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Game of Death is a martial arts action adventure film directed by Robert Clouse and has something of a complicated and knotty history that requires some explanation. It was released in 1978 several years after Bruce Lee's sad premature death and is the great what might have been of his career. In the early seventies Lee had come up with the idea for a film that he believed would be his ultimate kung fu masterpiece. Inspired by a trip to Nepal, he conceived a premise that would have him as a hero who has to retrieve a priceless spiritual treasure that has been stolen and is now being held on the top floor of a mysterious pagoda. The pagoda would have several different levels and each floor (which would have its own name like Temple of the Unknown etc) would be protected by a martial arts master from a different discipline. In order to get to the top of the pagoda and find the stolen artifact, Lee's character would have to combat a variety of martial artists who all fight with a different style. The film would have a fundamental message beneath all the kung fu mayhem that Bruce Lee believed in and always preached; in order to flourish and succeed one must always be prepared to adapt to the fresh challenges and conditions you face. It still remains something of a mystery exactly how much footage of Game of Death involving Bruce Lee exists but it's clear that he had made a decent start on the film and was taking it very seriously. Game of Death was shaping up to be an instant cult classic but Lee was then called away to go and make Enter the Dragon - his first Hollywood backed picture and one he simply could not refuse under any circumstances. Sadly, Lee suddenly and mysteriously died in 1973 before he had a chance to go back and complete Game of Death and left only a handful of fight sequences and some behind the scenes footage. When Lee became a global superstar and pop culture icon through the potent combination of the fantastic Enter the Dragon and dying young, it was inevitable that sooner or later Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest would see the potential of the footage he had shot for Game of Death and try to find some way of making money out of it now that their cash cow was no longer around.
The problem was that they only had about fifteen to twenty minutes of useable footage of Lee fighting in the pagoda and so had to construct a fairly shameless and tasteless brand new film around it that had absolutely nothing to do with Bruce Lee's conception for Game of Death. The only happy thing to report is that more footage of Lee shooting Game of Death has since been unearthed and is available on the extras here. You can see him practicing and filming the fight scenes, goofing around on the pagoda set, and just generally get more of a feel for what he was trying to do and what Game of Death might have been like had he lived to finish it. Even Game of Death outtakes or raw rehearsals featuring the real Bruce Lee in his dapper yellow tracksuit are preferable to anything that Robert Clouse's 1978 Game of Death throws at us in the (many) scenes where Lee is absent. Clouse's Game of Death begins in a most bizarre and misdirecting fashion. A snazzy James Bondish title sequence and stirring music by John Barry. Yes, that John Barry. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised as John Barry did score Star Crash, but I digress. One is immediately aware that this is a much more professional and expensive production than the Golden Harvest films made with Lee in the early seventies. It was their most expensive film to date and they even managed to rope in a few American actors like Colleen Camp and Dean Jagger. Rumour has it that Steve McQueen and Muhammad Ali declined offers to appear in the film and you can only applaud their sound and wise judgment. The most salient and obvious annoyance here is that the scant and authentic Game of Death footage they've assembled involving the real Bruce Lee doesn't amount to much and is consigned to the end of the film.
So about 85 to 90% of Game of Death presents us with an entirely new (and tedious) film involving Billy Lo, a martial arts film star who is being harassed by a crime organistion headed by Dr Land (Dean Jagger). Billy Lo is supposed to be Bruce Lee but he's mostly played by Tai Chung Kim in an assortment of beards and fake disguises. Anyway, Billy refuses to buckle to these crooks and they try to kill him by sneaking real bullets into a gun on the set of one of his films. There is a very dark irony to this scene now as Lee's son Brandon was killed in an accident on the set of his film The Crow involving firearms. Lo survives but requires plastic surgery. A very convenient way to further brush under the carpet the fact that Bruce Lee is hardly ever in this film. You soon realise that Game of Death 1978 is a complete rip-off and that Bruce Lee is not going to be in this film much but to make matters worse they keep inserting brief snippets of him from Way of the Dragon and Fist of Fury as if that is somehow going to fool us into thinking we are watching a new Bruce Lee film. The most ridiculous moment comes when an actor has (and I'm not making this up) a cardboard cutout of Bruce Lee's likeness superimposed over his face! Game of Death 1978 is absolutely shameless and pointless and the tasteless nadir of the picture arrives when they have Billy Lo faking his death and then show real footage from Bruce Lee's actual funeral! Despite the higher producton value these bizarre attempts to shoehorn Lee into the film through archive footage drag the film down to Ed Wood levels of head scratching ineptitude.
