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BRUCE LEE: ULTIMATE COLLECTION

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Chuck Norris, Robert Wall, Biao Yuen, Tong Lung, Colleen Camp, Roy Horan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sammo Hung
Directors: Lo Wei, Bruce Lee, Robert Clouse, Ng See Yuen
Audio: English DTS 5.1, English Dolby Digital Surround 5.1, English 2.0, Cantonese 2.0, Mandarin 2.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: Interviews, out-takes, photo galleries, trailers
Length: 501 minutes
Release Date: October 18, 2005

"Remember, kung fu is the art of self-defense."

Set ***

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh!  Know what that is?  It's the sound of a martial arts master waving hello.  Hiiiii-YA!  Know what that is?  That's him saying hello!  Okay, so silly puns aren't my forte, but if a few corny lines annoy you, then maybe kung fu films are simply not for you.  However, if you have a healthy appetite for 70's-style groove, goofy good-versus-evil dialogue, and squinty-eyed dramatic poses all in support of some truly kick-ass, knock'em sock'em action, then all this (and more!) awaits you the intrepid viewer in Fox's Bruce Lee Ultimate Collection set.  Not only does this set include five films from Bruce Lee's meteoric if short film career, but it also offers photo galleries, interviews, out-takes, and plenty more to satiate the appetite of the discriminating kung fu fan.

Hopefully, most everyone in movie fandom knows who Bruce Lee was.  For the unenlightened or uninitiated, Bruce Lee, the quintessential movie kung fu star, was born Lee Juan Fan in November 1940.  He grew up in the streets of Hong Kong, first developing a keen interest in martial arts in his early adolescence after being flattened by a street gang.  Lee trained for five years in wing chun kung fu, honing the amazing agility and physical prowess which would later make him world famous.

After moving to California in the 1960's, Bruce Lee opened several martial arts schools to teach his own unique style of martial arts - Jeet Kune Do ("Way of the Intercepting Fist").  Some of his famous pupils during this period included such celebrities as James Coburn and even Steve McQueen, the epitome of cool.  Lee's skills earned him a recurring role on the short-run TV show "The Green Hornet" as the hero's Asian sidekick, Kato.  Regarding the cinema as a potential means of further spreading the philosophical message behind Jeet Kune Do, Lee even accepted minor supporting roles in several Hollywood films (Lee already had some film experience, having appeared previously in Asian cinema as a youth).

Despite his relative success, Lee recognized that there were limited options in Hollywood for an Asian actor.  Returning to Hong Kong, Lee finally got his golden opportunity, thanks to Raymond Chow.  As founder of the new Golden Harvest studio, Chow wanted to recruit Lee to star in a couple of movies for his fledgling production company.  The subsequent collaboration between both men would prove mutually beneficial.  Bruce Lee's two smash hits for Golden Harvest elevated him to superstar status in Asia and likewise catapulted Chow's Golden Harvest into the top tier of the Hong Kong film industry.

The Bruce Lee Ultimate Collection set proudly presents both of those Golden Harvest films.  Also included are the fan favorite Way of the Dragon and the two posthumous Bruce Lee films Game of Death and Game of Death II.  While all of these films have been available on DVD for some time, they have been especially remastered here for superior picture quality.  Furthermore, new DTS audio remixes have also been created, ensuring that these films have never looked or sounded better!  If you are a Bruce Lee fan or even if you're just curious to discover the superhuman qualities which made Lee such an icon, check out this set, and read on below for short descriptions about each individual film in the Bruce Lee Ultimate Collection!

1) The Big Boss (1971)

"If you want to fight, fight me!"

After years of fruitlessness in the Hollywood system and television, Lee finally attained his breakthrough success in the Hong Kong market.  The two films he made for Golden Harvest helped to transform Bruce Lee into a major star.  The first film, The Big Boss (a.k.a. Fists of Fury), was also Lee's first film in a starring role.

