View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.
Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (Photo: Criterion)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
BRUCE LEE: HIS GREATEST HITS (1971-1978). “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly.” This classic line from Blade Runner (itself borrowing and modifying a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu) always comes to mind when reflecting on the celebrities who became immortal icons despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that they died tragically young. One of those figures, ranking alongside the likes of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, would be Bruce Lee, the martial arts master and international movie star who died in 1973 at the age of 32 (cerebral edema). As a salute to his enduring legacy, Criterion has released a box set that contains the starring vehicles that Lee made during his lifetime … and even beyond.
A former child actor (he appeared in 20 films before his 20th birthday) who then spent a few years as a martial arts instructor, Lee eventually began appearing in a handful of American movies and TV series (including a co-starring role as Kato in the short-lived 1966 show The Green Hornet) before returning to his Hong Kong homeland to star in a pair of films for the celebrated studio Golden Harvest. Both The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972) were enormous hits in Asia and propelled him to stardom. The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury) finds Lee playing a young man who promised his mother that he would never fight. But all bets are off once he discovers that friends and family members are being murdered by the owners of the ice factory at which he works. Fist of Fury (aka The Chinese Connection) takes a true story as its starting point and offers Lee as the vengeful disciple of a murdered martial arts master. Rough in spots and rambling in others, both films nevertheless benefit from Lee’s effortless charisma and, of course, some rousing fight scenes.
Lee’s newfound clout afforded him the opportunity to not only star in The Way of the Dragon (1972) but also to serve as director and producer. In this picture (aka Return of the Dragon), Lee is particularly appealing as an unassuming man who journeys to Rome to help the employees of a Chinese restaurant fend off murderous mobsters. The frenzied action culminates with a sensational brawl between Lee and Chuck Norris, the latter making his film debut in the villainous role of an American karate champ named Colt.
While Lee was already well-known around the world, it was the blockbuster status of Enter the Dragon (1973) that made him an enduring legend stateside. A joint effort between Warner Bros. and Lee’s own production company, this finds the actor playing a character named, appropriately enough, Lee, who’s asked by the British government to travel to the island fortress of Han (Kien Shih), a Dr. No-like figure who’s suspected of dealing in drugs and prostitution. Han regularly holds a martial arts competition on his island, which is how Lee is allowed entrance; while there, he meets Roper (John Saxon) and Williams (Jim Kelly), two ex-army buddies who also surmise that something’s not quite right about Han’s entire operation. Martial arts experts Angela Mao (as Lee’s ill-fated sister) and Bolo Yeung (as the muscular, murderous Bolo) are allowed to deftly show off their moves; ditto Saxon (who passed away two weeks ago at the age of 83) and Kelly, who are also given a few opportunities to develop their characters. Yet there’s never any doubt who’s the marquee attraction. Lee, who also choreographed the fight sequences (Robert Clouse handled overall directing duties), exudes charm and intensity in equal measure, relying on the former during the more sedate sequences and the latter during the action scenes. And what action! Lee’s astonishing to behold, and the climactic battle set inside a room full of mirrors caps a series of exemplary fights. (For a note-perfect parody of Enter the Dragon, check out the “A Fistful of Yen” segment in 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie.)
Lee had started filming Game of Death (1978) in 1972 when he was called away to star in Enter the Dragon. Lee died one month before the release of Enter the Dragon and thus was never able to complete the other picture. In 1978, Clouse took 11 minutes of the footage that Lee had shot (more was found in later years), surrounded it with a new story and additional actors (including two alternating Bruce Lee stand-ins who looked nothing like Bruce Lee), and released Game of Death five years after Lee’s demise. The reason for such a move — tribute or greed? — can be debated (particularly since there’s a tasteless shot of the real Bruce Lee’s corpse in his casket for a scene in which his character is pretending to be dead), but it’s clear that this is a shoddy picture on its own terms, despite the presence of Oscar winners Gig Young and Dean Jagger. The majority of the rescued Lee footage comes at the end, when his character is forced to fight a string of heavies (including one played by L.A. Lakers great Kareem Abdul Jabbar) — this part of the film is spectacular and almost makes up for the dreariness of everything that precedes it.
Needless to say, this hefty box set comes packed with extras. For starters, there’s the 1981 film Game of Death II (which, like its predecessor, inserts shots of Lee into a brand new movie) as well as the 1973 documentary Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend. Other Blu-ray bonus features include audio commentaries on all five films; new interviews on all the movies by Lee biographer Matthew Polly; alternate footage for various films; 2019’s half-hour Game of Death Redux, which includes more of the original footage than was seen in the 1978 release; a piece on the “Bruceploitation” genre that sprang up after Lee’s death; and an interview with Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell.
