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Game of Death (1978)

Bruce Lee in Game of Death movie poster

I’m not a huge kung fu/martial arts movie fan but there are a few I particularly like, and last night I revisited one that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid.

Game of Death (1978)

This is a bit of an odd one since this film was made (or at least finished) five years after Bruce Lee’s death. The finished movie hardly resembles the original idea Lee had, but despite how clunky and pieced together it is I really like it.

If you’ve never seen it, it stars Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon), Dean Jagger (White Christmas), Gig Young (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?), Hugh O'Brian (Twins), Colleen Camp (Clue), with Kim Tai-chung and Biao Yuen doubling for Lee in scenes that were filmed after his tragic death at the age of 32.

It’s directed by Enter the Dragon director, Robert Clouse.

There are also appearances from basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the legendary Chuck Norris (Way of the Dragon), although neither were overly happy to be included in the finished film for reasons I’ll get to shortly…

This is what it’s about:

After a failed attempt on his life, martial arts movie star, Billy Lo (Lee) fakes his own death and goes after the people who tried to kill him.

My dad used to watch this film a lot when I was really young. In fact I think it’s the very first film of this genre I ever watched. I wasn’t aware of all the details and controversy surrounding it until much later.

Basically, in 1972, just short of a year before his death, Bruce Lee began work on a film he wrote and was set to direct and produce called Game of Death. The original story was nothing like the finished film and would star Lee as a retired martial arts champion who’s forced to retrieve a valuable item from the top of a five-level pagoda (with dangerous adversaries on each level) by a Korean underworld gang who have kidnapped his brother and sister.

Lee filmed more than a hundred hours of fight footage for the film, including an iconic battle with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that would make up the climax of the movie. During filming however, he was offered the lead role in the first kung fu film to be produced by a Hollywood studio; Enter the Dragon (1973) which was too good an offer to turn down, so he put Game of Death on hold until Enter the Dragon was complete.

Unfortunately he died shortly after that film’s release and the Game of Death fight footage was put (and later misplaced) in the Golden Harvest archives.

Five years later the studio decided the footage was too good to just sit in a vault and cleverly went about building a whole new story around what they had using stand-ins to play Lee’s role, a character named Billy Lo. The results are pretty bad to be honest. As good as the stand-ins are it’s plain to see that it’s not Bruce Lee in any of the scenes other than the ones at the end of the movie.

Different approaches were taken to hide the fact that it wasn’t actually Bruce Lee, such as having the stand-ins wear dark glasses, as well as filming them behind glass and in the shadows. They even went to such tacky lengths in one scene as to use a paper cut out of Lee’s face stuck to a mirror with the stand-in’s face hidden behind it!

The most tasteless moment in the film though is during Billy Lo’s funeral (remember he faked his own death) where actual footage of Bruce Lee’s funeral is used. It’s amazing this film got made if you ask me. The lengths people will go to make money!

What’s particularly tragic, not to mention eerie, is that Bruce Lee’s son Brandon would die sixteen years later in almost an identical way to how Bruce Lee’s character supposedly dies in this movie.

It’s while filming a scene in his latest film that a member of the crime organisation that’s trying to squeeze money out of him shoots him with a real gun, leaving him for dead.

Brandon was accidentally killed during the making of The Crow (1993) when the “bullet” part of a dummy round that had become trapped in the barrel of a prop gun was fired out during a scene and hit him in the abdomen.

Regardless of all its obvious faults and tasteless nature I can’t help liking this film. If anything, the contrast between the scenes featuring the stand-ins and the real Bruce Lee footage serves to highlight just how good he really was. Although, aside from a few poorly edited-in shots of Lee from previously shot material you have to wait just under 1 hour 22 minutes to see him in all his glory, but boy is it worth the wait. He’s mesmerising!

The film is helped enormously by a fantastic score by John Barry (composer of eleven James Bond film scores) and is itself iconic. I even managed to find it on iTunes and just downloaded it for £7.99.

Despite Game of Death not being anything like Bruce Lee’s original idea it was a commercial success and it went on to inspire countless other movies and video games in terms of its concept of defeating enemies on ascending levels of a tower before reaching the big boss. It also iconised Bruce Lee’s yellow and black jumpsuit look which has since been used in the Kill Bill movies.

Don’t get me wrong, this is no Enter the Dragon but if you like Bruce Lee and martial arts films and can turn a blind eye to the blatant cash-in that this film essentially is, I highly recommend it (even if you just fast forward it to the finale).

Seen it? Let me know what you think in the comments.

...And just because it's so good, here's the scene where Bruce Lee fight's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

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