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20th Century Fox presents
"I'm here to avenge my teacher."
DVD ReviewWhat else can one say about Bruce Lee that hasn't already been said? Lee only made four finished films, yet his influence remains immense in the field of martial arts films, and his presence is still felt in pop culture even thirty-plus years after his untimely death. It's impossible to say if Lee's impact would have been nearly the same if he hadn't died so young, but the knock-offs, rip-offs, and homages that trailed in the years after his death speak to his impact in martial arts cinema. Today's filmmakers still pay homage; look at Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer, which included a warm tribute to Lee, to name just one. Lee, despite his absence, hasn't gone anywhere. One area in which he has been generally ill-served, though, is in the home video arena. Subject to dismal public domain and otherwise shoddy releases in North America and elsewhere, it hasn't been until DVD that many English-speaking viewers have been able to see Lee's films outside Enter the Dragon in their native tongue with English subtitles. That has now changed for the better, first with Hong Kong Legends' UK releases, and now with the latest batch, available in the USA courtesy of Fox, who have ported over the recent remasterings undertaken by Fortune Star. How do they stack up?
Lee exploded upon the scene with The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury) in 1971. I can only imagine the impact Lee's kinetic, visceral style of screen fighting had on audiences then, but this remains probably Lee's weakest film of the four he completed. That's not to say it isn't entertaining, because it remains so, but the lack of a decent final opponent, not to mention making the audience wait about 45 minutes before Lee cuts loose. Lee plays Cheng Chao-An, just arrived in Thailand from Hong Kong to look for work. Chao-An's uncle says he's arrived to look for work, but we learn early on that Chao-An has been in trouble fighting, and he has consequently promised his mother not to fight. Naturally, multiple opportunities arise for him to break this promise, but Chao-An remains firm. This is on its face a ridiculous promise, especially when Chao-An's uncle tells him to stay uninvolved when the woman they have just bought a drink from (Nora Miao) is harassed by a group of thugs.
Lee's cousin Hsu Chien (James Tien) happens by, and teaches the thugs a lesson. It's here where the gulf between Lee and the other fighters in the film first becomes clear; Tien, though he's game, looks awkward and out of place though he is able to dispatch the thugs without much trouble. When we finally see Lee in action later on, you can understand why he's gotten into trouble fighting; he's vastly superior compared to the others. Hsu gets Chao-An a job at the local ice factory, which is really a front for the titular villain (Han Chieh-Yin), a bespectacled drug dealer. In one of the more bizarre drug delivery methods, packets of smack are frozen into the giant blocks of ice the factory produces, for retrieval at some later date. The Boss's men have no compunction about rubbing out those who get to nosy, though you have to wonder how this operation could continue when it's so easily discovered by accident in the film. Anyway, Chao-An is forced to break his promise when the powers that be try to squash the factory workers' when they strike over the disappearance of Hsu. Compared to what has just been seen, Lee's quick efficient demolishing of the enemy is doubly impressive. Chao-An's new involvement leads into him into trouble with the Boss, culminating Chao-An's cutting a swath through a variety of henchmen in order to face the real enemy.
Lee is quite good here, with some of his smaller moments quite impressive, like the palpable but understated pleasure on his face after knocking out his first opponent in the factory brawl. The film itself is fairly cynical, or perhaps just confused, arguing at first that to sit back and refuse to fight for your beliefs is wrong, then doing an about face and showing that it's unwise to do so, then veering back and forth again. The finale, with Chao-An led off in handcuffs, is rather disappointing after his victory over the evil Big Boss and his goons. No one is above the law, even when the law spends the rest of the film completely absent from events.
Fresh from that success, Lee hit the jackpot again with Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection), in which he plays Chen Zhen, returning home for the funeral of his martial arts master. Chen knows something is fishy, and he strikes out alone to discover the truth about his master's death. The Japanese, who hold the power in Shanghai, arranged the murder, and Bruce cuts down everyone who stands in his way before a final showdown with their leader, Suzuki (Riki Hashimoto). Chen, forced to surrender or see his school destroyed, goes down with a literal bang.
Like Big Boss, Lee plays a defender of the Chinese common man, fighting against both betrayals from within and opposition from without. The law is meaningless except as a tool of the powerful, and Lee's character plays the ultimate price for his honorable revenge taking. Lee's performance is perhaps the weakest of his four films, with his acting veering too much into melodrama for my liking. Lee is too often forced to be on the edge of mania. Still the fights are exciting and plentiful, and Lee is in fine form as usual. He also gets to engage in some disguise work, as he keeps tabs on the enemy during his quest for revenge.
