[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
With Halloween just a few weeks away, you might be expecting a more horror-themed entry for Kung Fu Corner this week. I haven’t forgotten about the scary theme, but I wanted to try something a little different in the lead up to my column on Mr. Vampire. Not only will I be talking about a more contemporary project, but it has a small story of validation attached.
I’ve never been certain if anyone actually reads these columns or if I’m simply talking into the void. While it would be extremely disheartening to know I’m writing 1,000+ words every few weeks simply for myself, I had something of a surprise a few weeks ago sitting for me in my email. I was in the middle of watching Shaolin Traitorous, in fact, when a message from Alan Canvan came to my inbox.
Initially, I thought I had gotten punked by some kid and continued with the film. I didn’t want to distract myself from the
majesty mediocrity that was Sammo Hung and Carter Wong’s weird low-budget affair. The next day, I read through the email and realized it was legitimate. Going back a month, I wrote about Game of Death and briefly mentioned the Redux cut of it, which is where Alan found my blog.
For those unaware, Game of Death Redux is a bonus feature included with Criterion’s Bruce Lee box set. To sum it up quickly, it is a re-edit of the raw Game of Death footage Bruce Lee shot mixed with John Barry’s score from the disastrous 1978 release version. There are absolutely more changes than that, but it’s a good summary of what to expect. All of the edits make the footage feel like a more finalized version of Lee’s original vision.
I hadn’t really looked much farther into that bonus feature upon initially viewing it a few years back. I thought it was better than the versions contained in the 2000 documentaries Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey and Bruce Lee in G.O.D., but that was really it. I was happy someone had merged both the footage and Barry’s score together as it felt like a natural union. Lee may have never personally met John Barry, but Barry’s score is something I could see being attached to a future Lee film if he hadn’t passed away.
So, color me surprised when the director and editor of Redux was emailing me saying he was a big fan of my writing. “Wow! Someone actually cares!” is what I thought. More than that, though, Canvan had offered me a chance to view a brand-new edit of Game of Death Redux that better realized the personal vision he had for the footage. I honestly didn’t know what else could be done as I found Redux great as is, but let me tell you: after viewing Redux 2.0, it’s pretty hard to go back to the original.
Spotting the differences between each version does require a fresh viewing of the Criterion special feature. I had simply gone in blind and let Canvan talk about certain aspects he tweaked. The color grading, for one, is an immediate improvement. The initial version (which actually dates back to 2018 when Canvan started the project) uses all of the previously released footage in practically an untouched state aside from cuts and edits. The quality varies between the HD footage from the 1978 film to SD inserts from both documentaries and raw footage. It can be jarring.
In Redux 2.0, that still remains true, but Canvan hired an actual editor to make the color grading consistent. Along with mixing up the color, all of the SD footage has been upscaled to HD to better reflect the masters used for the 1978 version. It’s not completely perfect -upscaling any SD source to HD will never look like a native HD scan-, but it creates a more polished final product that has consistency across its 30-odd minute runtime.
This is also true of the sound editing, which receives possibly an even bigger improvement than the video quality. On Criterion’s set, Game of Death Redux uses a mixture of the 1978 version’s SFX alongside inserts from Lee’s other films. This was down to time constraints as Criterion needed Canvan to turn in a version within half a year. Given more time, Canvan has redone everything so that it sounds crisper and punchier. He even got Chris Kent, the man who dubbed Lee in the 1978 film, to re-record battle cries.
While those aspects are crucial to creating an impressive film, it’s actually the editing that makes the biggest difference. Redux 2.0 is a few minutes shorter than the Criterion version, yet it feels more fulfilling. Canvan not only mixed up when certain shots would be shown (a few of the conversations feature more cross-cutting than the Criterion version), but he changed the sequence of events during Lee’s battle with Ji Han-Jae on the fourth floor. Originally, James Tien would get thrown around a bunch, then later get thrown around again. In Redux 2.0, it only happens once and comes later on in the battle. It turns a redundant state of affairs into something that tells more of a story.
Canvan reiterated to me that that was how he viewed Game of Death: as a short story. We’ll never completely know what Lee really had intended with this film as his notes were unfinished. We also can’t assume that whatever notes he had written were gospel. Lee wasn’t a complete amateur when it came to film and he obviously would have seen James Tien getting thrown a lot as worthy of being cut or even removed some dialogue to better get to the point.
That’s the philosophy Canvan took into Redux. Not ignoring the advancements made in both action cinema and storytelling over the last 40+ years, Canvan takes a “less is more” approach and cuts what he feels is unnecessary to his vision of this film. That might sound like sacrilege, but it winds up transforming Game of Death into a deeply allegorical movie about the struggles with one’s identity.
What we know about the original film is that Lee wanted it to be a showcase of his philosophy on martial arts. He believed that Jeet Kune Do was the greatest expression of one’s inner self and wanted to demonstrate that to viewers through combat. Canvan has honed in on that and turned the film into a Jungian reflection of one’s inner self.
Canvan explained to me that he sees each floor as representing one facet of Lee’s character. The battles are less about proving Jeet Kune Do is superior than they are about overcoming faults in your ego. While I’m still not exactly clear how Dan Inosanto or Ji Han-Jae fit into that, this interpretation is evidently clear with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the final level. He not only uses Jeet Kung Do in the film as a reflection of Lee but is the polar opposite in pretty much every respect.
You do get a sense of that in the original version of Redux, but it becomes much more pronounced in Redux 2.0. The way music cues come in at different moments to emphasize decisive actions or how dialogue is reconstructed to better trigger your mind into philosophical thinking. It’s impressive just how much Canvan was able to achieve with his tinkering.
There’s also the removal of some repetitive grunts and the complete removal of audio from Lee and Kareem’s grounded leg lock sequence that helps illustrate a better understanding of flow on the part of Canvan. One may want to keep all of the footage included to stay respectful of what Lee had shot, but you can’t make the argument that Lee wouldn’t see the benefit here. Even Canvan admits that he and Lee probably wouldn’t have agreed on everything, but Redux 2.0 feels closer to Lee’s vision than anyone has come before.
Bruce Lee purists may not agree with that take (and some have even brought up complaints about Canvan voicing Lee in Redux), but you can’t please everyone. In my opinion, Game of Death Redux already represented the ideal way to view the previously lost footage. Redux 2.0 improves it and has now supplanted the Criterion version as the definitive version… for the time being.
It’s impossible to know if we’ll ever see more footage get recovered or if lost notes Lee wrote will be unearthed in the future. Hell, maybe someone will take to creating an animated version of the film that recreates the shot footage along with fleshing out the story. Putting hypotheticals aside, I would stress that everyone checks out Game of Death Redux when they get the chance. Canvan is working to get this re-edited version available on streaming platforms, so it will eventually be available to a wider audience.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.