It doesn't even really work as a camp guilty pleasure despite the ripe acting from some of the supporting cast. Bob Wall pops up as a heavy but Tai Chung Kim as Billy Lo (despite looking a bit like Lee and obviously knowing his stuff when it comes to fighting and martial arts) is just plain dull in the lead and makes one appreciate Bruce Lee even more. Bruce Lee was charismatic just standing doing nothing but Kim just doesn't have the "It Factor" of the late star he is filling in for. This version of Game of Death is only worth watching for the fight sequences at the end involving the real Bruce Lee with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Dan Insosanto. After completing production on Way of the Dragon, Lee heard that his friend Jabbar (the 7ft tall American basketball star) was in Hong Kong and got in touch in relation to Game of Death. Jabbar had first met Lee in 1967 and soon became one of his students. Even though he didn't have a script yet, Lee thought that Jabbar would be perfect to play the last floor guardian in Game of Death. A giant with a formless and unpredictable martial arts style who will present his character with a most unique challenge. The pair met up and shot a highly entertaining and unusual fight sequence for Game of Death with Lee wearing the iconic yellow tracksuit with black stripe that would later feature in Kill Bill. Lee's snazzy and modern looking jumpsuit is a deliberate counterpoint to the white karate clobber and headbands worn by his opponents in Game of Death. His message was that you should look beyond mere tradition and be ready to embrace the new. The fight with Jabbar is brilliant. What a great film this could have been if Lee had completed it when he was still alive - and what a wonderful experience by the way to watch a Bruce Lee fight sequence backed by a stirring John Barry action beat!
Lee had intended Game of Death to be a spectacular showcase for his many friends in the world of martial arts and planned to contact several famous fighters from around the world to appear in the film. As it turned out though he only filmed further (fairly) complete material with hapkidoist Ji Han Jae (who didn't consent to appearing in the 1978 version) and then a nunchaku duel with Dan Insosanto (which was always removed from British versions of Game of Death anyway). James Tien was also featured in some sequences as he was to play Lee's sidekick and friend in the film. The new footage is expanded with all of the fight sequences he filmed and it amounts to considerably more material than was present in the 1978 film. We learn much more about what Lee wanted to do in the film and how he wanted it to look. Scenes are presented with his notes in the form of subtitles. After viewing this footage in complete isolation from the Robert Clouse film you get a much better feel for the atmosphere Lee was striving for and what it might have been like if it had ever been completed. Some of Lee's students and Dan Insosanto recall their memories of the sequences that were shot and you also get an alternative approach by Lee to defeating Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Great stuff. There are also deleted scenes and documentaries that supply a lot of interesting biographical and anecdotal material. Did you know for example that George Lazenby was going to be in Game of Death? Although he had fallen on hard times, Lazenby had been James Bond only three years before and met Raymond Chow to discuss making some Golden Harvest pictures with Bruce Lee. When Lee died, Lazenby did the planned pictures alone. If you enjoy geeky trivia of this nature then you'll find a fair amount and you also get a commentary by Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Loga.
Of itself, Game of Death 1978 is mostly a waste of time and should never have been made but the 40 minutes of recovered footage on the extras is a joy and makes the film worth buying for that alone. At the time of writing you can buy Game of Death for about five pounds.
Well, this is the most controversial of all of Lee's films. It wasn't anything that Bruce had done, it was the movie studios to blame for capitalising on his death to make as much $$$ as possible. With the documentary 'Warriors Journey' that came out some years ago, it showed that there were plenty of more footage available of Bruce fighting in the film. Anyway, the film is basically full of Bruce Lee stand ins, who wear mostly sunglasses and a beard to try and disguise the fact it's not Bruce. The story is eerily similar to what happened to Brandon, his son in 1993. An actor is shot on the set of his latest film (Brandon died) and Bruce's character survives to get revenge.
