I suppose that it’s surprising, given my predilection for martial arts films, that I haven’t reviewed any of Bruce Lee’s films on these pages. And that’s an oversight that I felt I needed to correct. So why did I pick Game of Death, a movie that was finished several years after Lee’s death, rather than one of his better (and better known films), like Enter the Dragon? Chalk it up to morbid curiosity, I guess.
Bruce Lee plays Billy Lo, a famous movie star under pressure from a syndicate to let them manage his career. Lo ain’t having any of that, and the syndicate starts stepping up the pressure. This includes threatening Lo’s girlfriend Ann (Colleen Camp), a popular singer, and wreaking havoc on the set of his new movie. But when Lo continues to resist their efforts, the syndicate decides to make Billy pay. While filming a dangerous stunt (which actually consists of footage lifted from the end of The Chinese Connection), the syndicate injures Lo and leaves him for dead.
Faking his own death, Lo goes underground to take down the people who’ve ruined his life, one man at a time. Thankfully, Lo’s injuries also meant he had to have facial surgery, and is now able to attack disguised. The syndicate soon finds themselves threatened by an unknown assailant, one whose quickly dispatching their best men. Unfortunately, Ann is unaware Lo’s still alive, and sets out to avenge his death.
I’m not sure if I should consider the filmmakers clever or sacrilegious. They went to great lengths to complete Game of Death, recycling footage from Lee’s previous films as well as using a copious amount of stand-ins. Of course, it’s easy enough to tell when they’re using a replacement. Just look for scenes when Lo is turned away from the camera, standing in shadows, donning a beard, or wearing big sunglasses or a motorcycle helmet. Granted, that’s about 90% of the movie. Another dead giveaway is when Lo’s voice changes about five times throughout the movie, my favorite being the scene where Lo suddenly sounds like Shaft.
After awhile, stuff like that just gets comical, especially when they superimpose Lee’s face over a double. Apparently, they realized how horrible that looked, so they only did it once. But on the other hand, you treasure the authentic Lee footage all that more. And what little footage there is is pure gold, especially the final fight scenes.
If there’s one thing that’s truly notable about Game of Death, it’s the final fight between Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Oh sure, Lee kicks Abdul-Jabbar’s butt, but the sheer concept is pretty dang cool. And believe it or not, Abdul-Jabbar does look pretty menacing. (But methinks that’s probably due to the fact that his shorts are disturbingly short and you can see his jock strap, rather than any real martial arts skill — though Abdul-Jabbar was one of Lee’s students.)
There’s a certain shameless morbidity to Game of Death. The filmmakers even go so far as to use footage of Lee’s own funeral. If that’s not slightly creepy, I don’t know what is. One can’t help but feel that Game of Death is more concerned with cashing in on Lee’s death and subsequent stardom than anything else. But maybe it did work out for the best; Lee’s legendary status is basically without question nowadays. However, it’s difficult to say how much this movie did to contribute to that status. If anything, it’s probably best thought of as a footnote, a postscript if you will. Or if you’re a devout fan, maybe it’s just best forgotten.