GAME OF DEATH is a reprehensible film.
It’s not strictly awful. There are parts – mostly the fight scenes – that are quite good – but the core idea and execution is so obviously exploitative that it’s a shame that so many talented people decided it was worth debasing themselves to be involved. It’s possible that some thought that their participation was simply a way to pay tribute to a friend, while also letting him have one more moment of glory on the big screen, but one glimpse at the final result reveals a film that wallows in bad-taste; as embarrassing, and as exploitative as the worst of the Bruceploitation films.
Let’s cover some of the history briefly. After making his directorial debut with WAY OF THE DRAGON in 1972, Bruce Lee began work on a new project called – wait for it – GAME OF DEATH. Designed to showcase his Jeet Kune Do martial art, Lee’s film would have his character – a retired martial arts master – attempting to retrieve his kidnapped brother and younger sister from a Korean gang. He’s forced to travel up the five floors of a Korean pagoda, with each floor being guarded by a martial arts master he has to test his skills against. Lee had filmed about 100 minutes of footage for the film – mostly focusing on his fights in the pagoda – before getting the starring role in ENTER THE DRAGON. He stopped production – though the footage had already sold the project in Japan – with the idea that after completing ENTER THE DRAGON he would return to it. Sadly, on the 20th of July, 1973, shortly after completing his work on the film, he died suddenly.
Lee’s original concept for GAME OF DEATH was a rather brilliant one. Not only does it allow him to show off his own martial arts skills in a variety of interesting scenarios and against unique opponents, but it does so in a way that provides natural drama as he fights his way to the top of the tower. The concept is almost video-game like, with each “level” of the pagoda having its own boss to fight, culminating in a battle against the towering basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Lee’s final objective in his version of GAME OF DEATH was never defined, and remains a mystery, but his concept was meant to show how the Jeet Kune Do fighting style could adapt to any fighting scenario. Unfortunately, his death meant that many of his ideas and concepts for the film could never be properly defined.
And that’s that, right? The film was incomplete, and the star – and only person who really understood the concept – had died. There were a collection of fight scenes, and of course the image of Bruce in his famous yellow and black jumpsuit, but that’s hardly enough to build a film around. Or, so one would think. Five years later, Bruce Lee wasn’t just a martial arts superstar; he was a legend. The years following his death were filled with attempts to recreate his success, and the rise of Bruceploitation films – films featuring actors with a passing resemblance to Lee who were given names like Bruce Lai or Bruce Le to purposely confuse audiences – showed that audiences would still turn out for a Bruce Lee film. Even if he wasn’t actually in it. These films sometimes tried to ape Bruce’s GAME OF DEATH idea, even incorporating the jumpsuit in many cases.
These Bruceploitation films were so desperate to be in some way connected to Lee’s legacy, that they pulled all sorts of unpleasant tricks. Some were straight up remakes or sequels to his earlier films. Some proposed to tell Lee’s life story. Some would take footage of Lee from when he was a child actor and re-purpose it to fit some sort of new plot. It was all a rather disgusting practice, particularly since many Western audiences had little idea how many “foreign” films Bruce Lee had made while alive, so could easily have been tricked into seeing what they thought was a legitimate Bruce Lee starring film. Despite having full access to Lee’s footage, Robert Clouse (who had helmed Lee’s breakthrough film ENTER THE DRAGON) decided to abandon what was known of Bruce’s idea and create an entirely new plot, incorporating some of the conspiracy theories regarding Lee’s death in the process. Using doubles (Tai Chung Kim and Yuen Biao for the acrobatic moves), clips from other Bruce Lee films and a variety of other tricks, Clouse would basically create a new Bruce Lee film using just a few fight scenes. Or, at least that was the plan.
Perhaps my favorite thing about GAME OF DEATH is the opening credits. Beginning with some floating, yelping Bruce Lee heads, we get a quick clip of Lee before jumping into a great montage of spinning roulette wheels and various casino imagery while John Barry’s wonderful main theme plays in the background. The hiring of Barry, and the design of the opening credits, is obviously supposed to bring to mind the James Bond films, but that’s not a bad thing. It should be noted that the Asian edit of GAME OF DEATH had a different set of opening credits, and some different sequences added and removed – including a fight between “Bruce Lee” and Casanova Wong. Notably, it also credits the film as being directed by both Robert Clouse and Sammo Hung (who did the fight choreography and went back to re-film some sequences after Clouse was finished).
