The first stop anyone should make as they journey through “Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits,” The Criterion Collection’s towering dedication to late martial arts master and international icon Bruce Lee, is “Water and Vessel,” critic and historian Jeff Chang’s load-bearing essay. For novices, the background Chang has gathered and woven into a tapestry of Lee is essential for contextualizing the five pictures assembled in the set: “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” “The Way of the Dragon,” “Enter the Dragon,” and “Game of Death.” Think of Chang’s piece as Bruce Lee 101, insight and knowledge procured by an author to whom the name means everything.
But even those versed in the school of Lee beyond his Hong Kong masterworks will enjoy new perspectives on the man courtesy of Chang’s scholarship. Lee was a complex cross-stitch: An affluent son who started off in the movies playing the poor, the needy, and the bedraggled and was removed to the U.S. from his Kowloon home by his own parents for street fighting. The essay incidentally reframes the tug of war fought over Lee’s image last year, sparked by the release of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” Chang reconciles the conflicting qualities of cockiness and compassion, arrogance and amiability, pomp and poetry, into a single body. Such is the full circumference of Lee.
Ego isn’t a crime, and whatever ego Lee possessed, he earned it. He was handsome; he was charismatic; he was good-hearted; he was so fast that, depending who you talk to, either he had to literally pull his punches or the folks in charge of capturing him on film had to bump the frame rate from 24 to 32 fps and slow it down so audiences could see his moves. But Chang also writes of a man who learned humility through life experience and made the global dissemination of kung-fu’s spiritual expressions a driving ambition. Paraphrasing Lee’s philosophy, he’s water. He fits whatever mold he’s poured into at any given time, whether a swaggering peacock or a gracious teacher. There is one Bruce Lee, but one Bruce Lee contains multitudes.
Chang’s writing is the gateway for “Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits,” but the centerpieces, naturally, are the movies themselves, which themselves unify the traits that made Bruce Lee Bruce Lee. He’s heroic. He’s reckless. He’s proud. He’s haughty. He’s one of the best that ever did it, and in five chapters, Criterion proves that out.
“The Big Boss”
Appropriately, Lee’s first major role (and his triumphant Hong Kong debut) features him as a brash, headstrong type whose mother makes him swear not to get into trouble as he travels to Thailand to live with his extended family; he wears a jade pendant as a symbol of his vow. For about 40 minutes, he sticks to the promise, until the pendant is broken and he has no choice but to break it (along with a few dozen bones). Lee plays Chao-an; James Tien plays his cousin Hsu Chien, an advocate for the innocent who’s so quick to beat up ruffians and thugs that for a while he looks like the film’s assumed lead. He isn’t. Lee, even standing to the side of scuffles and brawls looking bored, oozes star power; the moment he starts snapping kicks, he looks like a legend in the making. “The Big Boss” is a reminder that even noble heroes deserve wiggle room for occasional fatalities (save for the infamous saw-in-the-head shot, which remains lost to time), but most of all, it’s the grimy foundation of Lee’s bright but tragically curtailed future.
“Fist of Fury”
After directing Lee in “The Big Boss,” Lo Wei took on the task of directing him in “Fist of Fury,” which unsurprisingly follows a similar formula: Lee plays a hotheaded martial artist who sets out to right a wrong against his people no matter the cost, even if the cost is paid in blood. This time, he’s Chen Zen, the protege of Huo Yuanjia, real-life co-founder of the Chin Woo Athletic Association and also may have died from arsenic poisoning. Or from taking therapeutic arsenic. “Fist of Fury” goes with the former, Ho’s murders being a Japanese dojo led by nefarious grandmaster Suzuki (Riki Hashimoto). Like “The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury” embraces national pride in the fight against foreign oppressors, and puts that pride on Lee’s ridiculously muscled shoulders. But the fight scenes are crisper and ride on currents of elation that thrum through Lee’s performance. He’s embracing his brash, righteous side, and having the time of his life doing it.
