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It should be noted that this title in Bruce Lee's filmography is problematic in regards to his legacy and his initial intended vision. We debated including it as part of the retrospective, particularly because of how insulting the film feels sometimes (for example, using real footage of Bruce Lee's funeral and open casket as part of the film's narrative). Ultimately, we decided to include it for two reasons.
First, it still includes many important visual elements that have become iconic to Lee's image. His fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The yellow jumpsuit, mimicked in the KILL BILL series.
Second, the are, at its core, pieces of a story that Lee wanted to tell. The parts of the film that he actually shot are still amazing and they shouldn't be overshadowed by the uncomfortable elements surrounding them. This is why we plan on showing the fan-made cut of the footage Lee shot compiled together as part of this screening. It's short, but highlights the completely different movie that Lee intended and can put the released version of GAME OF DEATH into context.
We also can't deny that this release opens up space for conversation about how to handle the deaths of on screen talent. Arguably, it has never been handled in any respectable way – the inclusion of CGI recreations of actors only further muddies the waters.
Hopefully, we can enjoy the parts of the film that are important and have a serious conversation about the handling of the rest. And now, the review:
When Bruce Lee died in July 1973, he left behind a true legacy, having changed the way people perceive martial arts and Asian people in movies in general. Lee also had a very specific understanding of what he wanted to achieve as an artist, which was not only to entertain, but also to teach his audience about martial arts, its variety and expressions. Through projects like the unfinished "Game of Death", that he had planned to finish after the shooting of "Enter the Dragon", he tried to follow this path, but after his death, the project was left as a fragment, until Robert Clouse, director of "Enter the Dragon", was given the task to finish it using the recorded as well as archival footage taken from Lee's other features. The result is quite different to the story Lee had in mind, as it only uses a small percentage of the footage Lee shot, but ends up being a rather messy and at times disjointed movie.
Bruce Lee (along with many other actors doubling him) plays Billy Lo, an actor starring in martial arts movies, who has been blackmailed by an international racketeering syndicate led by Dr. Land (Dean Jagger), who wants Lo to sign a new contract with his organization. As Billy refuses time and time again, Land's patience is running low and what started as threats from his henchmen, becomes increasingly serious with the threats now also being directed at his girlfriend, culminating in an assassination attempt during the shooting of the movie's final scene. While the world is in shock at what is presumably a tragic accident, Land's organization continues its attempts to get to Lo's girlfriend, who has been meeting with a journalist and aims to uncover the extortion tactics of Land and his thugs.
However, unknown to the world, Billy has indeed survived the assassination attempt, but was forced to undergo extensive reconstructive surgery. Since Land thinks he is dead, Billy recovers and starts planning his revenge on the syndicate that has caused him so much pain, while also looking after his loved ones.
Without a doubt, reconstructing an unfinished movie or making sense of the footage which has already been shot is quite a challenge for any director, no matter how much experience he or she has. Robert Clouse, having directed "Enter the Dragon", is experienced in the kind of blend of action, martial arts and drama that Lee was after with this project, but, presumably also pressured by the studio, decided to go in a very different direction with a new storyline that bears much resemblance to Lee's biography. Billy Lo is a character who, like Lee, experiences a lot of pressure, personally as well as professionally and struggles to fight back a force which seems to be always one step ahead of him, and also has the financial means to crush him. While this concept has potential, it suffers from a multitude of issues with perhaps the most important being the simple fact Lee has been misplaced by doubles – at one point a cardboard cut-out of Lee's face is used – to somehow make the new footage fit to the archival material and the footage Lee shot. The overall impression can be compared to the image of a jigsaw puzzle with the different parts taken from various different sources resulting in a mess of a movie.
Perhaps the only sequence which truly works is the finale of "Game of Death", which, somewhat fitting, uses the majority of Lee's footage. As the original idea would see Lee's character ascending the various layers of a pagoda in order to reclaim a mysterious item, he would have to face multiple opponents such as Steiner (High O'Brian) and Hakim (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Although there are some bit and pieces missing, these sequences stand out, showing the level of skill Lee had achieved over time. Reminiscent of the final fight in "Way of the Dragon", the presentation of the various fighting techniques, the level of expression and the characterization of each fighter through his style is by all means the best part of "Game of Death", hinting at what could have been.— Rouven Linnarz, Asian Movie Pulse
Sun December 3, 2023, 2:00 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
United States of America, Hong Kong; 1978; in Cantonese, English; 101 min
Director: Robert Clouse, Writer: Robert Clouse, Cast: Bruce Lee, Gig Young, Dean Jagger, Hugh O'Brian, Colleen Camp