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Criterion Collection: Bruce Lee – His Greatest Hits | Blu-ray Review

Bruce Lee is and forever will be the world’s greatest martial arts film star, perhaps only rivalled in iconicity by Jackie Chan. Both martial arts as an art form and Hong Kong cinema were forever changed by a mere handful of films he starred in and/or choreographed and directed in the early 1970s, the pinnacle of which was the classic Enter the Dragon, released days after his untimely death at the age of thirty-two. The Criterion Collection has compiled five films (technically four ‘actual’ films featuring Lee) in this seven-disc set, which comprise the Lee Legend, arriving as both homage and reminder to his iconicity (and dispelling the somewhat unfortunate portrayal of Lee in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, set in 1969).

The Big Boss (1971)
Lee had spent most of the 1960s in American television, leaving behind Hollywood after a supporting role in 1969’s Marlowe. And with 1971’s kung-fu action film The Big Boss, directed by Lo Wei, Lee would revitalize his image and career with this runaway success. Lee is charming as Chinese immigrant who leaves behind his country existence to obtain a position alongside his cousin at a Thai ice factory. As soon as he arrives, his commitment to pacifism is immediately put to the test when there’s an altercation in which he must protect the virtues of a young woman accosted by a gang of miscreants, with his cousin arriving just in time to show Lee the ropes. Eventually, he discovers the ice factory is a front for a heroin ring, the owner using the ice to transport the drugs (as well as hide human bodies of factory workers who discover his secret). Efficiently paced, well-choreographed and full of entertaining moments featuring Lee, The Big Boss is the prototype for the template Lee would use over his next three features.

Fist of Fury (1971)
Lee immediately reunited with Lo Wei for Fist of Fury, a period piece set in 1910s Shanghai. Though it was an even greater hit than their previous endeavor, major disagreements between star and director led to their irrevocable dissolution as collaborators. The tension is palpable in the final product, which suffers from lagging narrative energy and a variety of clichés which were less apparent in The Big Boss. Lee, once again, is an innocent who arrives as a student to be trained by a martial arts master. But when the master is murdered by a rival dojo of Japanese imperialists, it falls upon Lee to seek vengeance. However, he’s punished for his disobedience of the law, which features heavily in the film’s final, notable moments.


The Way of the Dragon (1972)
Lee wrote, produced and directed his third outing in The Way of the Dragon, which finds Lee traveling to Rome, this time to help his cousin’s restaurant which is being threatened by a gang of criminals who wish to own it for themselves in a bid to control the entire territory. Injecting a bit of cultural humor which feels Chaplinesque, this is more lighthearted and well-rounded for Lee compared to the two previous features. More extravagantly choreographed kung-fu sequences lead to a climax in which Lee faces off with Chuck Norris (supposedly a minion of the gang plaguing the restaurant) in the Colosseum, their only audience a mildly interested kitten.

Enter the Dragon (1973)
And then there’s the absolute pinnacle of the Hong Kong martial arts craze with the seminal Enter the Dragon, which found Lee returning to Hollywood to create what would stand as his final and most enduring masterstroke directed by Robert Clouse. Although it features all the period trappings of misogynist tendencies evidenced in the film’s closest cousins, the rampant exploitation films of the 1970s, the formidable kung-fu sequences are the greatest feature. Lee, who has gone undercover by joining a competition on a remote island organized by a renegade monk who might just be operating an opium trade, is joined by fellow competitors John Saxon and Jim Kelly for a trifecta of various styles, skills and attitudes (and let’s not forget a minor role for Marlene Clark as Saxon’s secretary).

Game of Death (1978)
And then there’s the unfortunately conceived Game of Death, a project Lee had been working on with Clouse prior to filming Enter the Dragon in 1972. Five years after Lee’s death, Clouse took what little footage Lee did film on the project and spliced it with footage of Lee from previous films while employing two doubles wearing sunglasses, and even cardboard cutouts as he recommenced the project with a new cast, including Coleen Camp, Dean Jagger and Gig Young (which would also be the final film of the latter).

Chuck Norris and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are featured from previously filmed footage, but neither agreed to return for Clouse’s remount. This time around, the Lee character is a famed martial arts star who a nefarious crime syndicate desires to control. After staging his own death and obtaining plastic surgery, he goes on a rampage of vengeance, assisted by a journalist (Young) and his girlfriend (Camp). An all around unfortunate and ill-conceived endeavor, it’s a Lee feature for completists only.

Final Thoughts:

If you’re new to Lee or looking for a phenomenal one-stop shop featuring beautiful 4K digital restorations of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon and Game of Death (the set includes 2K restorations of two versions of Enter the Dragon), you can’t and won’t do any better than experiencing them through Bruce Lee – His Greatest Hits.

The Big Boss (1971)
★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Fist of Fury (1972)
★★/☆☆☆☆☆

The Way of the Dragon (1972)
★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Enter the Dragon (1973)
★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Game of Death (1978)
½/☆☆☆☆☆

Box Set Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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