Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits
The Big Boss
In the early 1970s, a kung-fu dynamo named Bruce Lee side-kicked his way onto the screen and straight into pop-culture immortality. With his magnetic screen presence, tightly coiled intensity, and superhuman martial-arts prowess, Lee was an icon who conquered both Hong Kong and Hollywood cinema, and transformed the art of the action film in the process. This collection brings together the five films that define the Lee legend: furiously exciting fist-fliers propelled by his innovative choreography, unique martial-arts philosophy, and whirlwind fighting style. Though he completed only a handful of films while at the peak of his stardom before his untimely death at age thirty-two, Lee left behind a monumental legacy as both a consummate entertainer and a supremely disciplined artist who made Hong Kong action cinema a sensation the world over.
Bruce Lee’s first star outing, The Big Boss, is featured on the first dual-layer disc of Criterion’s brand-new 7-disc box set Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The presentation comes from a 4K restoration sourced from the 35mm original camera negative.</P>
The last I saw the film was on a CBS Fox VHS (under the Fists of Fury title), which I recall not offering a terribly great presentation (even for VHS) so I knew going into this one the quality could only go up, but yet again my (admittedly wary) expectations have been clearly surpassed. There are a handful off issues that do hold it back a little, but I still think it looks damn good. The level of detail is what stunned me. I have so many memories of lackluster, fuzzy presentations (on VHS and DVD) for many Hong Kong action films that it always blows my mind when I see one that actually looks crisp and sharp and this one really looks incredible. Finer textures are nicely rendered, close-ups look lifelike, long shots deliver depth, and grain is there and rendered well. The print has also been gorgeously cleaned up and I’m hard pressed to recall any sort of damage. The opening credits even look clean.
The one aspect that holds it back, and I was expecting it, is in how the colours are rendered. I will admit I was expecting far worse in this department, and in comparison to other restorations it’s managed relatively well, but the colours do lean a little heavier on the warmer side and this has some adverse effects on the blacks. There are some murky looking scenes where details get crushed out, and others where the blacks just overrun everything. Whites still take on a mild yellow tint as well. My understanding is Shout! Factory, who released the film previously on Blu-ray, used the same 4K restoration and the yellow was even heavier. I haven’t seen that edition, but if true it’s obvious Criterion did some management here because, while it’s still there, it’s toned down relatively well.
All said this looks rather miraculous and I’m thrilled to see what the rest of the set holds.
Criterion includes four monaural audio tracks for the film: the original Mandarin soundtrack (with what I think is the original score), the original English dub (with the Peter Thomas score), a Cantonese dub, and then another Mandarin soundtrack, which differs from the other in that it features the Thomas score from the English dub. The first two are presented in lossless PCM while the last two are presented in Dolby Digital.
My expectations weren’t very high, though they ended up being surpassed somewhat. My expectations were probably at about the level of what the two Dolby Digital tracks—the Cantonese and alternate Mandarin tracks—delivered. These two tracks are incredibly flat and tinny, no fidelity whatsoever, though the score on the Mandarin track manages to sound pretty good.
The two lossless tracks are a bit better in that the music and action scenes have more heft and power behind them, but dialogue can still sound a little muffled, just not as bad as the two Dolby Digital tracks. The English track's voice dubbing can be incredibly brutal at times, but I don’t think that will surprise anyone.
Criterion spreads special features across the seven discs in the set, with ones dedicated to specific films found on their respective discs (this review and grade only pertains to the supplements found on this disc and not the set as a whole). The Big Boss starts things off with two audio commentaries, which I believe were both recorded for previous Shout! Editions, one featuring critic and Bruce Lee fan Brandon Bentley (from 2016) and another by Hong Kong film expert Mike Leeder.
Bentley’s track can be a little too fan-boyish at times, which occasionally rubbed me the wrong way, but there is still something to be said about a commentary where the participant is more than happy to be there. He talks a little about Lee’s career up to that point and goes over details about the production (and gets into a lot of detail about the film’s nudity) but his track is probably most beneficial for his knowledge on the various versions of the film, from its multiple titles, plural, down to individual sequences. He does talk about the many audio dubs (including why it certain dubs make it look like Lee's character is attracted to his "cousin"), the scores, and such, and even talks about a more violent version that has long been unseen. Watching the film there are a number of awkward cuts during some of the fights (or what are suggested to be more violent moments) so I wasn’t surprised to learn there was more there at one point, and Bentley fills in what he can, though he reminds the viewer this is all based off of anecdotal evidence from people who have seen it (he has not seen it first-hand). He even talks about The Big Boss Part 2 (which of course had nothing to do with Lee), which doesn’t sound to have been officially released, though he points out how one can see parts of it at least.
For those details the Bentley track are good but I found myself preferring the more laid-back Leeder track, recorded in 2013. Leeder talks more about Lee’s career prior as well as his having to deal with not only the racism in Hollywood, but also being seen as too American in Hong Kong. He also talks about how Lee developed his art to show in film (which differed greatly from his fighting style in real life) and how his legend was cemented with this film (and also how his early death probably led to him becoming the mythic figure he is today). At times it can maybe be too laid back (and there is some awful distortion, like it was recorded over a Skype call or something), but it’s a solid track in the end.
On The Big Boss is Criterion’s only new offering for this title, the rest of the material looking to come from other releases. Here Matthew Polly offers more what I would call an introduction, covering some of the same ground found in the audio commentaries on Lee’s career up to The Big Boss before talking about the production itself. He does offer some more details around subjects brought up in the tracks, like how Lee was just thrown into the film and the conflicts that arose between him and the directors. He then explains why the film was a big hit in Hong Kong and how it catapulted Lee.
Criterion then includes a collection of alternate footage, that all looks to be sourced from standard-definition. There are 3 alternate opening credits sequences, all running over a minute-and-a-half: an English one for the film’s original title, and then two others using the alternate Fists of Fury title (one of which opens with the Columbia logo). There is then a couple of minutes worth of extended scenes, though the material is much shorter than that: the rough looking footage is edited into the finished scenes as they appear in the film (over an English dub). There is then a 45-second alternate ending, which presents the final moments of the big fight scene in a somewhat different manner.
There is then an interview with martial arts instructor Gene LeBell from a number of years ago (Criterion provides no date, though), where he recalls first meeting Bruce Lee while working on The Green Hornet and then shares stories about what a wonderful person he was. He also worked with Brandon Lee on Rapid Fire and talks a little about that experience. The stories are interesting, but he can take a tangent here and there, and (knowing this might sound cruel) I was almost expecting a Grampa Simpson-like “so I tied an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time” to be thrown in at any moment.
Brandon Bentley then provides a short 2-minute video essay called Bruce Lee vs. Peter Thomas, providing the history behind the westernized score found on a few audio tracks. The disc then closes with trailers and TV spots.
It doesn’t look like a lot, but Criterion does pack a number of other supplements elsewhere on the disc. As it is, the ones focused on The Big Boss still manage to do a thorough job covering the film and its production, while also working to offer a solid introduction to Bruce Lee.
This disc starts things off nicely with some good features to introduce audiences to Lee, while also delivering a surprisingly strong video presentation.