Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits
Game of Death
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.
The fifth dual-layer disc in Criterion’s 7-disc box set, Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, presents Lee’s “final” film, Game of Death, 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 a 35mm internegative.
This film has a unique history that does play quite a bit into the presentation, and I'll cover it briefly for those unaware of it. For his follow-up to The Way of the Dragon, Lee had a basic concept for a film that delved into his philosophy of fighting “style” he called Jeet Kune Do, which focused more on what worked for the individual rather than a strict set of rules (I’ll stress this is a very simplistic explanation of Lee’s philosophy and I would recommend, at the very least, wikiing it for more information if one is interested). For the film, he came up with the idea of a series of fight scenes where the hero had to adapt his fighting style to beat each antagonist whose fighting style differed in style from the last. Lee had started filming the final fight scenes for Game of Death (three of a planned five) before going to Hollywood to shoot Enter the Dragon, only completing about 30-minutes’ worth of useable footage. Lee unfortunately passed away just before Enter the Dragon was released.
With only 30-minutes worth of footage the material just sat at Golden Harvest until some "genius" came up with the idea to incorporate that footage into a new Bruce Lee movie, with stand-ins and crummy inserts to fill in for Lee when needed. Since the film was unfinished and Lee only had a basic concept for the film’s storyline (he had planned to iron that out after finishing Enter the Dragon) a new plotline had to be constructed around this footage Lee had filmed, and the best they could come up with is storyline around a martial artist/actor who has to fake his death to go after the gangsters trying to kill him.
Considering the film’s production and its (lousy yet charming) attempts to insert Bruce Lee into the film this comes off looking far better than I would have ever expected, and it could be one of, if not the best looking presentation in the set. Its primary hindrance is the colour grading, which has a heavier yellow-ish/teal-ish tint to it. Before going through this set I was actually expecting this look for each film, but the other films did tone this down. Unfortunately it looks to be heavier on this film when compared to the others. Everything is caked and it all looks off, this green-like hue over a lot the film. This further impacts the black levels in an incredibly brutal manner, crushing out details and just plastering heavy blacks over the film’s many night sequences, making it hard to see at times. It gets incredibly bad during some of the finale.
This ends up being a shame because every other aspect of the presentation is solid... at least when the source doesn’t get in the way at any rate. The “new” footage, the stuff filmed after Lee’s death, looks really good, very sharp with incredible detail, and it has a nice filmic look to it. Grain is fine but it’s rendered well throughout, even when the black levels are causing other problems. Unfortunately, the improved clarity of the the "new" portions of the film does make some of the short-cuts the filmmakers took in faking Lee’s presence more obvious, like the laughably horrible “face insert” of Lee early in the film.
Outside of cheap effects like that (which was litrally a picture of Lee's face stuck to a mirror), what sticks out most is the footage of Lee that gets incorporated into the film. This footage comes from his previous films and in each case it’s obvious that a grainier film stock has been used, softening the picture when it does. In some cases, it looks like they’re zooming in on said footage making it look even worse. The jumps from the main film to this footage is very jarring, and even worse when it’s cut quickly because it’s so obvious none of it is organic to this film. There’s also footage from Lee’s funeral (which is pretty messed up), though it oddly blends in decently enough with the rest of the film. The footage that Lee shot himself for his version of the film, which takes up around 11-minutes of the finale, also has a grainier look, but it ends up being cleaner in comparison to the footage taken from the other Lee films. This footage looks pretty good, still sharp, and delivering strong details. It’s still just very clear this footage is from a different film, both in terms of how the restoration looks and the stylistic choices by the respective directors, Lee for the original footage, Enter the Dragon’s Robert Clouse for the rest of the film (with Lee’s sensibilities working for the better in my opinion).
In the end the presentation looks decent enough, substantially better than I was ever expecting, but it has both been harmed by the film’s unorthodox choices along with the restoration’s brutal colour grading.
