Game of Death (1978)

D: Robert Clouse
S: Bruce Lee, Gig Young, Kareem Abdul-Jabar

This disgusting, ghoulish film has allegedly been made with the intention of honouring the memory of its deceased star, Bruce Lee, who died shortly after principal photography began. It is ironic, by way of observation, that almost the same thing happened to Lee's son Brandon a decade and a half later with The Crow. But whereas filming of The Crow was almost complete when Brandon was killed, and digital editing allowed a greater level of image manipulation, precious little genuine footage of Bruce is featured here.

Whatever dubiously good intentions may lurk underneath this patent publicity gambit, the film as it is does little but cash in on a few scraps of new footage shot before his death and some clips from previous films. These stolen moments pad out a ludicrously directed cinematic shell game which is all too easy to see through. Trying to explain away the differences between the stand-in actor and Lee himself with a moronic series of soap opera plot twists including plastic surgery and a penchant for wearing disguises merely makes it worse. You find yourself either laughing hysterically at the patently un-Lee like actor wearing huge sunglasses (and, at one point, a false beard), or shifting uncomfortably in your seat as close-ups of Lee taken from other places and shot on different types of film stock are integrated with new fight scenes featuring the live cast.

To be fair, Lee began this project in good faith, working as screenwriter and fight co-ordinator as well as star (and presumably he meant to direct as well). His original intentions to make another film in his usual style are quite clear. That Clouse came back to finish it is honourable in one sense. But the dreadfulness of the film is no credit to him, and the final title song begging us to remember him as he was seems wholly inappropriate given that we have just seen him as he never would have been.

The story concerns a kung-fu movie actor who is menaced by several English-speaking baddies coming up to a big martial arts tournament. Things get sticky (and probably diverge from Lee's original script) when they attempt to assassinate him on the set and he spends about twenty minutes wrapped in bandages and playing dead as his face is surgically transformed. After this bit of silliness, he goes after the baddies and fights them one by one (curiously regaining his original face for one climactic fight scene!)

The combat sequences feature some competent martial arts, and the actor portraying Lee's character has done his best to emulate the master's style and technique. But he simply is not Bruce Lee, either in face or in body, and even with Lee's fight directions, there is a definite lack of real artistry in the action. Add to this the fact that Clouse tries to cheat the angle, avoiding showing the actor's face as much as possible. This makes the scenes look physically unnatural, and when footage of Lee is then clumsily integrated, it comes as a further visual jolt. The only genuinely good scene is Lee's battle with basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabar. This generates close to the requisite excitement, but even here there has been some image repetition and double work to make the plot mesh into it.

This is a shoddy and worthless enterprise which even stoops so low as to include some footage from Lee's funeral to represent the mock funeral of the character he was to have played here. Despite the best efforts of John Barry as composer and the general attempt by everyone concerned to go ahead with the project in the absence of its reason for existing, it is finally an unwatchable travesty which will only appease those lacking the most fundamental perceptive abilities. It might have worked on a pulp genre level if it had dispensed with the mimicry, but it still would not have been up to much. Bruce Lee films were always about watching a great martial artist perform, and it was sheer poetry, even in the midst of scenery-chewing acting and laughable dialogue. Without the man himself, there is nothing here for anyone to warm to. Watch an older film instead, or even the biopic Dragon, if you wish to remember him. This is not the way anyone ought to be immortalised.

Note: This review applies to the original version of the film. The Region 2 UK DVD release by Hong Kong Classics is one of their most lavish, featuring heaps of extras including, apparantely, a 40 minute cut of the film based on Lee's original script and directions. These tantalising extras almost, almost make it an attractive prospect to buy, but at the top dollar price for which it is being sold, I have not yet given in to its charms. If and when I do, I may revise the above with reference to the 'director's cut'.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.