As the film opens, Cheng Chao An (Bruce Lee) has just arrived in Hong Kong to seek steady employment.  He is moves in with his cousin Hsu and Hsu's pretty sister Chiao Mei, who both share a home with friendly workers from the local ice factory.  Soon, Cheng himself becomes a worker at this factory.  The manual labor may be hard and strenuous but it seems to be an honest living.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving.  This particular ice factory is disproportionately profitable beyond any legal means.  Ice isn't exactly a booming, money-making business, after all.  If, though, one where to smuggle "ice" in that ice, then there could be a tidy killing in it.

Sure enough, the local boss who owns the ice factory turns out to be not only filthy rich but plain filthy, too.  When some innocent but too-inquisitive factory workers begin disappearing, tensions rise among the remaining workers, who suspect foul play.  Before long, Cheng himself uncovers the truth behind the big boss's drug-smuggling operations.

Too bad Cheng has sworn a solemn vow upon his mother's locket not to fight or to get into trouble.  Well, that would certainly make for a boring kung fu film, a Bruce Lee film with no fights.  Once Cheng's personal friends and maybe even a relative or two start dying or mysteriously disappearing however, Cheng's pacific pact quickly becomes null and void.  Given the choice between non-violence or eventual non-existence, Cheng boldly chooses the latter.  Honor must be upheld!  The deaths of friends must be avenged!  Good must triumph over evil!

The unifying mantra of all kung fu films is surely "don't get mad, get even!"  So, once our man Cheng decides that enough is enough, there be blood-splattering and bone-crushing here, folks.  Cheng knocks out cold the hoodlums of the big boss and then ices the head honcho himself in an explosive finale.

2) Fist of Fury (1972)

"I'm here to avenge my Teacher!"

Fist of Fury (a.k.a. The Chinese Connection) opens in 1908 with the death of Ho Yuan-Chia, master of Shanghai's Ching Wu School.  Ho Yuan-Chia was a local hero, preaching martial arts as a means of physical fitness and pride for the Chinese people.  His tragic death brings all his students together to pay the final respects to their revered Master.

However, one student, Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee), refuses to believe that his Master, in previously good health, could have died so suddenly.  Perhaps Ho Yuan-Chia was betrayed.  Perhaps he was even poisoned or murdered!  Chen vows to uncover the truth behind his Master's death and, if need be, to avenge his Master as his sacred and honorable duty.

Chen traces the insidious and murderous scheme back to Hung Kiu School, a rival Japanese school in the International Settlement of Shanghai.  Unfortunately, the Japanese wield considerable influence in Shanghai, and their increasing and repeatedly violent attacks against the peaceful students of Ching Wu School go essentially unchecked.  Is there no justice in this world?

Why, yes there is, and its champion is Chen Zhen!  Suffice it to say that Chen sets aside his Master's philosophy of non-violence and peaceful co-existence for some high-kicking, nunchaku-whipping redemption.  The Japanese owe a major karmic debt to the poor Chinese, and Chen aims to collect.  He wipes out the Japanese hoodlums of Hung Kiu School, the head teacher, and even a nigh-invincible Russian strongman.  Ultimately, Chen has a showdown with the mustached mastermind himself behind Ho Yuan-Chia's death.  

Fist of Fury derives much of its dramatic tension from the Chinese people's long-standing resentment of foreign interference, particularly Japanese and British interests.  Watch enough kung fu flicks (or follow enough Chinese history) and you'll notice a definite trend depicting the Japs and the Brits as regular villains.  Nothing is quite as stirring as the hometown hero, in this case Chen, beating the living "Rising Sun" daylights out of these arrogant, unwanted invaders.  Not surprisingly, Fist of Fury was a whopping success in China, even more so than The Big Boss.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Martial arts superstar Jet Li starred in the 1994 remake of Fist of Fury, entitled Fist of Legend.

3) Way of the Dragon (1973)

"Tang Lung, you've got guts.  The man you just saw will kill you!"