Only a couple of audio choices are available for this film: the original English track and then the English version created for a Japanese re-release, both presented in lossless PCM 1.0 mono. The two are comparable for the most part, though I found John Barry’s score to have better depth and fidelity on the original English track, sounding a bit more muted on the alternate track. The Japanese/English track also sounds a little harsher and edgier in some areas, and background noise is more obvious.
Initially I was confused as to why Criterion would bother including the Japanese track since I didn’t detect any differences, but then we get to a fight scene early on in the film and I noticed the screams and sound effects did differ when jumping between the two tracks, and then this became far more obvious during the fight scenes filmed originally by Lee and then used for this film’s climax. Looking it up, it appears that a Japanese version for the film used Lee’s actual screams, whereas the original version had someone else dub them. I’m assuming that’s the case here as they're distinctly different. Shout! Factory did include a Japanese version of the film on each of their Blu-ray editions (none of which I have gone through I should note) but this alternate track doesn’t sound to be the same thing. Reading up on what cut was presented on Shout’s releases it sounds as though that version is actually a slightly different edit, with some Japanese dialogue, a couple of trims, and a couple of short additions. That version is found nowhere in this set, unfortunately, but I think having the audio option, at the very least, will be a good inclusion for fans.
Quality-wise the original English track sounds better, though it’s not significant in the end. Which version one goes with will just come down to personal preference.
Spreading content over all seven discs found in the set, supplements specific to a title are usually housed on that respective disc. Game of Death comes with some great material, maybe the strongest of all of the film-specific supplements, but there is sadly quite a bit missing that was found on Shout! Factory’s own releases. Somewhat making up for that is that there is some new stuff, and at least one of the features does replace one of the missing ones.
Criterion does, at the very least, carry over Mike Leeder’s audio commentary from the Shout! Edition(s) of the film. Like the tracks found on the other non-Warner Bros. titles, it sounds as though Leeder is doing his track over a bad Skype call. Getting past that he offers an informative (if again very laid back) discussion about the film’s production history and the wave of Bruce Lee rip-off films (deemed “Bruceploitation” films, covered in more detail on disc 7) that littered the landscape after his death. He doesn’t consider the film “good” but calls it a guilty pleasure because of its good (the fight sequences, the film’s clever ways to build up to Lee’s actual footage) and bad (badly inserting Lee’s likeness to just giving up on that front, along with the ridiculous plot) qualities. He also offers a lot of details about the fighters that did agree to appear in the film, like Robert Wall, and then also talks about the people that worked with Lee prior that are oddly missing (though Chuck Norris outright refused to appear in the film as one of its villains). The film certainly has its charms and Leeder does an admirable job of pointing them out, even defending them to a certain extent, but he can also be brutally honest at times, which makes this probably one of his more engaging and interesting tracks.
The big addition to this release, though, is probably Game of Death Redux, which looks to be a replacement of a similar feature that appeared on the Shout! releases, which was called Game of Death Revisited (there is a similarly named feature found on this disc, but it’s a completely different beast). As mentioned elsewhere in this review, Lee had filmed around 30-minutes’ worth of useable footage but only 11-minutes of that footage was used in the finished film. Some of it could not be used because it showcased other characters that did not appear in the final version, or it served a different plot. For this feature, Alan Canvan edits Lee’s original footage together as close as possible to what Lee may have intended, even adding in sound effects and dubbing (not too shabbily I might add) some of the dialogue. It also incorporates John Barry’s score to a nice effect. All that existed in Lee’s footage are three of the five fights he had originally intended, with no other footage to contextualize the plot. To fill in this obvious gap, text notes are provided to set up the situation and then we get to the action. Getting what is closer to the full fight scenes, all of which run substantially longer (especially the second one), is great in and of itself, but what impressed me most is that this has been edited together in such a way that there is a cohesive and rather exciting little short film here, with a beginning, middle, and end. That is the aspect that impressed me most about this feature, that it actually works as its own as a film. Though the fight scenes are good, it’s hard to say whether Lee’s version of the film would have been good on its own terms, but it would have been better, by a rather large degree, than what the world did eventually get.