We begin with a fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. But, before you get too excited, it’s really just footage of their awesome fight from WAY OF THE DRAGON. Bruce rips out a bit of chest hair before the director yells “Cut!”. We’re actually on a movie set in Hong Kong! How novel! And that film didn’t star Bruce Lee at all, but instead Billy Lo (Bruce Lee/Tai Chung Kim/Yuen Biao); a famous Chinese martial artist and actor who might just be modeled on Bruce Lee. He heads to his dressing room, and all but the most vision-impaired viewer will recognize that Billy Lo now looks very different than the actor we just saw fighting Chuck Norris. Clouse cleverly covers this up by relying heavily on wide shots, interjecting short (completely unconvincing) clips of Bruce Lee for close-ups, and – most notably – pasting a still of Bruce Lee’s head over Tai Chung Kim’s face.. It is one of the most ridiculous things you’re likely to see. At least as ridiculous as Bruce Lee flying out of hell at the end of THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN.
So, in his dressing room Billy as confronted by Steiner (Hugh O’Brian), a slimy criminal who is trying to convince Billy to sign on to his bosses “syndicate”. He wields a cane with a spring-loaded dagger, and makes some vague threats, before Billy punches him in the face. That might come into play later. Billy (in his trademark giant sunglasses) leaves the studio and heads out to see his girlfriend, Ann Morris (Colleen Camp), a popular singer who is also being pursued by the syndicate.
Meanwhile, Dr. Land (Dean Jagger), the head of the gang, is meeting with his thugs to discuss an upcoming fighting tournament in Macau that they’ll be attending. There’s his right-hand-man Steiner, who we’ve met, as well as primo thug Stick (Mel Novak), the tournament fighter Carl (Bob Wall), and Hakim. Now, Hakim is the 7 foot monster played by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the film, but Kareem (rightly) chose not to film new scenes for GAME OF DEATH. Therefore, Clouse simply filmed a double from a low angle while keeping him in the shadows, though it’s still VERY clearly not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Land is worried about Billy rejecting their offer, so he tells Steiner to take some men and convince him to change his mind. These men, by the way, ride motorcycles and wear colorful full-body suits. Not quite inconspicuous, but at least it’ll explain how Billy ends up in that suit at the end.
So Steiner and the thugs run Billy and Ann off the road and gives him 24 hours to accept their offer. He tries to fight back against the group, but he’s hopelessly outnumbered. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the pair escape and have dinner with their reporter friend Jim Marshall (Gig Young), who suggests that Billy accept the offer rather than be killed by the syndicate. He responds with “It is better to die a broken piece of jade than to live a life of clay”. Ok, then. Ann recommends he visit his Uncle who works with a visiting Chinese Opera troupe for advice.
He does exactly that, and his Uncle is played by Roy Chiao who played the monk Bruce Lee talks to at the beginning of ENTER THE DRAGON. Uncle Lo suggests he sticks to his guns (“What is the price of your integrity?”), but he might be playing a different tune after Dr. Land’s thugs break into the dressing room and start beating the hell out of everyone. This scene doesn’t exist in the Asian prints of the film, instead replaced by an (excellent) fight between Billy and Lau Yea-chun (Casanova Wong). Considering how superfluous it is to the plot, it’s a shame we didn’t get the fight instead.
Billy decides that things are getting too dangerous, and suggests that Ann go back to the United States until he can take care of his problems with the syndicate. Instead, she takes Jim Marshall and visits Billy on the set of his latest film. Also on the set is Stick, who – in a sad reflection of the very real death of Bruce Lee’s son Brandon on the set of THE CROW many years later – replaces the blanks in his gun with real bullets. Clouse inserts some footage of Bruce jumping at the camera from the final scene of FIST OF FURY (aka THE CHINESE CONNECTION), and Ann and Jim look on as a real shot fires out. We see Billy’s face bloodied from the gunshot, while Stick escapes in the crowd.
Though his face has been “permanantly altered”, Billy survives mostly intact. But this whole “being shot” thing has given him a unique opportunity, so he decides – on the advice of the doc and Jim Marshall – to fake his death to be able to finally get away from the syndicate. Now, that doesn’t really help Ann, who is still a target, and it certainly doesn’t explain how he will still have access to his money or house or anything like that, but just go with it. Since the whole thing needs to look convincing, it will require a big funeral. And you know what that means!