Thanks to the tremendous reception for his two Golden Harvest films in Asia, Lee had the clout and capital to establish his own production company, Concord Productions.  Lee's next film Way of the Dragon (a.k.a. Return of the Dragon), which he also wrote and directed, would become Concord Productions' inaugural offering.

In this film, Tang Lung (Bruce Lee) is a seemingly simple country boy just arrived in Rome from Hong Kong.  Speaking little English or certainly no Italian, he is like a fish out of water, and the opening sequences of the film wring fine humor from Tang's comical struggles.  Lee essentially does a passable imitation of silent screen comedians during these early scenes!

Eventually, Tang Lung is greeted by lovely Chen Ching Hua (Nora Miao), who brings him to her restaurant.  Ching Hua has inherited her father's restaurant, which lately has come under pressure and extortion from a local crime syndicate.  In fact, Ching Hua's uncle has sent Tang Lung to Rome for the expressed purpose of protecting Ching Hua and teaching those undisciplined criminal punks some manners.  Tang Lung may be a hopeless na´ve in Rome, but he understands the language of fist-meets-face very well.

Coincidentally, Nora Miao is a total knock-out, and Way of the Dragon is practically worth watching just for her!  She also portrayed the love interest in Fist of Fury and had a minor role in The Big Boss, too, all films which helped her to become one of the leading actresses in Hong Kong during the 1970's.  But I digress.  This is a Bruce Lee action flick, after all.

Exasperated Ching Hua has her initial doubts about the silly farm boy Tang.  However, once Tang Lung breaks out his nunchaku and begins to feed them to the local hoodlums each time they attempt to intimidate Ching Hua's employees, she knows that her restaurant is in good hands.  Eventually, the local crime boss realizes that he needs to recruit special help to get rid of Tang Lung.

Enter, Colt!  See, Colt is "America's best" and as played by seven-time U.S. champion Chuck Norris, he has the chop suey goods to back up his reputation.  Folks, there can be nothing better in martial arts moviedom than a fantasy match-up between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, yet that is precisely what we are served in the awesome Coliseum finale for Way of the Dragon.  Watch this fight and you can die content that you have witnessed martial arts heaven.

Also recruited to soften up Tang Lung for the kill are kung fu baddies played by real-life Hapkido grandmaster Ing-Sik Whang and world karate champion Robert Wall.  With such imposing opposition, Tang Lung has his work cut out for him if he means to defeat the crime syndicate once and for all.

Bruce Lee fans generally agree that while Enter the Dragon is Lee's most well-known film, Way of the Dragon is his best.

4) Game of Death (1978)

"It is better to die a broken piece of jade than to live a life of clay."

Yes, grasshoppers, Bruce Lee's rapid ascension to stardom did not go unnoticed by Hollywood bigwigs.  Not surprisingly, Lee's next film was an American production, the kung fu extravaganza Enter the Dragon.  Regrettably, this film was also to be Lee's final completed film, released after his untimely death from cerebral edema.

There is a sad irony to the fact that arguably the greatest martial artist of the twentieth century would be done in by something as innocuous as a medication reaction.  Of course, conspiracy theorists prefer to imagine that Lee was somehow poisoned or murdered by jealous elements of the criminal underworld.  These speculations merely fueled Lee's elevation to superhuman legend, a cult status further reinforced by the consequent flurry of exploitative martial arts films made by a potpourri of inferior imitators (Bruce Li, Bruce Le, and Bruce Lei, for starters).

Fortunately, before his death, Lee had begun work on what could have become his greatest film yet.  In the original script treatment, Lee was part of a small band of men on a rescue mission inside a sacred temple.  The goal was to reach the top of the temple, but first Lee and his band of brothers had to contend with some of the deadliest martial artists of the land.  Each floor of the temple tower was guarded by a succession of these increasingly deadlier martial arts masters.  Think of the concept as a live version of the arcade game Kung Fu Master or even a series of end-level boss monster encounters for a computer game.

