The Way of Judge Gordon Sullivan usually passes the ice cream stand.
Witness the making of a legend—and icon: Bruce Lee!
One suspects that Bruce Lee needs no introduction. His face adorns a thousand dorm-room posters in every generation, he's a hero to millions of martial artists, and fans of kung-fu cinema have all but put him up for sainthood. All of that is remarkable enough, but in an era where saturation media can turn a purveyor of duck calls into an international star, what's perhaps more remarkable is how little it took to build Lee's media profile. Twenty-six episodes of The Green Hornet and four major films account for his popularity. Throw in a handful of appearances on other shows and the posthumously finished Game of Death, and you've captured just about all of his moving-image legacy. Despite the relatively small size of his body of work, fans of Lee's films have had a hard time getting a hold of them. Differing cuts, multiple dubs, and numerous retitlings have made it hard to know which film is which, or if it's the version that was originally intended. There has long been a need for a definitive home video release of Lee's films. When Shout! Factory acquired the rights to four of the five main Lee films, fans were hopeful that a deluxe box set would allow them to throw away all previous releases and revel in the definitive collection that Bruce Lee deserves. Sadly, though there are a number of things to love about it, Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection (Blu-ray) has enough problems that it's not quite definitive.
Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection (Blu-ray) includes four of Lee's films:
• The Big Boss (a.k.a. Fists of Fury) finds Lee as a young man working at his uncle's ice factory. When he discovers that it's really a front for drug running, he must fight his way to freedom.
• Fist of Fury (a.k.a. Chinese Connection) finds Lee as a young martial artist seeking revenge for the murder of his teacher.
• The Way of the Dragon (a.k.a. Return of the Dragon) finds Lee once again working for an uncle as the mob attempt to take over his restaurant.
• Game of Death (completed posthumously) finds Lee attempting to scale a pagoda filled with martial arts opponents, demonstrating his mastery of Jeet Kun Do along the way.
The set also includes three different feature-length documentaries on Lee: Bruce Lee: The Man, The Legend, Bruce Lee: The Legend, and I Am Bruce Lee.
I'm not actually going to spend too much time talking about the films themselves. Chances are you know a thing or two about them already if you're reading about a massive set like this. My personal opinion is that Game of Death is the weakest of Lee's features, and even if he'd completed it, chances are it would have been little more than a video-game style advertisement for his martial-arts prowess. On the other hand, Chinese Connection has a soft spot in my heart as the best of Lee's non-American work for the combination of story and Lee's performance.
More important is what's going on with this massive, eleven-disc set. It includes four Blu-ray discs (one for each film), and seven DVDs (again, one for each film, plus two for the documentaries, and a whole disc for bonus features). All of these discs are housed in a handsome, oversized hardback book. The first six "pages" are thick cardboard, each of them dedicated to a film (plus one for the documentaries and another for the bonus disc). At the top of these "pages" is a sleeve for the discs, and the pages themselves are decorated with numerous photos of Lee, including promotional stills, candid shots, and posters. Then, there's a more traditional "book" that's affixed to the back, with gorgeously reproduced pages that include more photos and an essay that briefly covers Lee's life, legacy, and the individual films. As a presentation piece, it's the kind of thing that any fan would be proud to have on a shelf.
That attention to detail continues with the supplements included here. The three documentaries provide an interesting take on Lee's life. Not only do we get a sense of Lee's life and impact, but between the three documentaries we get a sense of how Lee's impact has shifted in the decades since his death. Each of the films also gets their own set of supplements. Each disc includes an audio commentary by Mike Leeder, who provides insight into the individual films, Lee's life, and the general picture of Hong Kong cinema. Each disc also includes interviews, trailers and TV spots, and photo galleries specific to that film. Alternate titles sequences are included, as well as some extended scenes. The stand-alone bonus disc consists mainly of interviews with various collaborators. There are also some more promotional materials, including a version of Return of the Dragon reduced to 60 seconds.
The films themselves are where problems start to crop up. First, let's talk about what's here. We get four transfers in their original aspect ratios of 2.35:1/1080p with AVC encoding. The sources for these transfers have not undergone serious restoration, so expect a bit of damage, mostly in the form of speckling. To eyes that haven't seen any other HD presentations of Lee's work, these transfers look okay. A really good restoration/re-master is often noticeable by its absence. When a film has been cleaned up appropriately, it's just like watching a well-made contemporary film as the look disappears into the background and isn't a consideration (as it often is when watching an obviously-damaged print of something old). I never got that sense from the films presented here. While the damage was never bad enough to be distracting, the overall look of the films never rises to the best kind of re-mastering. Detail is generally so-so, with colors that look accurate to the era's film stocks. Black levels fluctuate a bit but are generally solid.
On the audio front, things are slightly better. Each film gets its original Cantonese soundtrack, as well as English dubs (including a never-released one for The Big Boss), in both mono and surround formats. The surround versions are all DTS-HD 5.1 that sound quite good. Obviously, they're limited by the production equipment of the time (and the practice of post-dubbing and sound effects) but the score and dialogue are well-balanced. Some fans will object to the fact that some of the original mono mixes are only presented in Dolby Digital tracks instead of DTS-HD versions. English subtitles are included for all of the films.
In addition to the lack of DTS-HD upgrades to some of the mono mixes included here, there is a question about the set's video transfers. The charge is that these are not in fact the HD masters that are available on international sets elsewhere, but simple up-conversions of the DVD masters that have been available for some time. Though I can't comment on that specifically, I can say that these video transfers are not that spectacular, and fans should educate themselves with the numerous screenshot comparisons that will no doubt show up in the wake of this release. What I can say is that this is just about as good as the films are going to look short of a major restoration effort, and that would most likely not be cost-effective.
Fans might also want to quibble with the packaging, insofar as the discs can be difficult to unseat from their cardboard sleeve. Finally, in the name of completeness, it would be nice to also have the How Bruce Lee Changed the World documentary included as well.
There can be no argument that the supplements collected for this release, combined with the beautiful packaging make this an attractive box set. However, the lack of truly spectacular video (along with the shadow of DVD up-conversion) and the dodgy decision to not provide DTS-HD versions of the original mono mixes in all cases means that there are going to be some angry fans out there. Ultimately, reception of this set will be about managing expectations. For the casual fan who wants to collect all their Lee films in one place, this is a pretty good way to do it. The case is different for hardcore fans, who've likely seen most of this material in various formats and will likely already possess at least one of the international hi-def releases. Then, it's a case of deciding at what price point the packaging becomes desirable and waiting for a good sale.
Could be better, but not guilty.
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