[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.]
Game of Death is an utterly fascinating film from a technical standpoint. Production on the movie began shortly after The Way of the Dragon was released in theaters in 1972 and was set to be the second project that Bruce Lee would helm. Based on the concept of a multi-leveled pagoda housing different martial arts masters on each floor, the film would act as a thesis on Lee’s burgeoning style of martial arts, called Jeet Kune Do. He would battle these different masters, reveal the flaws in their styles, and adapt his own to match them.
Why was the film never finished? I’ll be brief since most people are likely familiar with the story due to Lee’s popularity. Warner Bros. called up Lee to offer him a deal to create a movie with funding from an American company. That film wound up becoming Enter the Dragon, probably the most synonymous movie with Lee’s image. Since he had been trying to break into Hollywood for years, Lee temporarily shelved the production of Game of Death to film that.
Sadly, he would pass away just days before the US premiere of Enter the Dragon and never got to see his own success explode. Not only that, but what would likely be his magnum opus would remain incomplete with many of the pieces lost in the Golden Harvest archives. There is more to the story here, but there are plenty of smarter people that have dissected and explained the process in ways that I simply cannot for this column.
What we will address is what I ended my previous column with: Game of Death is probably the worst thing to include footage of Bruce Lee. Currently, there are two versions of the film available on the market. We have the 1978 release that was cobbled together by Golden Harvest to capitalize on Lee’s popularity and then the incomplete reel of footage Lee shot for the finale of the film. That incomplete version is much closer to what Lee wanted and is an exhilarating display of Kung Fu mastery. If that were the only thing available with the Game of Death title, it would probably be held in higher regard.
This article is specifically going to be about the 1978 version, which is… well, let’s not mince words. It’s awful. Some redeeming factors here come in the form of a couple of decent fights and the ridiculously excellent score by James Bond composer John Barry, but that’s where the good ends. Everything else, from execution to creation, just reeks of desperation.
With an abundance of footage available following Lee’s death and no real idea of how to stitch it together, Golden Harvest sat on Game of Death for nearly five years before it rushed production on a film. With the Hong Kong film industry looking to capitalize on the hole that Lee left, a genre of films known as Bruceploitation cropped up and attempted to give audiences more of what Lee had started. Golden Harvest likely saw the success of those movies and figured it would get a piece of the pie.
Right off the bat, Game of Death ignores the story outlines that Lee drafted for his version. Instead of an examination of martial arts and combat philosophy, we’re treated to an awkward plot about a burgeoning actor named Billy Lo (Bruce Lee and various other stuntmen) refusing an offer from a crime syndicate. As he is wrapping up filming on one of his movies, a stage light nearly falls on him, but he disregards the incident and moves on.
In his dressing room, Billy is confronted by Steiner (Hugh O’Brian) and threatened with violence to join some syndicate. Billy refuses and it kicks off a series of battles where the gang eventually winds up “killing” him. Throughout, you’ll see random clips of Lee from his other movies spliced in to give the effect of Lee being alive, not to mention some absolutely atrocious cutouts of Lee’s face in certain scenes.
What makes the whole production sleazy is not only how the editors and producers throw all sense of continuity out the window by throwing in whatever clips they could find, they actually utilize footage of Bruce Lee’s funeral to move the plot forward. As I mentioned, Billy is presumed to have died in the film, but actually manages to survive and fakes his death. I’m not sure who got the idea to throw in the funeral as a plot point, but I suppose anything is fair game when you’re selling a lie to audiences.
I really don’t even feel the need to continue discussing the plot after this point because Game of Death simply doesn’t recover from that moment. The only time the film becomes interesting is at the very end when footage from Lee’s vision for Game of Death is used. The debate is out on how much footage actually exists, but roughly 50 minutes were recovered from Golden Harvest’s archives. Only 11 of those minutes winds up here, but it is leaps and bounds better than the other garbage surrounding it.
Before we get to that point, though, it is interesting to note that Sammo Hung makes an appearance during a fight scene. Having choreographed the new footage for this film, Hung faces off against Robert Wall in a random prize fight where Billy eventually kills him. It’s one of the better battles in the film as it doesn’t try to emulate Lee’s style or trick you with inserts from other projects.
Continuing with the good bits, John Barry’s score is really excellent. The film uses it far too often and it does eventually wear thin by the final battle, but the slick production and upbeat tempo really pump you up for the on-screen fisticuffs. Borrowing some motifs from James Bond, the theme gives new life to Lee’s idea that would have sounded impressive against his original footage. Indeed, a newer version of Game of Death titled Game of Death Redux actually places the score over the unedited footage, which is just divine.
Cutting through the nonsense to see these good qualities really isn’t worth the struggle, though. I won’t fault the stuntmen that were just doing their jobs or even actors like Hung and Wall returning to film new footage. While a majority of the original cast refused outright (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was disgusted by this version of the film), others probably figured that they might as well get paid since Golden Harvest was making the movie regardless.
Honestly, a lot of the fault with Game of Death lies in its direction. Robert Clouse returns after having directed Enter the Dragon and thoroughly demonstrates that he just does not understand how to film an action movie. The choreography for battles might not be bad, but the editing wastes any potential it might have. The acting can be hit or miss, but the sloppy ADR and awkward cuts between past Lee footage and present action don’t make any sense. Even the pacing is completely off with some scenes dragging on for far too long.
There’s not a single person you can lay the blame on for this movie, however. We likely will never know the true intentions behind this project (though it is easy to assume money was the motivating factor), but there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen for any one aspect to be this film’s downfall. The end result comes off as a cheap cash grab to get people into seats by banking on Lee’s fame. Golden Harvest could have just screened the original footage with little alterations and it would have been better off.
It is a crying shame that Lee passed away right on the cusp of his fame hitting a fever pitch. For someone as talented and passionate as he was, he never got that chance to experience the stardom he worked so hard to achieve. The 1978 version of Game of Death might attempt to pay homage to his legacy, but has the reverse effect of spitting on his grave. If you’re a fan of Lee’s, you’d be better served by watching the unedited footage and disregarding this “film” altogether.
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