BluRay/DVD Reviews

BRUCE LEE – GAME OF DEATH

By • Oct 18th, 2005 •

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Released by Hong Kong Legends/Medusa Communications
2.35:1 Anamorphic Version enhanced for widescreen TVs / Dolby Digital 5.1 audio / Length: 96 minutes

Almost immediately following the completion of ‘Enter the Dragon’, Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong to resume work on a long time project: ‘The Game of Death’. A simple premise, designed to illustrate his philosophy and teaching of martial arts, Lee would lead a daring raid on a heavily defended pagoda. Inside the pagoda a lone martial artist guards each level. Lee must fight his way to the top, pitting his own fluid, flexible and adaptable style (Jeet Kune Do) against the rigid, unbending styles of other forms of martial art. It would have been the ultimate, and most personal, Bruce Lee movie. But then he died. He never saw or enjoyed the success of ‘Enter the Dragon’, nor was able to complete ‘Game of Death’. Whichever conspiracy theory you subscribe to, if any, it was a great, great tragedy.

Not wanting to let go of the goose that had laid the golden egg, and obviously thinking that five years was long enough for everyone to grieve, in 1978 Robert Clouse, director of ‘Enter the Dragon’, was brought in by producer Raymond Chow to helm a new movie using footage that Lee had completed in 1972 and bringing in big name American co-stars like Dean Jagger, Gig Young and Hugh O’Brian, and music by Bond movie maestro John Barry.

Sounds like it can’t go wrong. Sadly it did.

The new story has Lee playing the part of Billy Lo, a martial arts movie star. This of course allows the makers to incorporate footage from Lee’s previous films into the story. The film actually opens with the climactic fight in the Colosseum in Rome from ‘Way of the Dragon’ (US: ‘Return of the Dragon’) thus enabling the makers to add Chuck Norris’s name to the already star-studded cast list without actually having to employ him. Anyway, back to the ‘story’: Basically some gangsters want Billy to join their syndicate, which he refuses, but when ‘accidents’ start to happen on set and they threaten his girlfriend, Billy decides to take them on. To do this he conveniently uses large sunglasses, various disguises, and ultimately plastic surgery to change his appearance (and also to disguise the fact that it is not Lee at all – in fact the only Bruce Lee footage is about 11 minutes worth at the end of the film, with the rest being padded out with obliquely lit and filmed-from-behind look-alikes and close-ups of Lee’s eyes or face clearly lifted from previous films. Also, though it is not explained why, after undergoing plastic surgery, Billy’s face is somehow back to normal for these last minutes of the film). But the ultimate insult is this: in order to put the gangsters off his scent Billy fakes his own death, and yes – unbelievably, the makers actually use footage of Bruce Lee’s funeral as part of the movie!

To be honest it could have been a good Kung Fu movie, if only they hadn’t tried to make it a Bruce Lee movie. The fights, choreographed by Sammo Hung, are terrific, marred only by the fact that they are constantly trying to hide the face of the actor playing Billy Lo.

As it is it is an abysmal affair and certainly no final fitting tribute to, if not yet a great movie star (outside south east Asia), inarguably a great and charismatic movie martial artist. It is presented here in it’s uncut, digitally remastered and dubious glory, the plus being the insightful feature length audio commentary by Bey Logan, avid martial arts film buff and editor of two UK publications, Combat and Impact magazines, also publisher of Hong Kong Action Cinema, one of only two exclusive and notable books on martial arts film published in the West.

Yet, despite the awfulness of this movie, for some reason the image of Lee in the striking yellow and black catsuit has become his most enduring, to which the new Tarantino feature ‘Kill Bill’ is a testament. I think this is simply because of those last 11 minutes, where the fights are stunning, and fans knew that this would be the last they would see of their hero.

But that was where they were wrong, and this is what makes this two disc set worth the money. If this set has given us the worst of the genre, it makes up for it by providing us with some of the best. The three hours of special features on the second disc are presented with lovingly designed animated menus guiding you through five floors of a digital pagoda, which not only include the usual photo galleries, biographies, textual retrospectives, trailers and TV spots, but also interviews with George Lazenby, Taky Kimura (both proposed co-stars) and Dan Inosanto (who was Lee’s senior instructor in Los Angeles at the time and with whom he has the incredible nunchaku fight in the movie); a Jeet Kune Do seminar with Dan Inosanto; documentaries on Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto, but last, and certainly far from least, and quite rightly only when you eventually reach Floor Five, an edit of the final 40 minutes (or as near as, damn it) of the original film envisioned by Lee, using original footage re-discovered in 1999 by the aforementioned Bey Logan in Golden Harvest Studios, based on Lee’s original script and directions, where he and his companions (not he alone as in the ‘78 debacle) fight their way past the final three floors of the pagoda. Just this sequence alone is worth the purchase price and truly gives you a feel of what his initial vision of the project was. The disc also features out-takes from these original recording sessions.

If you are a fan of Bruce Lee, or Hong Kong Cinema in general, then, the final finished film aside, this is a ‘must have’ and probably the best record we’re ever going to get of a planned movie that would have kicked ‘Enter the Dragon’ into a cocked hat. Now there’s another conspiracy theory…

It certainly lives up to the reputation Hong Kong Legends is making for itself in bringing these classics to our screens.


Cast:
Bruce Lee, Kim Tai Jong, Gig Young, Hugh O’Brian, Dean Jagger, Chuck Norris, Colleen Camp, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dan Inosanto, Sammo Hung, Bob Wall.

Credits:
Director: Robert Clouse, Bruce Lee, Sammo Hung
Producer: Raymond Chow, Golden Harvest.

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4 Responses »

  1. I am an avid fan of the great Asian-American martial artist since I was 5 years old and have watched almost all of his films. It was really a sad fact to have lost him during the peak of his career as he surely had a lot more in store for him and likewise had a lot to offer to all his fans. He is a legendary figure and will probably remain to be the best martial artist-actor for many years to come. I have never seen any other martial artist that possess the same skills he had – truly amazing and one-of-a-kind!

    Thanks for the review! 🙂

  2. A pleasure Katana. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you’ve said.

  3. very good movie

  4. Lionheart – July 20th – My birthday – and also the date Bruce died in 1973. There’s serendipity for you.

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