Yep. They pull out the legit Bruce Lee funeral footage, just because things haven’t quite been tasteless enough. That anyone thought this was at all appropriate just baffles me, but we get to see footage of Bruce Lee’s corpse in true mondo movie fashion. Edited in is Ann looking on while being comforted by Jim, as well as Steiner and Kickboxer Carl checking out the proceedings. Ann spits on Carl who replies with “You’re dead!”. Have some tact, dude.
Ann recovers from all of this trauma in a rehab center, while Billy starts plotting his revenge. He slaps on a fake beard and charters a boat to Macau, where Dr. Land and his thugs are meeting with some Chinese mafia types and taking in the big fight. In one of the film’s best non-Bruce fights, Billy attacks Dr. Land in a courtyard, and has to fight off a gang of Chinese thugs. Lau Kar-wing and Mars are among the group of performers, and with Billy in his beard there’s no reliance on awkward cutaways. Of course, he kicks ass before running away, with Carl Miller hot on his tail. He eventually loses him in a flurry of firecrackers.
The baddies think there’s something familiar about their attacker, but who gives a shit? It’s time for the fight! That’s right, it’s Carl Miller vs Lo Chen (Sammo Hung)! It’s a really fun, physical fight, though quite sloppy. And the huge arena filled to the brim with extras makes for a wonderful visual. Of course, both Sammo and Bob Wall appeared in ENTER THE DRAGON, which makes for some depressing intentional synchronicity. Dr. Land and his men watch on, and we discover that Ann is amongst the crowd as well. She intends to pull out a gun and shoot Land, but an old bearded man – strongly resembling one of the disguises Chen Zhen used in FIST OF FURY – stops her and whispers “Let it go. What must be done is being done” before vanishing.
Of course, Carl Miller wins the fight and is hoisted on his fans’ shoulders in celebration and carried to his locker room. This leads to an awkward moment where Bob Wall has to avoid wanging his head off a series of overhanging lights, as well as duck suddenly to not slam his head off a doorframe. It’s the most entertaining part of the entire film. After posing for the cameras, he hits the showers, except Billy is in the room waiting and locks the door behind him. And we get our confrontation between BILLY LO and CARL MILLER! It’s actually a fun fight thanks to the tight quarters, though some distracting cutting to close-ups of the real Bruce Lee remind us why this whole this is so unpleasant. In an echo of ENTER THE DRAGON, Billy finishes him off with a side-kick which sends his body into a locker (“You lose, Carl Miller!”).
Dr. Land and his goons have started to suspect that perhaps Billy isn’t really dead, and – in another tasteful move – they dig up his corpse and discover that it’s actually made of plaster. Classy. Meanwhile, Ann has ALSO suspected that Billy is still alive, making this the worst faked death in history, and talks to Reporter Jim (who sounds really drunk in these scenes, constantly slurring his words) and convinces him to tell Billy to meet her. Of course, this is a terrible idea. Land’s motorcycle men watch their entire meeting (which unsurprisingly takes place in the shadows), and they eventually kidnap Ann in order to lure Billy to a warehouse. Yes, with 3/4 of the film over, we’re finally getting to the part with the tower of fights, which is really the only reason we’re watching this.
But before he does that, he needs to fight off the group of bikers and get that famous yellow and black jumpsuit. He rescues Ann and we get a series of motorcycle stunts which range from impressive to sloppy, and eventually Billy strips one of the riders down and steals his clothes. Outside, in the pouring rain (and at night), Billy almost gets shot by Stick, before beating him senseless and discovering that the doctor is hiding out at the Red Pepper restaurant. He rides over there on his motorcycle and breaks in, making his way up a flight of stairs until suddenly..
It’s Bruce Lee! We’re finally hitting some of the actual original GAME OF DEATH footage, though it’s been sliced and diced to remove any shots of ancillary characters. First up is a nunchaku fight between “Billy Lo” and Pasqual (Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee’s real-life student), and aside from some choppiness – and a couple of moments where Lee actually loses control of the weapon which almost certainly would have been cut out of the original version – it’s a fun fight which gives us our first real glimpse of what might have been. We also get some of the very best Bruce Lee facial expressions as he dances around, licks his nunchakus, and just generally dominates in every possible way. Eventually Pasqual gets his neck broken, and Billy heads up to the next floor.