The surviving raw footage for these fight sequences is quite impressive.  After Lee's untimely death, this footage was re-edited together with other out-takes and archival footage from Lee's earlier films to create Game of Death.  Unfortunately, this was a bastardized film which bore no resemblance to Bruce Lee's original concept.  Not surprisingly, Game of Death was not very good, making up for a lack of Bruce Lee by substituting a number of not-very-look-alikes and stuntmen to fill in the sizable gaps in the less-than-airtight storyline.  In at least one shot, a cut-out of Lee's face is even superimposed over the face of a double!  The effect is, to be polite, hardly convincing.  Thankfully, the actual Bruce Lee fights, involving clashes with the likes of Dan Inosanto, Hugh O'Brian and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, remain somewhat intact.

The plot for Game of Death involves an attempt by a crime syndicate to assimilate film star Billy Lo (Bruce Lee and clones) into its fold.  Always those pesky crime syndicates!  This time, the mobsters want to own Billy, his girlfriend, and his money, too, but when Billy expresses a difference of opinion, the syndicate boss decides to have Billy killed for impertinence.  A bullet at point-blank range to the face untidily does the trick...or does it?

Billy manages to survive, following a lengthy convalescence period (this would be a short film, otherwise).  In fact, the facial injuries also provide a convenient excuse for the Game of Death filmmakers to pass off various pretenders as the real Bruce Lee.  Billy's death is officially falsified, and afterwards Billy, incognito and in various disguises, is essentially given free rein to go after the mob for "killing" him.

If regarded as just another routinely executed kung fu film and not a Bruce Lee film per se, then Game of Death is fairly tolerable - not atrociously bad but not particularly memorable, either.  Truthfully, the film is most worthwhile for Bruce Lee's final fight sequences, but otherwise, this James Bond-wannabe film is probably only for the genre's diehard fans.

BONUS TRIVIA:  One of Bruce Lee's doubles in the film was Biao Yuen, an eventual star in his own right.

5) Game of Death II (1981)

"Who cares if you're old?  Only the strong survive!"

Everyone knows superheroes never really die.  Since Bruce Lee was essentially a real-life superhero, being dead for nearly a decade didn't prevent him from "starring" in another new film, Game of Death II, either.

This film merely follows the formula set by Game of Death.  Lee appears only in brief out-takes or discarded footage from his previous films, with a flimsy story being constructed around these bits and archival clips.  Second-hand Bruce Lee is better than no Bruce Lee, I suppose.  Hey, Blake Edwards tried the same gimmick with 1982's atrocious Trail of the Pink Panther (assembled around out-takes of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau), and didn't Ed Wood do the same with Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space?  Such fakery didn't work for either of those dismal films, and it doesn't quite work for the imposturous and preposterous Game of Death II, either.

Even avid Bruce Lee fans can reasonably skip this film without fear that the sky will come crashing down.  Stubborn sticklers for punishment, though, will discover much that is enjoyably painful in Game of Death II.  The voice actor for Bruce Lee is simply terrible.  The less said about the dreadful dialogue (and dubbing), the better.  Archival footage looks just like that, grainy and very much out of place in the film; even worse, none of these clips involves any actual fight scenes with Bruce Lee.  The plot is typical of kung fu filmmaking by the cookie-cutter method and serves little purpose other than to string the fight sequences together.  The film is somewhat bipolar, too, as the first third of the film (the part with most of the limited Bruce Lee clips) has very little in common with the remainder of the film.  At least some of these clips are excerpts from Lee's earliest film roles as a child, a rare treat for his most avid fans.  To be fair, Game of Death II does have plenty of fights, so while it is little more than a generic kung fu flick, it is never dull for long.

