With its designated chapter stops, which easily allow viewers to skip right to the good parts, this DVD set was made for Bruce Lee movies, all of which flirt with complete uselessness whenever their star isn’t actively kicking ass. Shout! Factory’s mammoth 11-disc set Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection comes tantalizingly close to being everything you’d ever need, but should arguably be called Bruce Lee: Every Major Film Except The Most Renowned One. Even with Enter The Dragon missing, this box set makes for an invaluable primer on martial-arts cinema’s first international breakout star, who is arguably still its greatest legend. That viewers will be able to bypass the oft-painful dialogue scenes and irrelevant plot complications is just a bonus.
Talking about Bruce Lee’s films in English has always been an exercise in confusion, thanks to a mix-up that switched the intended American titles for his first two pictures. Following numerous appearances as a child actor and a small role in the Raymond Chandler adaptation Marlowe, Lee’s first significant screen role was in 1971’s The Big Boss, which until fairly recently was known in the U.S. as Fists Of Fury. (Not to be confused, as it frequently is, with Fist Of Fury—see next paragraph.) Set mostly in and around an ice-manufacturing plant that serves as the front for a heroin-smuggling operation, The Big Boss was originally planned as a vehicle for established star James Tien, with Lee as his sidekick. Halfway through shooting, director Wei Lo apparently realized what he had, but to some extent it was too late. Lee’s character is established early as a sworn pacifist, constantly fingering the necklace that serves as a reminder of his promise to his mother that he would never fight again. Consequently, 46 deadly minutes elapse before Lee finally commences beating on people, though he makes up for lost time in the home stretch—even taking on a bunch of vicious German shepherds, which are plainly being thrown at him from just off-camera. The fight scenes are solid, if unspectacular compared to what would follow, but what’s most interesting is how generally unheroic Lee’s character is: easily flattered, deceived, and played for a fool by the bad guys. Even the ending is decidedly downbeat, with Lee’s final victory Pyrrhic at best.
Equally grim, but much less lethargic, was Lee’s follow-up with Lo, now known as Fists Of Fury. (It was originally released in the U.S. as The Chinese Connection, piggybacking on The French Connection.) This is the film in which Lee’s familiar screen persona fully takes form, with his lightning-fast kicks and punches now complemented by intimidating shrieks, grimaces, and poses. (He holds his limbs after a strike the way golfers hold their clubs after a swing.) There’s still a whole bunch of downtime in the middle, involving the movie’s Sino-Japanese rivalry—the plot is basically Lee’s kung fu school vs. a dojo, plus political intrigue—but at least this time it’s enlivened by Lee donning various disguises, including a pedicab driver, an elderly man selling newspapers, and a bespectacled dork from the phone company. None of which really changes the fact that at the end of the movie Lee proceeds to show up at the dojo and beat the living shit out of everybody, which he could just as easily have done back in scene two. On repeat viewings, most people will want to head straight for the action, which expands here to include Lee’s famous nunchaku and what turns out to be literal fists of fury in the sense that other characters refer to them as such throughout (at least in the subtitles). Before the movie is half over, he’s already killed two villains with a deathblow to the abdomen, a strategy so brutally effective that it’s unclear why he even bothers with anything else.
Not content with just being an international movie star, Lee made the leap to auteur with his penultimate completed film, The Way Of The Dragon (which—more confusion—was released in the U.S. after its follow-up, Enter The Dragon, and was therefore re-titled Return Of The Dragon). As a screenwriter, Lee fares no worse (and does no better) than his predecessors, cobbling together a flimsy narrative about a Chinese restaurant in Rome that needs protection from greedy real-estate thugs. As a director, however, he sometimes struggles with matters as simple as keeping himself in focus, and is ludicrously enamored of sudden zooms (including, at one point, multiple zooms in and out on several faces, which is the sort of thing you see parodied in the Austin Powers series). None of that really matters, however, once the movie arrives at its glorious climax, which sees Lee face off against Chuck Norris in the Coliseum, performing for an audience of a single stray cat. Not only is it a corker of a choreographed battle (which Lee shoots partially in slow motion, to make it easier to appreciate their graceful movements; all evidence suggests that Norris would have taken Lee apart in a real fight), but it’s one of the few martial-arts contests in movies that acknowledges the ugliness of being physically disabled by combat, as opposed to simply being knocked unconscious. Poor Chuck even has some of his copious chest hair ripped out.
In addition, The Legacy Collection includes Game Of Death, Lee’s uncompleted final film, which he was working on at the time of his death from a cerebral edema (possibly complicated by reaction to medication) at age 32. The “full-length” version, released in 1978, fills out the running time with work by stand-ins and footage taken from previous Lee movies. There’s no reason whatsoever to watch the entire thing; just skip to the end, which features a series of bone-crunching fight sequences that suggest Lee was just getting warmed up when he left. Furthermore, each film has its own corresponding disc of bonus features, and there are three additional discs’ worth of supplemental material, including three full-length documentaries (Bruce Lee: The Man And The Legend, Bruce Lee: The Legend—no longer a man?—and I Am Bruce Lee) and various interviews, audition reels, and other assorted trinkets. Browse through all of it at leisurely, focusing solely on what’s of interest… just like with the films.
The Big Boss: B-
Fist Of Fury: B
The Way Of The Dragon: B-
Game Of Death: C-