The best part of the film was the final 15 minutes showing the real Bruce Lee battle it out with various fighters of different martial arts on different levels of a pagoda.
That was the only footage Bruce shot for the film before he died and he completed no parts of the story set up.
On the plus side, the film has some good quality actors in Dean Jagger and Colleen Camp so it shows how much of a star Bruce became by 1978 to have those kind of actors in one of "his" films.
To sum up, it's not a true Bruce Lee film but it's worth having just to complete the collection and besides, no collection is complete without having those final 15 minutes of real Bruce Lee fight scenes.
On July 20th 1973, Bruce Lee - the grandmaster, legend and king of the martial arts genre, was pronounced dead after a fatal allergic reaction to taking a painkiller. He was at his physical peak and on the verge of superstardom in the wake of the Hollywood production Enter The Dragon. What many do not know is that Bruce was half way through making a film - it was to be his fifth, but his second own production. He wanted this film to showcase the efficacy of using his Martial Art Jeet Kune Do. However, he had only filmed around 20 minutes of footage, and was going to go unfinished.
However, in 1978, five years after Bruce Lee's death - Game of Death was finally released. In GOD, Bruce plays Billy Lo - a martial arts film star (ironically), who is being pushed into signing with a syndicate for protection. The syndicate threaten him by having him beaten up and hounded, but he is not persuaded, even when they tell him that something bad will happen. Things come to a climax when, during filming, Bruce is shot in the face during a take. The syndicate think he is dead, but behind the scenes, he has survived and plastic surgeons put his face together again. A public funeral has taken place (using footage from Bruce's actual funeral) to make his friends and enemies think he is dead, but whilst they think he has departed the world, Billy Lo seeks revenge, and deals with each member of the syndacate one by one. Will he get his ultimate revenge and kill them all?
The scary coincidence about the plot of this film, is that Bruce's son Brandon was killed in real life due to a fatal gun wound during filming for 1993's The Crow. Therefore, an eerie shadow is cast upon this story. However, this plot was never Bruce's original idea for Game of Death. Game of Death was supposed to be about Jeet Kune Do being an effective Martial art to counter any Kung Fu style.
Game of Death was put together using footage from other Lee films and outtakes of Game of Death that Bruce had filmed prior to working on Enter the Dragon, and through the use of a Bruce Lee double. The Bruce Lee double is, admittedly, rubbish - however, I haven't seen many decent ones. There are some revolting parts of this film where the producers try and make Billy Lo look like Bruce, such as sticking a picture of Lee's face to the mirror when his double is looking at his reflection. Also some of the footage used from other films makes Bruce look like he is in another location to where he is in the film. A lot of it makes me laugh, and even when I saw this at the age of 6, I wasn't fooled.
Having said that, I don't watch a 'Bruce Lee' film to be awe-inspired by the cinematics, I want to see fights and boy there are a lot. The scenes where Billy tracks down a syndicate member are great to watch, as you are routing for him to inflict a brutal revenge for his attempted murder. One of the great fights is between himself and Bob Wall - who has starred in two of Bruce's previous films.
However, the greatest sequence of fights are those at the end of the film, which are pieced together using Bruce's original outtakes. In the final sequence, Bruce enters a multi-level dungeon to take on three great Martial Artists before getting his hands on Mr Land who is the boss of the syndicate. Here we see Bruce take on a Hapkido expert and former students, Dan Inosanto and Kareem Abdul Jabaar. However, we only see bits of the fights because in the original film, Bruce had two accomplices helping him and the footage had to be cut so as to exclude them from the film. In the final fight sequence, Bruce sports the famous yellow jumpsuit, that features as Uma Thurman's outfit in Kill Bill, and is used in Tekken by the character Law.
It took 30 years for the full footage to be digitally restored, which included James Tien as Bruce's accomplice. Bruce's fight with Kareem is excellent, and is used to show that Jeet Kune Do can be used to beat a 7 foot collosus even when you boast a meagre 5ft 7, and 140lbs body.
There are some satisfactory performances by the actors. Colleen Camp plays Billy Lo's girlfriend Ann and exhibits a fairly convincing performance. Hugh O'Brien as Steiner and Dean Jagger as Dr Land are excellent performers as the malevolent kingpins behind the syndicate, and both are good to watch.