The story briefly concerns Billy Lo/Li Chun Chang (Bruce Lee and clones), a skilled practitioner in the artistry of Jeet Kune Do.  Learning of the mysterious and sudden passing of his old Master Chin Ku, Billy begins to investigate the circumstances around his Master's death.    Perhaps Chin Ku was betrayed.  Perhaps he was even poisoned or murdered!  Wait, didn't Bruce Lee make this movie already?  In any event, Billy falls victim to foul play himself.  Didn't he already perish in the previous Game of Death film, too?  Well, if James Bond can do it, so can Billy Lo; after all, you only "die" twice.

Billy's brother, Bobby (Tong Lung), decides to learn his brother's craft of Jeet Kune Do and to take up his brother's search for the truth.  The clues lead to a Palace of Death, run by a maniacal master, Lewis (Roy Horan), with an unhealthy appetite for blood and raw meat.  He even feeds the flesh and bones of his defeated challengers to his pet lions!

But, is Lewis really the villain, or is he merely a pawn, or is he entirely innocent?  And what role, pray tell, do the mysterious Fan Yu temple and even more enigmatic underground Tower of Death play in the ever-convoluted web of intrigue?  Who is the true mastermind behind the demise or disappearance of so many martial arts masters?

Game of Death II may not have a lot going for it (and certainly has nothing in common with the first Game of Death), but this James Bond-wannabe film admittedly makes for a goofy-fun popcorn action flick.  The film is best enjoyed as a Hong Kong kung fu film and not as a canon Bruce Lee film.  In fact, its lesser reliance on random Bruce Lee footage than Game of Death makes this "sequel" a more narratively cohesive (if still outrageously silly) film.  Best of all, the film's climactic showdown is admittedly quite exhilarating and well worth the wait, offering a fitting conclusion to this DVD set.

Bruce Lee died too early, just as he was approaching his prime.  Happily, thanks to his influential Hong Kong films and Enter the Dragon, too, Lee's legacy remains alive and well, the Game of Death films notwithstanding.  Few icons are as synonymous with a particular film genre as is Bruce Lee with the martial arts genre.  One might reasonably argue that all the top martial artists today still try to emulate the one true Dragon.  As Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe before him, Bruce Lee has transcended a premature demise to achieve immortality as a true icon of worldwide pop culture - more than just a man but a true legend in the eyes of his multitude of fans.  He may be missed, but thanks to film compilations such as the Bruce Lee Ultimate Set, his place in cinematic history will always be preserved and remembered.

Video ***

Each film in this collection has been digitally remastered.  Generally, the films have a bright appearance with good definition and crisp colors.  If you own one of the pathetic third-party discs floating out there for any of these movies, now is the time to discard it and to convert to the path of righteousness.

Not all the films are pristine, though.  While The Big Boss displays an excellent image quality, Fist of Fury suffers from some mild emulsion scuffing.  Way of the Dragon looks worse, with a decidedly soft image quality throughout the film and also some signs of emulsion damage.

The picture quality in the Game of Death films varies.  The newer scenes look just fine, whereas the older archival clips appear grainier and faded.  Game of Death II is just grainy all around with poor definition during shadowy scenes.  The transition between new and old footage (sometimes within the same scene!) can be quite jarring, too, but what do you expect?

Audio ***

The movies in this set are offered in Cantonese, Mandarin, or English.  Excluding the two Game of Death films, these films were made without sound and then post-dubbed afterwards.  For that reason, there is no "gold standard" track here.  The purist will probably prefer the Asian soundtracks, although these are prone to regular pops and crackles and do not sound particularly cleaned up.  For what it's worth, the Asian soundtracks tend to devote more effort to over-the-top music cues and Lee's trademark animal cries during his action scenes.  Neither Game of Death film comes in anything other than English (DTS, Surround 5.1, or original monaural).

For the most fun, try sticking with those crazy English-dubbed soundtracks!  Only the English tracks are offered in DTS, but what better way to enjoy a martial arts flick than with bone-crushing, finger-stomping DTS?  On the other hand, listening to a DTS track of a remastered (but laughably bad) English dub is like watching a meticulously restored version of a colorized silent film running at the wrong projection speed.  Choose your poison.

