously, sell the restaurant." The faint stirrings of a romance and an illogical last-minute betrayal complicate matters, but the real centerpiece of the film is Lee's brutal fight with Walker, Texas Ranger himself. The coliseum sets the appropriately epic scale of the fight, one of Lee's best, which includes a personal favorite moment: Lee, pinned by the shirtless and hairy Norris, grabs ol' Delta Force by the chest hair and wrenches him off his body. Lee pulls away triumphantly, shedding a palm full of Missing in Action's chest hair. Good, cheesy fun and a nice counter to the historical and ethical weight felt by Lee in The Chinese Connection, where no good deed (or bad) went unpunished.
Sadly, this where Lee's film career takes a turn for the worse. Lee temporarily left filming of Game of Death to film Enter the Dragon, but his sudden death precluded his completion of Game of Death. This being the film industry and producers being producers, the film was completed with the help of stunt doubles and dubious editing, and touted as Lee's "last and greatest" film. It's neither (if Game of Death II didn't clue you in). Indeed, even in an age where filmmakers couldn't just digitally insert their leading man, the attempts to cover up Lee's absence are often jaw-droppingly bad, including conspicuous shots of "Bruce" from afar; from behind; wearing large, dark sunglasses; with a telephone receiver covering his face; with various "disguises," including Invisible Man-style bandages. Bruce's dialogue often occurs off-camera. One fight takes place in a dark room and, most laughably, a cardboard mask stands in for Lee in one early scene. And why are there so many wax heads?
What saves the film, aside from some nice performances from the late Dean Jagger as the hammy Dr. Land and Colleen Camp as hottie/damsel in distress Ann, is the final twenty minute sequence of the film, Lee's famed ascent up the levels of Land's headquarters. It's no coincidence that this, the strongest material, represents the bulk of Lee's footage for the film. It's great viewing, as Lee ascends the Red Pepper Restaurant and inadvertently sets the pattern for every video game to follow, facing a different "boss" on each floor before being allowed to advance to the next level. Most notable is Lee's fight with real-life pupil Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jabbar, a long-limbed giant in a long blue shirt and short white shorts, dwarfs Lee in his yellow tracksuit. The outcome is never in question, and in comparison Lee's confrontation with Dr. Land is anti-climactic, but until then his twenty minute ascent is near perfect. It's a shame it wasn't in a better movie. As an aside, fans of Bruce's late son, Brandon, will note the chilling similarities between Danny's on-set death and Brandon's death while filming The Crow.
The less said about Game of Death II the better. This set's equivalent of Trail of the Pink Panther, Game of Death II scrapes up the barest of outtakes and footage from the films Lee made as a child actor and attempts to pass them off as an actual movie. A sequel only insofar as Bruce's character is named "Danny Lo," Game of Death II continues and amplifies the gross editorial misconduct of the original. "Bruce," after his character is mercifully killed off halfway through the movie, is replaced by Tai Chung Kim, looking like a cross between Lee and late-period Elvis, who plays younger brother Bobby Lo. The movie changes completely here, sending Bobby to Japan to face a series of cartoonishly diabolical villains, including one who feeds human challengers to his pet lions and extols at length the virtues of raising peacocks (Peacocks? Truly an evil man). The end gets a little wild with James Bond-esque excess, perhaps a sign of the times, but there are actually a few decent scenes for those who enjoy kung fu in itself. None of those, however, mitigate a scene in which Bobby Lo fights a lion (puppet) on a comparable degree of badness with Lee's cardboard mask in the previous film. The producers know no one gives a damn about anything in the movie other than Lee (during supposedly in-character flashback sequences, titles come up saying things like "Bruce Lee at Age 6"). It's crass exploitation of the lowest order, and its inclusion here is unnecessary and borderline insulting.
This isn't the first collection of Bruce's films to hit the market. Fans are meant to be drawn to the digitally remastered sound and picture, including new 5.1 DTS and 5.1 Dolby Surround English audio. All of the movies included here do seem to have benefitted from the sound clean- up; the crack of the kicks and hits, as well as Bruce's signature animal calls, do sound sharper here, though it seems like there's little the remastering could do with some of the source recordings except reduce the sound of wind in the microphone. Subtitle fans are out of luck: the 5.1 sound is only available on the English dub tracks. The layer changes tend to occur in the middle of songs, which can make for distracting viewing. For the most part, the picture quality does seem solid, particularly for films from this era, though there are still noticeable scratches and framing issues on all of the movies included (and there likely always will be). Appropriately, Game of Death IIhas the most glaring technical problems, including a few random seconds of warped film.
Fox would have done well to include some worthwhile extras if it was looking for buyers of previous releases to spring for this one. While other versions and other regions have commentaries and other extras, Fox has supplied this release with few worthwhile bonus features. Each film features a theatrical trailer, which should be a given for most releases these days, as well as "new," re-edited trailers using original film footage dressed up with the finest video titling 1993 had to offer. Each disc also features brief, movie-specific photo galleries and slideshows (the easiest features any studio can put on a DVD, and always the most dull). Aside from the usual assortment of cross-promotional trailers, the remaining extras are skimpy. The Big Boss features a short but interesting interview with occasional Lee co-star Tung Wai. Fist of Fury has an equally brief interview with Lee stuntman Yuen Wah, while Way of the Dragon has short testimonials on Lee's impact by contemporary Hong Kong stars like Sammo Hung. Both Game of Deaths feature Lee's tower ascent outtakes, which Fox seems to have split evenly from the same reel between the two discs. The documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey, chronicling Lee's intended trajectory for Game of Death, would have been an ideal inclusion in this set.
Progressing through Lee's life and career through this collection, it becomes clear what worked for Lee: a charismatic and effortless screen presence and an uncanny physical prowess. It's combination that carries even Lee's weaker movies. Kung fu was not a new genre when Lee got there, but he elevated it, even if that elevation only took it as far as the vagaries of American tastes and elitism would allow in his lifetime. It's a shame that Lee isn't likewise elevated by the purveyors of his films. Fox has done a disservice to Lee and his fans by not going all the way with this set, failing to give Lee the treatment a star of his caliber and longevity deserves. Snobs might regard the martial arts film as a second-class genre, and Fox's second-class treatment of Lee's too-brief legacy only reinforces that wrongheaded notion. Bruce enthusiasts will want to skip this release if they have any previous sets; casual or curious fans will want to dabble with individual Bruce Lee films before committing to five films of wildly varying quality.
Bruce Lee is free to go, as long as he does not assault any officers of this court with a freeze-frame mid-air kick while exiting this courtroom. Fox will be held without bail until it learns the meaning of "respect."
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Scales of Justice, The Big Boss (Fists Of Fury)
Perp Profile, The Big Boss (Fists Of Fury)
Distinguishing Marks, The Big Boss (Fists Of Fury)
• Interview with Tung Wai
Scales of Justice, Fist Of Fury (The Chinese Connection)
Perp Profile, Fist Of Fury (The Chinese Connection)
Distinguishing Marks, Fist Of Fury (The Chinese Connection)
• Interview with Yuen Wah
Scales of Justice, Game Of Death
Perp Profile, Game Of Death
Distinguishing Marks, Game Of Death
• Outtake Reel
Scales of Justice, Way Of The Dragon (Return Of The Dragon)
Perp Profile, Way Of The Dragon (Return Of The Dragon)
Distinguishing Marks, Way Of The Dragon (Return Of The Dragon)
• Celebrity Interviews
Scales of Justice, Game Of Death II
Perp Profile, Game Of Death II
Distinguishing Marks, Game Of Death II
• Outtake Reel
Review content copyright © 2005 Kerry Birmingham; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.