Overall, the quality of this film is not very high. I personally think Bruce would have been sickened to see how this film was finally put together. The plot was nowhere near to what the film was originally supposed to be about. Having said that, I do like the premise of the film and revenge was the typical theme of most of Bruce Lee's films, so it's something that had me gripped. However, the shocking attempts to fake Bruce Lee appearances in the film turned me off. You can see all of the 'Goofs of Game of Death' on Imdb.com, and they are glaringly obvious mistakes which should make you cry with laughter.
The fighting is okay throughout the film, but it is only when the original Bruce Lee footage is used near the climax, and you see the master at his authentic best, that watching this film becomes truly special.
Upon seeing the restored footage that Bruce Lee shot of the final three fights, I know Game of Death would have been total brilliance if it had ever been completed, and Bruce's death not only robbed us of such a great person and Martial artist, but also what would have been an amazing film.
Game of Death has a running time of 85 mins, is an 18 certificate, and is available for £5 on Play.com.
Bruce Lee ... Billy Lo
Colleen Camp ... Ann Morris
Dean Jagger ... Dr. Land
Gig Young ... Jim Marshall
Tai Chung Kim ... Billy Lo
Biao Yuen ... Billy Lo (as Bill Yuen)
Robert Wall ... Carl Miller
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ... Hakim
Mel Novak ... Stick
Hugh O'Brian ... Steiner
Thanks for reading!
Way back in 1978 Game of Death was released some 6 years after the death of Bruce Lee and was eagerly anticipated by legions of fans awaiting to see the last available and much publicised footage of their hero in action. Unfortunately that film was an extremely dire attempt to cash in on the still massive appeal of its star. Featuring only a small amount of the footage that had been shot by Lee the movie followed the exploits of a movie star by the name of Billy Lo (Lee) in his attempts to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend. This movie was so bad that not only did it disregard Lee's original vision (more of which later) but it featured a stream of not-so-look-alikes in various fight scenes that would have made the Little Dragon blush. Fortunately this DVD collection redresses all that is bad about the movie and delights in and celebrates all that is good. Firstly, all the missing footage has now been restored including the (in the UK at least) missing Nuchaku duel with Dan Inasanto. Also included is an excellent commentary from HK movie expert Bey Logan which points out all the flaws in the movie and even gives information on each of the lookalikes, this serves to make you almost forgive the travesty your watching by making it entertaining. The most important extra in this collection however is the 'Game of Death Revisited' feature which is quite simply brilliant as it contains all the original footage recut and edited to follow the story as originally envisaged by Bruce Lee himself, which presents the story of a martial artist's search for enlightenment, gone is the mediocre storyline of the 1978 'original'. Other extra features on the discs are very impressive with a trailer gallery, interviews, out-takes and even a Seminar on Jeet Kune Do (Bruce Lee's own 'non' style) by top Bruce Lee student Dan Inasanto. As if all of this wasn't enough the picture and sound quality
throughout are excellent and you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a new film, the picture is that good. So in conclusion, Hong Kong Legends have taken what was once considered by many to be a blatant cash in on a genuine hero and have turned it into a fitting tribute to a legend.
Bruce Lee died during the making of Game of Death. He completed all of the fight scenes, which include some of the best of his film career, but elsewhere in the film his place is taken by a dubious character in big sunglasses. Ignore this, though - it's a good kung fu movie; a fitting tribute to the master of the genre. In a curiously circular way, Lee plays a martial arts film star - scenes from Lee's other films are included as part of this. A syndicate agency wants him to become their latest client, and they won't take no for an answer. "Accidents" tend to happen to other stars who have refused, and when Lee refuses, an attempt on his life is made. His friend persuades the doctors to fake his death, so that he can recover in peace and get his revenge on the organisation that tried to have him killed. This leads to a series of classic fights, against several martial arts stars. These fights, and a ring fight between two others (including Samo Hung) are the making of the film, as one would expect, and often the agility and power is simply breathtaking. The end sequence, where Bruce moves from room to room, taking on a henchman in each, is fantastic. Game of Death could be described Bruce Lee's swansong - it's certainly a great tribute to Little Dragon.