I had sky-high expectations when I borrowed a battered VHS copy of Game of Death from my local public library. The ad copy on the tape case promised me the world – “swift and deadly kung fu revenge”, “[a] movie all Bruce Lee fans will want to see again and again.” But what really sold me were two words: “Chuck Norris.” I immediately scooped it up, mistaking it for Return of the Dragon, the only movie in which Lee and Norris officially co-star. Return famously features a 17-minute fight between Norris and Lee in the Roman Coliseum, widely regarded as one of the best martial arts duels in movie history. What I got instead was one of the most shamelessly bad cash-ins in movie history. Once again I’ve been foiled by ad copy!
Game of Death begins promisingly enough. We see the words “A Golden Harvest Presentation” flash across the screen. The Golden Harvest name is usually a mark of martial arts quality. The Hong Kong production company is responsible for many early Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan films, as well as the live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy.
We’re then treated to a majestic and heart-pumping opening theme, recalling the brawny yet elegant soundtrack to the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. In fact, this movie’s soundtrack is composed by none other than John Barry, who’s provided the music for most of OO7’s outings. The opening titles are awe-inspiring, incorporating footage of Bruce Lee with iconography of ancient board games and games of chance. This imagery matches the music perfectly, building up the expectation of a film of Connery-Bond quality. These titles are as good as anything Maurice Binder produced in his many James Bond opening titles. The high point is when a slot machine rains down coins on Lee in a golden shower!
Then the film opens right in the middle of a fight between Lee and Chuck Norris. This is how they choose to start the movie? You’d think it could only go downhill from here, and you’d be absolutely right. Turns out they just recycled fight footage from Return of the Dragon for this scene. The recycled footage is of a different grain than the rest of the film and the editing is slipshod at best. As the fight ends, we find out that this is just a movie studio set (they used the actual Coliseum in Return) and Norris and Lee’s characters are just actors. Or should I say, when Norris and Lee stop fighting, they’re replaced with obvious stand-ins. What the hell just happened?
Bruce Lee died of cerebral edema in 1973, having shot over 100 minutes of fighting footage for his passion project, The Game of Death. His was a very different Game of Death, short on story, high on action, and intended as a showcase for his martial art style of Jeet Kune Do. The unfinished film was to focus on Lee’s character fighting his way through a five-level pagoda encountering a different “level boss” specializing in a different martial art on each floor. This formula would later serve as the story model for every platform-based videogame of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Following Lee’s untimely death, fan demand to see this unfinished film reached a fever pitch. Unfortunately Golden Harvest misplaced some of the footage and what fans got instead was a sloppy chop-socky suck fest incorporating only 11 minutes of Lee’s intended movie.
For about 90% of this new Game of Death, the “Bruce Lee” character is played by three different stand-ins and a very fake looking cardboard cut out of Lee. The stand-ins spend most of the movie wearing ridiculous disguises to hide the fact that they look nothing like Bruce Lee – oversized sunglasses, motorcycle helmets with dark visors, and a variety of fake-looking beards. Many scenes insert brief close-up shots of the real Lee cannibalized from previous films, which are painfully obvious due to their numerous scratches and lower quality film grain. It’s as if director Robert Clouse (Enter the Dragon) went to the Ed Wood School of Filmmaking.
This film’s story, if you could even call it that, focuses on a Bruce Lee-clone movie martial artist battling a greedy Hong Kong syndicate. When “Bruce Lee” refuses to co-operate with the crooks, they stage an “accident” at the movie set during the filming of a scene in which his on-screen character is shot. Having replaced the blanks in the gun with live rounds, “Bruce Lee” is seriously wounded. This scene eerily mirrors the tragic death of Bruce’s son Brandon Lee, who was accidentally fatally shot on the set of The Crow in 1993. And it makes this movie all the more tasteless. Why don’t they throw in actual footage of Bruce Lee’s funeral while they’re at it? They do.
But “Bruce Lee” is secretly still alive. The bullet only wounded his face and the resulting secret plastic surgery conveniently explains his “new face.” The three bland stand-ins and their cardboard cutout sidekick then set out on a poorly-shot-and-edited rampage of revenge. But then in the final act, the real Bruce Lee suddenly shows up and starts kicking some real ass. The scenes from the original unfinished Game of Death are the only saving grace of this kung fu stinkeroo. Lee fights a nunchucks expert in an exciting scene that was later parodied in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie.
He then goes on to battle none other than basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar! The height difference between these two combatants makes for one of the most bizarre duels in movie history.
Yet as excellent as these scenes are, they only serve to remind viewers that Bruce Lee – the real Bruce Lee – had a far superior film in mind. Robert Clouse’s Game of Death is a tasteless, offensive, insensitive attempt to cash in on the tragic death of a superstar. The VHS box was wrong. Bruce Lee fans will not want to see this film “again and again.” That’s like telling Peter Sellers fans they’ll want to see the Steve Martin version of The Pink Panther again and again. There’s only one Peter Sellers. And there’s only one Bruce Lee. Accept no imitation.
0 Flying Dragon Kicks out of 5—A worthless, artless cash-grab. This is not a tribute to Bruce Lee. It is an insult.
The same yellow and black tracksuit that Bruce Lee (the real Bruce Lee) wears in the film’s finale is worn by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Volume 1.
This was the final film for actor Gig Young, who played the exposition-heavy “Jim Marshall.” He would later play his own “game of death,” committing suicide.
1970s moviegoers were just as fooled by Game of Death’s clever ad copy as I was. The film was a box office success, spawning a cottage industry of “Bruce Lee” sequels and knockoffs, including Goodbye Bruce Lee: His Last Game of Death, The New Game of Death, Enter the Game of Death, The True Game of Death, and Game of Death II: Tower of Death.