By 1972's Way of the Dragon (also known as Return of the Dragon in the US), Lee had gained enough pull to not only star, but also write and direct as well. While still giving fans what they wanted (namely, action and lots of it), he threw in numerous comedic moments as well, making for a strange stew of a film that remains quite entertaining despite some lapses in taste. Lee once again plays the avenger of wrongs, this time named Tang Lung. Lung has come from Hong Kong to Rome, sent by the uncle of restaurateur Chen Ching Hua (Nora Miao), to help her out. Ching-hua, having inherited her father's Chinese restaurant, is being harassed by the thugs of a local crime boss (Jon Benn) who wants the property for reasons never really explained. Lung, despite being a complete yokel in many ways, is a serious bad ass. I know, it shocked me too! When the thugs mock kung fu early on, Lung proceeds to clean house. This only heightens the hostilities, and the Boss brings in some professionals to take out Lung and company once and for all.
The film is famous for its finale, featuring Bruce against Chuck Norris in the surroundings of the Roman Coliseum, and it's a great one, maybe the finest fighting sequence of Lee's career. The other action set pieces are quite good as well, though the thugs sent by the Boss are a pretty dire group to be considered threatening. Anyhow, there is plenty to enjoy here; the humor, as noted above, is hit and miss. Lung's constant need early on to use the toilet is a bizarre touch, and his encounter with a sexy Italian hooker is pretty amusing. The only grotesque element is Wei Ping-Ao's grating portrayal of the screamingly gay assistant to the Boss; this stock role wasn't limited to this film, but it speaks of pandering to the audience for cheap laughs, something Lee didn't need to do.
Lee plays Lung with a nice mix of naivete and nastiness when called for, but his direction is fairly pedestrian. When Lee needs to have Chen explain her situation, he attempts to make it less tedious by showing unrelated travelogue shots of Roman monuments and attractions, which the characters are supposedly driving by. It's a fairly lame device and goes on far too long. Where Lee shines, and rightfully so, is in the action scenes, where he displays a range of skills, from hand to hand combat to fighting with a staff, one nunchaku, and dual nunchaku action. Even if the thugs looks hopefully inept, the scenes are fun to watch, and Lee saves the best for last, with professional martial artists like Bob Wall, Wang Ing-Sik, and Norris thrown into the mix.
It should be noted that watching Way in English defeats the purpose of a good part of the plot; while the dubbing is unintentionally funny, Lung is supposed to be unable to understand the locals and they him, which makes sense if he is speaking Chinese and they Italian (or English here). But when all the characters speak English, it results in several nonsensical moments.
When Lee died unexpectedly in 1973, it meant that Lee's current project, Game of Death, would remain unfinished. But leave it to movie executives to find a way out even when the star has died, as the film was completed via the use of a variety of tricks to make the existing footage work within the new framework. Lee intended the film to be a display of his fighting philosophy, as Lee's fluid, adaptable kung fu would allow him to triumph over opponents whose dedication to a single style meant defeat through failure to adapt. The embarrassment that those involved coughed up is ludicrous from its opening credits, which ape James Bond credit sequences minus the babes (but with a John Barry score). Footage from Way of the Dragon is used liberally, including the opening sequence, which sees the Lee character, Billy Lo, shooting the Coliseum fight with Chuck Norris.
The two actors standing in for Lee are often shot in shadow, or turned from the camera, or bearded and always wearing giant sunglasses, but they're seen often enough to make it clear it isn't Lee. At one point, the film sinks so low as to use a cutout of Lee's face over the actor. It really is that dumb. Anyway, the plot involves the Lee-esque Billy Lo, a martial arts film star who must fake his death to get revenge on the mobsters who have been harassing him and his singer girlfriend (Colleen Camp). Eventually, the film makes it way to the pagoda where Billy must battle Hakim, played by Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
The film disposes of Lee's original conception in order to be just another revenge potboiler, and pretty bad one at that. The performances are mediocre at best and the dialogue is usually terrible. The film's lowest ebb comes in the use of actual shots of Lee's coffin and a glimpse of his corpse. This sensationalistic use of such footage can't be excused in any way; it's just sleazy exploitation. What's worse is that they try to tie it in with the faked death plot, but Billy is shown to have been shot in the face, thus making his undamaged face in the casket highly unlikely. One could go on and on about how lousy this is. I'm not sure what else I can say to dissuade viewers from wasting their time with this garbage, but if you want to see Lee's Game of Death in a form like he intended, check out the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey, on the Enter the Dragon two-disc set from Warner.
Having already violated Lee's memory with Game of Death, it didn't make sense to let further unused footage go to waste, and so thus belched forth was Game of Death 2, which is not really much of a sequel let alone a decent film, though it has marginally more going for it than the first did, albeit with same exploitative bad taste. Our friend Billy Lo returns, this time minus girlfriend and career, only to get killed about 37 minutes into the film. Billy was trying to get to the bottom of the death of his pal and kung fu master Chin Ku (Jang Lee Huang). After Billy gets bumped off, his brother Bobby (Tai Chung Kim) must of course seek revenge. This leads him into a series of fights that end with a "shocking" revelation.