The next fight is against Hapkido master Ji Han-Jae, and it’s another fun confrontation as we get to see Bruce adjust his style to match a very different sort of opponent. Han-Jae seems a bit stiff, likely due to his lack of experience in film fighting, but it ends with Billy snapping his spine with a massive back-breaker, so it’s a big win all around.
And then it’s time for perhaps the film’s most famous fight: Billy Lo (Bruce Lee) vs the towering Hakim (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). The film has a real David vs Goliath feel, as it begins with a kick leaving a huge black footprint on Billy’s chest, forcing him to try desperately to find a weakness in his opponent. The fight still feels a bit incomplete due to some awkward moments, but it’s such a fun, memorable battle that it’s hard to complain. In Bruce Lee’s original film, Jabbar’s character was actually almost entirely blind, which is revealed when his sunglasses are knocked off and reveal his albino, almost snake-like eyeballs. In the re-edited GAME OF DEATH, he’s simply sensitive to sunlight, which allows Billy to break a window to fill the room with light. Of course, you might remember that when Billy arrived at the restaurant it was both a) pouring rain and b) the middle of the night. Continuity is not this film’s strong point. Using the light to his advantage, Billy locks on a death-grip choke-hold, eventually breaking the big man’s neck. Whew.
Uh-oh. We immediately switch back to Robert Clouse footage, as Steiner comes running down the stairs to join the fight. Hugh O’Brian is a perfectly good actor but, needless to say, he’s no martial artist, and it continually cuts from shots of the double to shots of the real Bruce Lee in a really distracting manner. The shots simply don’t line up, and the fight feels awfully anticlimactic after that Kareem confrontation. Needless to say, Billy eventually chokes him with his foot before kicking him down a flight of stairs. We’re in the home stretch, now!
Billy runs up the final flight of stairs to have his final confrontation with Dr. Land. But he’s shocked to discover what appears to be Land’s corpse sitting at his desk, his wrists slashed. The fiend! But, it’s actually just a plaster statue, and the REAL Land is watching from a distance. Billy pursues him, with Land eventually hiding behind a false mirror – leading to Billy smashing through it with a kung-fu kick. He chases him up to the roof where Land, being an old man, eventually takes a kick to the face and falls to his death. You might think we’re owed an ending which explains what happens to Ann, or the reporter, or how the world reacts to Billy still being alive. But, nope. The film ends immediately. It should be mentioned that in some foreign prints, there is an alternate ending where Billy gets arrested for killing Land. Hooray for justice!
While GAME OF DEATH makes for fascinating viewing, it’s such an endless bad-taste assault that you walk away feeling a bit grimy. Not only is the vision presented in the film almost entirely removed from Bruce Lee’s concept, but it so obviously piggy backs on Lee’s work and legacy that exploitative doesn’t even seem like a powerful enough word to use to describe it. It’s simply a depressing and somewhat perverse mockery of a great martial artist, and one that seems even more despicable now that most of Lee’s footage is now readily available to watch. If this sort of embarrassing mutilation had to be done, at least they could have made an effort to piece together as much of Lee’s concept as possible, but it was simply not to be.
Surprisingly, GAME OF DEATH was a worldwide success upon release, particularly in Japan where the film is so canonized that in 2000 they released the film BRUCE LEE IN G.O.D.: SHIBOTEKI YUGI, which combines Lee’s footage with re-creations and interviews. In North America, the documentary BRUCE LEE: A WARRIOR’S JOURNEY pieced together much of the up-to-that-point unseen footage from GAME OF DEATH, along with Lee’s life story. There’s also an unofficial DVD release called GAME OF DEATH: INTEGRAL which attempts to create the most accurate and respectful cut of the film possible. I’ve yet to see it, but it certainly has to be an improvement on this travesty.
And of course there were the inevitable tributes and rip-offs of GAME OF DEATH in the wake of it’s success with titles like ENTER THE GAME OF DEATH and BRUCE LEE’S LAST GAME OF DEATH. Most have little to do with the plot of either Bruce Lee’s original film, or the Robert Clouse edit. But, that’s not all! GAME OF DEATH’s success actually led to a sequel, GAME OF DEATH II, with Tai Chung Kim once again playing the main character. Yeah, there’s still more to go. But we’ll talk a little more about that, and the legacy of GAME OF DEATH, next week!