Truthfully, each soundtrack is worth a listen, as no two for the same movie are remotely similar!  In fact, even the scores for the Cantonese, Mandarin, and English soundtracks can be so entirely different that they change the fundamental tone and storyline of the film.  Subtitles are available but regularly have nothing in common with the English tracks, whose dialogue goes way off into left field somewhere.  Talk about lost in translation!  Experiencing each film to the fullest is like getting two or three films in one.  Try listening to the English audio with the subtitles on for a totally schizophrenic session.

On an aside, what is the deal with all the hippity-hoppity music permeating through martial arts films today?  These films simply don't sound right unless they are accompanied by 70's era groove and funk.  And that's exactly what we get here, thank goodness.  On the lighter side, the score for Way of the Dragon is rather amusing in manner reminiscent of Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme.  Also be sure to check out the Ken Adam-style opening and closing title sequences for Game of Death, with a score by none other than noted 007 composer John Barry!

Features **

I would generally debate the labeling of any Bruce Lee set as an "ultimate collection" if Enter the Dragon is excluded.  That omission aside, this set still remains a fine gift for any Bruce Lee fan.  Each disc in the set comes with its unique selection of bonus features, too.

The DVD for The Big Boss contains the film's action-packed original trailer and a very slick, new trailer, too.  There are also twenty movie stills and a slideshow presentation of essentially the same stills.  Director Tung Wai appears in a quick interview (2 min.) describing how impressed he was in his first meeting with Bruce Lee.  Lastly, there are trailers for City Hunter, The Young Master, The Iron-Fisted Monk, and Prodigal Son.  The folks who made these trailers understand which side of their bread is buttered; these trailers concentrate exclusively on action and contain zippo plot synopsis.  It should also be noted that most of the trailers on these five discs are for films starring Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Biao Yuen, or Chow Yun Fat.

The selection of extras on the remaining discs follows the same format as on The Big Boss DVD - two trailers, photo gallery of about twenty stills, slideshow, interview(s), and lastly trailers.  The only differences on the Fist of Fury disc are that the interview (9 min.) is with a stunt man (Yuen Wan), and the featured trailers are for Mr. Vampire (with undead kung fu masters!), Royal Warriors, Winners and Sinners, and Hand of Death.

On the DVD for The Way of the Dragon, the interview (7 min.) is comprised of segments with actors Sammo Hung, Simon Yam, Paul Pui, and Flora Cheong-Leen as well as directors Wong Jing and Clarence Fok and stuntman Rocky Lai.  Everyone recalls anecdotes about Bruce Lee or aspects of his screen persona which made him a superstar.  The trailers are for My Lucky Stars, Legacy of Rage (starring Bruce Lee's son, Brandon), Spooky Encounters (more kung fu vampires!), and Operation Scorpio.

On the Game of Death DVD, there are trailers for In the Line of Duty 4, The Postman Fights Back, Warriors Two, and Battle Creek Brawl.  Interviews have been supplanted on this disc by out-takes (10 min.), including bloopers and alternate takes, from the extant Tower sequences footage for Game of Death.  These out-takes are probably the best bonus features in this DVD set.  To see more of these sequences edited in Bruce Lee's original intentions, be sure to track down a copy of the excellent documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey.

Lastly, on the Game of Death II DVD, trailers are offered for Hong Kong 1941, Eastern Condors, Duel to the Death, and Knockabout.  And again, instead of interviews, there are over two minutes of more bloopers and out-takes from Bruce Lee's original Game of Death footage.

Summary:

The Bruce Lee Ultimate Collection set is a fun compilation for new martial arts fans who have never before experienced the thrill of a Bruce Lee film.  It's great stuff, ideal for action film buffs who enjoy seeing grown men making funny faces and sounds while kicking the living crap out of each other.

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