Like the first Game, this one recycles previously unseen Bruce Lee footage, this time primarily from Enter the Dragon. The footage used here was later re-edited into that film, so seeing it here is no big bonus. Once again though, there are the same glaring continuity errors due to the use of unrelated footage, as well as mismatched film stocks. The reprehensible use of footage from Lee's funeral is again present, and this time the filmmakers even include footage from Lee's pre-stardom film appearances, as "flashback" material for Billy's character, albeit with onscreen text that informs us it is "Bruce Lee at 15" and such. Perhaps the best thing the movie has going for it is the high-cheese dub job, which is in the full stereotypical 70s manner. The fights are obviously not up to Lee's high standard, but they're okay. I've seen worse. There is also some nudity thrown in to spice things up. I almost forgot the best part: the movie includes a fight scene between Bobby and a lion. The lion being a guy in a poorly made lion suit. It's the sort of thing you wish you only made up, but there it is, on the screen.
So, finally, the big question: is this set worth getting? Maybe, but it depends on what you're looking for from it. The set is basically a port of the region 3 release, but with different sound choices. If you want the "big three" films of the set in 2.0 Cantonese or Mandarin rather than the DTS and Dolby 5.1 re-mixes put out in R3, then you're in luck. If you want 5.1 or DTS English mixes, they're there, though not especially good. The films look better than any previous release, but Hong Kong Legends will be re-releasing some of their editions of the Lee films in new deluxe editions next year, so if you're PAL capable and don't mind the exchange rate, you may be better off waiting for those, given their rich array of extras, something that cannot be said about this set. In the end, this set is not optimal, but it is a drastic improvement over Fox's previous offering.Even after all these years, no one, be it Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or whoever else you wish to choose, has come close to taking Lee's crown as the cinema's greatest martial artist. His films remain vital despite their weaknesses, and remain an influential part of cinema and pop culture. Lee remains a beloved figure around the world, and that shows no signs of changing. A guy with that kind of charisma can't be ignored, no matter what our opinion of his work might be. This new box set, while not perfect, at least allows North American viewers to see the majority of his starring film work in a decent native release at long last.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: This is good but a bit of letdown; these films have never looked wonderful, due in part, I would imagine, to worn out elements and their low budget origins. Consequently, when remastering them for these releases, Fortune Star could only do so much. I own the Hong Kong Legends editions of Lee's first three films, and it must be said that the new releases greatly outdo the HKL versions, with The Big Boss looking especially good. Way of the Dragon is perhaps the only exception, as the two look fairly even, with color levels the main difference. The film still has the same out of focus moments it has always had and probably always will have. The Game of Death films suffer from different quality film stocks, and it's very obvious when watching these versions. All that being said, you aren't going to get better versions of these films for the time being.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Again, a mixed bag. I found the English tracks (DTS and Dolby 5.1) to be average; these just aren't soundtracks meant to be heard like this, especially with the original quality of the the tracks being fairly low. Plus, there have been new sound effects added to juice the track up, which simply don't mesh well with the dated dialogue track. If you're allergic to subtitles, though, you at least have an option. The 2.0 Chinese tracks (Cantonese and Mandarin) sound much more normal and balanced, although they aren't faultless, but they sound okay. It's worth sampling the different tracks just to hear the differences in them; the Cantonese and Mandarin tracks on The Big Boss feature different music during the opening credits, for example, and the dialogue differs between the Englush tracks and the subtitles, which makes for interesting comparisons. The soundtracks for the films are as follows: the two Game of Death films feature English Dolby 5.1, DTS, and 2.0; the other three include English Dolby 5.1, DTS, and Cantonese and Mandarin 2.0.
Audio Transfer Grade: C
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
5 Original Trailer(s)
20 Other Trailer(s) featuring Hong Kong 1941, Eastern Condors, Duel to the Death, Knockabout, Cityhunter, In the Line of Duty 4, Postman Fights Back, Warriors Two, Battle Creek Brawl, My Lucky Stars, Legacy of Rage, Spooky Encounters, Operation Scorpio, Mr Vampire, Winners and Sinners, Royal Warriors, Hand of Death, Young Master, Iron Fisted Monk, Prodigal Son
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsFor any fan of martial arts or action films, these films, in whatever release one acquires them, are a must. This Fox boxed set includes two utter dogs in the Game of Death films, but the other three remain must-haves, and have not been better served in terms of overall video/audio quality. Extras are left wanting, but those who simply want the films will find an eminently watchable set here.
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