Criterion's New Collection Celebrates Bruce Lee, Film's Most Dynamic Action Star

You've never seen Bruce Lee like you will in this restored collection of the action icon's five 'Greatest Hits.'

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Bruce Lee in 'The Way of the Dragon' | Courtesy of Criterion
Bruce Lee in 'The Way of the Dragon' | Courtesy of Criterion

One of the best scenes in all of Bruce Lee's movies is the climactic fight at the end of Lee's directorial debut, The Way of the Dragon, in which he battles the wordless villain Colt (played, in his screen debut, by Chuck Norris) in one of the arched cathedral-like entryways of the Roman Colosseum. Whereas Lee's character Tang Lung has so far spent the movie picking off thuggish gangsters one after another, this is a fight between two equally matched warriors, the kind of gladiatorial confrontation the crowds of ancient Rome would have screamed their noses bloody for in the arena's heyday. "There's a morning screening of the upcoming releases just so that people can acclimate themselves to the movies," Curtis Tsui, a producer at Criterion in charge of its newest set of five Bruce Lee movies, told Thrillist. "A number of people had come in for The Way of the Dragon that day. It was a rousing sequence -- when the chest hair got torn off, the entire group of us were all just cheering." 

Bruce Lee does, indeed, rip off a handful of Chuck Norris's chest hair, and then proceeds to fight and defeat him in one of the best action scenes ever filmed. It's the perfect showcase of everything Lee stood for in his work: bridging the gap between East and West, having a passion for teaching, and displaying his unique Jeet Kune Do fighting style, a hybridization of several martial arts that allowed him to constantly keep his opponents on their toes. It's also, like the film surrounding it, quite funny, and one doesn't necessarily think of Bruce Lee, with his stony glare and piercing battle cry, as a comedian. "The biographer Matthew Polly told me this, that Jerry Lewis was one of [Lee's] favorite performers," Tsui said. "And when you watch stuff like Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon with the comedic gags -- particularly Fist of Fury where he keeps putting on disguises -- you'll see a lot of this Jerry Lewis-inspired comedy with him." 

The collection, Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits, includes crystal-clear restorations of The Big Boss, Lee's Hong Kong action breakthrough, and Fist of Fury, in which he stars as a martial arts student determined to avenge his school after their master's murder. These are followed by The Way of the Dragon, written, directed, co-produced, and starred in by Lee, about a martial artist employed to save a restaurant beset by gangsters. Finally, his last two movies: Enter the Dragon (arguably Lee's most often seen film in the West), and Game of Death, posthumously cobbled together from already filmed fight sequences and some creative body double work (and the inspiration for Uma Thurman's yellow Kill Bill jumpsuit). It's a brilliant and exciting encapsulation of a near-superhuman career that was cut suddenly, and unfairly, short in 1973. "I didn't want to spend any time speculating on his death," Tsui said. "It's something that I think people will speculate upon forever and out of respect to his family, I just didn't, you know, I just didn't want to go there. I didn't think it was central to the story or that it was central to anybody's understanding of who he was or what he had, or what would make his movies special." 

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Bruce Lee fights Chuck Norris at the climax of 'The Way of the Dragon.' | Courtesy of Criterion

"What made this project a bit of a challenge is that there have already been massive sets dedicated to Bruce Lee," Tsui said. "People continue to want to know more about him and find out more about him." A lot of attention in this set is dedicated to the more technical ephemera surrounding Lee's movies -- one of the extra features that most excited Tsui is a featurette about the process of dubbing foreign films into English, and vice versa, and an interview with Michael Kaye, the English voice of Lee in Fist of Fury -- as well as what came after them.

The "Bruceploitation" film movement, which attempted to "resurrect" Lee after his death with look-alike actors and resulted in a slew of martial arts B-movies that came out in the 1970s -- including Bruce Lee's Secret, The Clones of Bruce Lee, and The Dragon Lives Again, wherein "Bruce Lee" travels to Hell and fights James Bond, Dracula, and Clint Eastwood -- is "a really horrible, grossly capitalistic thing that happened," Tsui said. "But, at the same time, that shows the extent to which Bruce Lee's presence in a star power was so huge that people couldn't get enough of him." 

We still can't get enough. A baffling, controversial sequence in Quentin Tarantino's paean to the golden age of moviemaking, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, featured a peacocking, smack-talking Lee (played by Mike Moh) in a backstage fight against Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth, and a little more than a month ago, Lee was the subject of ESPN's fascinating, heartbreaking 30 for 30 documentary Be Water, which chronicled his emigration back and forth between Hong Kong and America and his struggles to be taken seriously in his work in both the East and the West. Watching his films in order reveals a very generous on-screen presence, and the kind of control over his own work and image that many actors of color struggle to have even today. In America, Lee was a martial arts instructor, opening up a school in Seattle, and in many of his films, it seems he found the allure of martial arts schools irresistible, either playing a student or having his character set up impromptu fighting classes with friends in alleyways. 

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Bruce Lee in 'Enter the Dragon' | Courtesy of Criterion

"I think what continues to make Bruce Lee so relevant even today," Tsui explained, "was he had a way of living his life and seeing the world -- his philosophies about being malleable and adaptive with the water -- and looking beyond race to teach students of multiple ethnicities when other Chinese martial arts instructors at that time in the '60s and '70s were absolutely not doing that. It was a forbidden thing for someone to teach martial arts outside of the Chinese community, and he absolutely didn't see that. He saw martial arts as being subject to benefit everyone." 

His race was an inescapable factor in his work, from his constant uphill battle to make Kato, his character on The Green Hornet TV series, more than a mute sidekick, to his film characters very overtly smashing the stereotypes and caricatures that were plastered onto Asian people in Western media at the time. Bruce Lee's characters are neither diminutive nor subservient; instead, the image of Lee, midair, shirtless, tendons taut, delivering a final blow to some unlucky off-screen goon has become a trademark of his powerful, magnetic screen presence. 

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Bruce Lee in the iconic yellow jumpsuit from 'Game of Death' | Courtesy of Criterion

"Granted, what Bruce Lee is showing is, in a certain way, a kind of stereotyped masculinity," Tsui explained. "But there's always been the criticism that Asian males are emasculated when they were put on screen -- certainly, at that time, most of what you would see in movies was Asians as servants or house boys, gardeners, things like that, or comic relief. So, for him to spin things so that he is very clearly a leading man in the most traditional masculine sense, was unheard of. I still think, to this day, you don't see roles like that for Asian males." An interracial romance, like that between Lee's character Billy Lo and Colleen Camp's Ann Morris in Game of Death, would be groundbreaking to see on screen, even today.

While Lee worked for a while in Hollywood before becoming a huge action star in China and then back in America, the work from "a very tightly-packed set of years within the '70s," Tsui explained, is what he's most famous for. "For somebody like that to continue to have the kind of cultural relevance that he's had -- as opposed to, say, a James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, two other performers who died early, died far too young, with a limited body of work -- Bruce Lee, by being a martial arts teacher and somebody with a way of life and a very distinct philosophy that he always espoused, he is more than just his movie parts.

"People will always be able to find something applicable about Bruce Lee at any given time, because he occupies something that's a lot stronger culturally."

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.