The Big Boss: ★★½
Fist of Fury: ★★★
The Way of the Dragon: ★★★
Enter the Dragon: ★★★½
Game of Death: ★★
GHOST (1990). Second only to the inexplicably popular Home Alone as the top-grossing film of 1990, this sleeper smash cemented its permanent pop-culture positioning with its inspired use of The Righteous Brothers’ cover of “Unchained Melody.” That tune is employed during the famous pottery-making scene — the one that left millions swooning all over the world — between Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) and Molly Jensen (Demi Moore), a loving couple whose domestic bliss is shattered after Sam is killed in a seemingly random mugging. But Sam’s ghost hangs around, and when he realizes his death was part of a larger scheme, he attempts to use phony psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) to help him protect Molly. Directed by Jerry Zucker (best known for comedies like Airplane!, reviewed here) and written by Bruce Joel Rubin, Ghost goes light on the metaphysics but heavy on the romance, the humor, and the drama — it may not always play fair (that climactic dance is a cheat), but it’s certainly entertaining. Goldberg is a standout as the fake medium who learns that she might be blessed/cursed with the gift after all. Nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score), this won for Best Supporting Actress (Goldberg) and Best Original Screenplay.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Zucker and Rubin; a making-of featurette; a new interview with Zucker; a look at the pottery-making scene; and the theatrical trailer.
THE SIN OF NORA MORAN (1933). It’s not often that a movie’s greatest claim to fame is its poster, but that’s the case with this pre-Code melodrama that deserves further praise for director Phil Goldstone’s ofttimes experimental approach. The poster, created by pin-up and Playboy artist Alberto Vargas, routinely makes lists of the all-time great movie posters, even if its subject doesn’t look at all like the film’s star, Zita Johann. But never mind: It’s certainly startling for the time, and so is the movie’s mishmash of straightforward narration, flashbacks within flashbacks, and hallucinatory sequences. Johann, best known as the female lead opposite Boris Karloff in 1932’s The Mummy (she was also John Houseman’s first wife at the time of both pictures’ releases), essays the title role, a woman whose entire existence has been defined by rotten luck (from her adoptive parents being killed in a car accident while she was still a child to getting raped by a trusted colleague right when she thought her life was taking a turn for the better). Nora now finds herself about to be executed for a murder she may or may not have committed, the downside of her blissful affair with an unhappily married politician (Paul Cavanagh). The Sin of Nora Moran is in some respects similar to the same year’s slightly superior The Story of Temple Drake (reviewed here), and its rather drab storyline is given life by Goldstone’s imaginative visual choices.
The only extra in the Blu-ray Special Edition (only 1,500 produced) from The Film Detective is a piece on Johann. There’s also a promotion where the person who ends up with the one Blu-ray containing a gold certificate will receive a framed lithograph of that famed poster.
SWALLOW (2020). This unsettling drama initially feels like a distant cousin to those numerous “body horror” films conceived by David Cronenberg, the ones in which folks are either betrayed by their own anatomies or destroyed by invading parasites (Shivers, Rabid, The Fly, etc.). Yet Swallow turns out to be more about emotional rather than physical anguish — it’s a sharp examination of a woman rebelling against a patriarchal society in an extreme manner. Hunter Conrad (an excellent Haley Bennett) is a meek mouse who dresses like a 1950s housewife for her recently acquired husband Richie (Austin Stowell), a self-centered sort who clearly absorbed all his life lessons from his odious — and filthy-rich — father (David Rasche). Left home alone all day with no semblance of a social life — yes, this is coincidentally the perfect setting for a movie made in the COVID era — the pregnant Hunter suddenly develops an urge to start eating inedible objects (it’s a real condition known as pica). She starts with a marble and proceeds to ingest dozens of assorted items, including a battery, a chess piece, a pushpin (the movie’s most squirm-inducing sequence), a safety pin, and even mounds of dirt. It’s soon revealed that Hunter is still nursing mental wounds from the past, ones which center around yet another oppressive male. In his feature-film debut, writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis dares to end this thought-provoking piece on a note that will outrage many but makes perfect thematic sense.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1916). The first screen adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel was made by, not surprisingly, Georges Méliès, the genius who basically pioneered the fantasy film and invented special effects in cinema. But Méliès’ 1907 effort was a short that ran approximately 15 minutes; the first feature-length version arrived in 1916 courtesy of fledgling studio Universal Pictures in only its fourth year in existence. The film could easily have been called The Mysterious Island since its plot owes as much to that Verne novel as it does to Leagues. Both books include the character of Captain Nemo, so it’s not a ridiculous stretch; still, the decision to cram two tales into one film results in a cluttered and schizophrenic work that nevertheless maintains interest with its groundbreaking underwater photography and Verne’s durable framework. The movie is faithful in many regards to the dual source material, as Nemo (Allen Holubar) takes a small party prisoner aboard his submarine Nautilus while, elsewhere in the yarn, a group of Union soldiers finds itself stranded on an unknown island. There’s also a jungle woman (billed as “A Child of Nature”) and, of course, a menacing cephalopod (with its comical Marty Feldman eyes, the normal-sized octopus here is no match for the gargantuan squid in Disney’s classic 1954 version with James Mason and Kirk Douglas).
As is also the case with The Sin of Nora Moran (reviewed above), the film was restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive. The only Blu-ray extra on this release from the Kino Classics line is an audio commentary track by film historian Anthony Slide.