“The Way of the Dragon”
Third verse, same as the first two, but it’s way better, a tall order given the baseline set by “The Big Boss” and “Fist of Fury.” This time, Lee is in control as director, writer, and star, which suits the egotist narrative but frankly makes sense for an artist so keenly aware of what he wants to say, and how he wants to say it, in his movies. As Tang Lung, Lee gets to up his game staging fight sequences, but he also gets more space to play the fish out of water and mine the dynamic for goofball jokes about cultural mores. Fun as it is to watch Lee loosen up, “Way of the Dragon” is best known for its final battle between Lee and Chuck Norris, debuting as Lee’s almost-equal-but-not-quite; in the belly of the Colosseum, they put on one of cinema’s great bouts, Norris the silent, over-confident foe, Lee the cat toying with his meal (in case the cuts from he and Norris to an observing kitty don’t drive home the metaphor). There’s a reason Stephen Chow lifted moments from this film without hardly changing a thing: “Way of the Dragon” subsumes interests from its predecessors while seamlessly expanding on Lee’s personality at the same time.
“Enter the Dragon”
One one hand, “Enter the Dragon” is arguably less Lee-centric than the last three movies in his body of work; John Saxon and Jim Kelly appear by his side and receive the gift of fleshed-out motivations and backstories, plus a spotlight of their own for showing off their impressive skills as martial artists. On the other hand, this is the best-known of Lee’s movies, and undoubtedly the culmination of his mission to spread martial arts’ teachings all the world over: There’s a martial artist in everyone, no matter their identity or nation of origin. “Ghettos are the same all over the world. They stink,” says Williams, Kelly’s character, gazing at Aberdeen floating village in Hong Kong’s harbor; Lee’s script emphasizes the truth that oppression is a global experience, not unique to cultures or to people.
“Enter the Dragon” doesn’t make that motif into heavy narrative ballast, but combined with Williams’ introduction—he beats up 2 cops and steals their car—it resonates across the movie regardless. Borrowing James Bond’s clothes, Lee stars as a Shaolin martial arts instructor tapped by British intelligence to infiltrate a tournament hosted by crime lord Han (Shih Kien), teaming up with Roper (Saxon) and Williams to take him down. What the fights lack in clever craftsmanship, the rest of the picture makes up for in style and the ingenious filmmaking in Lee’s climactic confrontation with Han, set in a hall of mirrors where hero and villain stalk one another by reflection. The effect is dizzying, and the film itself, being Lee’s final completed work before his death, a masterpiece.
“Game of Death”
They can’t all be winners. The cruelest stroke of “Game of Death” is its final 10 minutes, thereabouts, comprising footage Lee was able to shoot prior to his passing; in his series of duels with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dan Inosanto, and Ji Han-jae, Lee elevates himself to mythic status, the yellow-striped jumpsuit that’s synonymous with his name providing extra crackle to Lee’s innate electric appeal. Unfortunately, everything else is trash at best and ghoulish at worst, incorporating footage of Lee’s actual funeral into the story of a martial arts superstar (played by a series of unconvincing Lee doubles) vaulted into a world of international intrigue and other such clichés worn out by the film’s naked cheapness. Sadly, there’s little else to say about “Game of Death.” It’s a movie to be seen for the sake of completion rather than pleasure, a poor send-off for Lee but a necessary part of his filmography all the same.
We can only dream of what Lee might’ve done with his life if it hadn’t been cut short at 32. But “Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits” gives us a comprehensive portrait of what he did accomplish, not only as a movie star but as a person. Lee is celebrated to this day. More importantly, he’s loved: It’s in Chang’s words, it’s in the loving restorations applied to each of these films, it’s in the hours of interviews conducted with his collaborators, peers, and family, and it’s in the treasure trove of documentaries about Lee’s folkloric stature. He can no longer be with us, but he’s in this collection.
“Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits” is available now from Criterion.