Running 34-minutes, the presentation looks fine, but this looks to have been put together using standard-definition footage.
Completely new to Criterion’s edition is another interview with Lee biographer Matthew Polly, who explains Lee’s original idea behind the film as well as the “Bruceploitation” films that followed his death, which this film technically falls into the category of (it just had the advantage of having footage previously unused). It’s a fair 7-minute look at the film, though I feel Polly gives it too much credit when he suggests that the level structure of the film—presenting one fighter/boss after the other, tougher than the last—possibly influencing that similar structure in video games.
Also included here (and appearing to be carried over from the Shout! editions), is a collection of bonus footage. There is an alternate opening credits sequence, which is very different from the original footage (which may have been initially used on the Japanese version of the film, and was also used for the closing credits of Game of Death II, found on disc 6 of this set), followed by three alternate endings. They’re all similar, put together a little differently but they end by showing Billy and Ann going off in the sunset on a ferry, which the version on this disc does not have.
Four deleted scenes are next. A couple are simple cuts but one is a pretty big fight scene in what appears to be a green house and the other appears to be another alternate ending, showing Billy getting arrested at the end. It looks as though both of these scenes appear in the Mandarin/Cantonese version of the film, which was included in its entirety on the previous Shout Select edition. Researching this odd ending it appears it was added because the film risked being banned if it didn’t show that the main character was being punished for his vigilante run. Interestingly, that additional fight scene also appears in Game of Death II.
Also found here are about 4-minutes’ worth of outtakes and 3-minutes’ worth of bloopers, which are taken from some of the raw footage Lee shot for his version of the film. Here you can see a few takes around shots of him using nun-chucks, with a couple of mistakes and him laughing along with them.
Outside of a couple of trailers for the film, this disc also features a supplement called Game of Death Revisited. Shout! also had a similarly named feature on their release, but it looks like that was its own presentation of the unused material that Lee shot, like the Redux on here. This feature ends up being a 29-minute interview with martial artist/actor Robert Wall and it ends up being possibly the best interview on here thanks to Wall’s rather brutal honesty. The interview focuses on Game of Death and he explains why he did it: for the money, and he claims out of everyone that worked on the film he was paid the most by a substantial margin. He talks about the fight scenes he was involved and how he was involved in staging them. This then leads him directly into talking about director Robert Clouse, who he absolutely hated, and to get that point across he unleashes a string of expletives every time Clouse’s name comes up. He then takes this opportunity to explain that the only reason Enter the Dragon worked was because of Lee, stressing Clouse had no idea what he was doing and if it was left up to the filmmaker the fight scenes would have been disasters. This carried on to Game of Death, and Wall explains how his big fight scene could have been a mess if he and Sammo Hung didn’t take charge on it. While Wall can come off as a bit much at times during the interview, I never got a true sense he was full of himself. He obviously knows his skillset, from his strengths to his weaknesses, and he is humble when covering a few topics. Some of his abrasiveness mostly comes down to the fact he really could not stand Clouse and he seems to want to set some things straight. He also knows the film is a mess (though still thinks it could have been better if it wasn’t for that Clouse!) but does have good things to say about Lee’s stand-ins, some other elements in the film, and he then talks a little about Enter the Dragon and the accident that occurred around the broken bottles (brought up in other places in the set). In all I thought this was a great interview and one that Lee fans need to watch.
Though there is material missing that was included on previous editions (like the alternate cuts that Shout! Factory included on their editions for the film) this disc so far contains the strongest set of supplements, particularly the interview with Wall and the Redux cut for the film.
Despite a film-like presentation, the image is hampered by questionable colour grading that plasters everything in a yellow/green hue and destroys black levels. The supplements on the other hand—which include a new edit of the material Lee shot for Game of Death—end up offering the strongest batch in relation to their respective film.