Saturday 14 June 2008

Game of Death (1978)

The opening credits include clips not of Game of Death but of Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon. This is because Bruce Lee died during the making of this film in 1972 leaving only 54 minutes of footage. Six years later Robert Clouse, who had 'directed' Enter the Dragon took that footage and made a new film out of it, rewriting the entire script, adding in stock footage and hiring a lot of new actors. Dan Inosanto is apparently the only actor who appeared in what would have been the 1973 film and what became the 1978 film.

It would appear that Bruce Lee plays a martial arts actor called Billy Lo, who starts off the film fighting Chuck Norris in the Colisseum. Yep, that's the fight that provided the finale to Way of the Dragon and it's followed by an 'accident' on set. Yes, Billy Lo's life is threatened and for precisely the same reasons that Bruce Lee's life was apparently taken. Lo is an international martial arts star and he's planning to start up his own production company, thus seriously upsetting the bad guys in the syndicate who want to run everyone and everything, so he fakes his own death to get away from them.

The exploitation quotient is huge here, to almost unparalleled levels. Other than being a Bruce Lee film that Bruce Lee never made, it capitalises ruthlessly on similarities to the real Bruce Lee too. Naturally without him, director Robert Clouse got to play all those tricks that Ed Wood got to play in Plan 9 from Outer Space with his star, Bela Lugosi, dead. There's no vampire cape to use but early on we have a lot of shots where the hero of our story is cunningly obscured, such as filming him from the back seat of a car when he's in the front facing the other way with sunglasses on. Worst of all is a cardboard cutout of Bruce Lee's head transposed onto the body of someone else.

We also have various standins for Lee, including Kim Tai Chung and Yuen Biao. They do try, I'll give them that, and they even attempt the famous animal noises during fights, but not one of them is believable as Bruce Lee in the slightest. To get around much of this, we get the classic facial reconstruction by plastic surgery angle, explaining why Billy Lo doesn't look like Billy Lo any more. This is prompted by an amazing set of sequences that turn the final scene in Fist of Fury into a mirror image of the death of Lee's son Brandon 14 years later during shooting of The Crow.

The gory detail of such exploitation by premonition leaves a bad taste in the mouth but at least the filmmakers couldn't have known at the time. However they were happy to use stock footage of Bruce Lee's real funeral in the scenes that follow, including a shot into the casket itself, as a cover story. While Billy Lo goes through his reconstructive surgery, he's officially dead with a prominent funeral to prove it. It's not surprising that the cast are different, the original cast probably didn't want anything to do with it. In fact basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a student of Bruce Lee's, refused to appear, so while the stock footage of him fighting Lee is real, any other appearances of his character is not. Chuck Norris only appears in archive footage and threatened legal action because of the inclusion of his name in the credits.

So what else do we have here? There's some sort of karate world championship fight between Lo-Chen and Karl 'Killer' Miller, but it's complete lunacy. It plays out like WWE would produce such a thing, merely without any steel chairs. We have a couple of Oscar winning actors, including Dean Jagger and Gig Young, who may have picked up on some of the sleaze here. During filming, the 65 year old Young married a 21 year old German actress, and three weeks later shot her and then himself in a murder/suicide. We have the famous yellow tracksuit that Uma Thurman would take on for Kill Bill, though he doesn't get to wear this until 75 minutes into the film.

And finally, we have the game of death itself, a pagoda which Billy must fight his way up one level at a time. In the original Game of Death, the pagoda was the central point of the story. Five martial artists, including Lee and regular costar James Tien, would face different opponents at each level, and between them they would tell the philosophical story of Jeet Kune Do. Thus it was a very personal story and one which does not make it onto the screen here. It apparently has far more prominence in a couple of 2000 releases: the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey and the reconstruction Bruce Lee in GOD: Shibôteki yûgi.

In this film don't even think about looking for anything remotely Bruce Lee until about 80 minutes in and then the transition can only be jarring. This is really not anything worth watching in itself. It's only worth anything for odd reasons: the final Bruce Lee footage, the famous fight against 7' 2" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sammo Hung as Lo-Chen in that karate world championship fight. And the exploitation insanity. Lots of exploitation insanity. But at the end of the day the outtakes on this DVD from the real Game of Death are far more entertaining than Robert Clouse's film.

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