HCF GUILTY PLEASURES: GAME OF DEATH 
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME:89 mins/ 91 mins [Hong Kong version]
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Billy Lo is an international martial arts movie star at the height of his fame with a girlfriend Ann Morris who is also very successful as a world-famous singer. However, a racketeering syndicate headed by Dr Land is putting pressure on him to sign up with them. Despite being beaten up by Land’s henchmen twice, Lo doesn’t seem intimated and tells Ann that he has a plan and it would be best for her to leave the country. Land decides that Billy must be killed. Disguised as a stuntman, Land’s assassin Stick sneaks onto the set of Billy’s new film, and shoots Billy during filming. A fragment of the bullet passes through Billy’s face, leaving him alive but in need of plastic surgery which alters his facial features. Publically Billy is dead, but privately, he’s most definitely alive and plotting his revenge…….
Though he only starred in five features [this ignores bits parts in other films], fans are often in debate as to which Bruce Lee movie is the best. I think it’s fairly safe to say that more casual fans, the kind who will own the films and nothing more, are more likely to have his American film Enter The Dragon, his 1973 box office smash, as their favourite. Folks who have not only owned various copies of the films over the years in their different versions but have many documentaries, books, and every bit of Lee footage that exist are, I think, far more likely to have one of this three Hong Kong pictures he made before Enter The Dragon; The Big Boss, Fist Of Fury or The Way Of The Dragon, as their favourite. A film that I doubt any Lee fan will consider having pride of place in their collection is Game Of Death, the 1978 production which claims to star Lee despite he having died five years before. In fact, there are many who find the film in bad taste and even offensive. Me…well, I’m of the opinion that, yes, it is in poor taste and often very poorly put together, but I admire the sheer cheek of the filmmakers in trying to pretend Lee is starring in the film, and it actually does have its pleasures for me, such as some cracking action.
Lee actually shot 37 mins of Game Of Death in 1973. It was intended to emphasise the philosophical side of martial arts as well as the fighting, but then Lee died from that asprin [or not] and the film was shelved. The next few years saw a ridiculous amount of what became known as ‘Bruceploitation’, with dozens of Asian movies released starring actors with stage names such as Bruce Li, Bruce Lo and Brute Lee. Some of these films were even advertised as actual Bruce Lee films. Even Jackie Chan was initially marketed as an heir to Lee and even starred in the sequel New Fist Of Fury. Therefore it really doesn’t seem all that surprising that in 1978 Lee’s former studio Golden Harvest took a look at what Lee had shot five years previously and decided to make, in effect, a new Bruce Lee movie, though in fact they only used 13 mins of the Lee footage, probably because much of it did not actually feature Lee and there was a distinct fantasy element to some of the rest.
So what to do……..well, how about getting an actor [Tai Chung Kim] who only vaguely resembles Lee to play his part, because surely if you have him wearing large sunglasses a lot and have a plot which requires his character to wear some disguises, no one will ever know it’s not Lee, ay? Have another performer called Yuen Baio do the most difficult bits of the fighting and, every now and again, cut in obvious shots of the real Lee from his earlier films? People won’t notice the difference in film quality or the jarring editing, will they? Ah, how about going as far to use a Lee mask for one scene, a cardboard cut-out for another and superimposing his face [see pic above] onto some guy in another? I cannot understand how Golden Harvest thought people would be fooled by all this, and, though my general view on the film is that the haphazard way it was put together makes it rather endearingly bad rather than just bad, they really did go too far when they cut in shots of Lee’s actual funeral to the funeral scene in the film. Though I do love Lee, I am actually a far bigger fan of Jackie Chan, and it may very well be me being left with a very bad taste in my mouth if they did this with him.
In any case, Game Of Death does have its redeeming qualities, even if admittedly they are sometimes of the morbid kind such as having the hero Lo being shot on a movie set by a real bullet instead of a fake one in a manner bizarrely similar to the death of Lee’s son Brandon Lee many years later [and The Crow was finished without him too, though in a much better manner]. The opening credits, with stylish ‘game’ orientated titles and a cool John Barry theme which sounds that the sort of thing he would have written for a 70s James Bond TV series, are classy and overall the film has a glossy look to it. The pace drags a little in the first half, with an over-reliance on scenes featuring the villains plotting their next move, but there’s a fight roughly every ten minutes and the second half is basically one brawl after another. Many of the fight are just good rather than very good, and they seriously overdid the Lee war cries which may very well drive you nuts! The quality improves as the film goes on though, with a ringside fight between Sammo Hung and former Lee opponent Bob Wall, and a lengthy motorcycle sequence in a warehouse featuring some great stuntwork.
The ‘proper’ Lee fighting is relegated to the end and really seems out of place here, but Lee’s comical nunchaku battle with Danny Inosanto and brutal fight with the incredibly tall Kareem Adbul-Jabbar remain classic fight scenes. It’s worth noting here that the Hong Kong version of Game Of Death is significantly different to the US version but, unusually, is even more of a mess. It may have one good extra fight scene [in a greenhouse, which also turned up in Game Of Death 2, an unrelated sequel with some Lee outtakes at the beginning supposedly justifying its existence], but huge chunks are cut out and the editing in places is beyond amateurish. There are cuts floating around which contain all footage.
Tai Chung Kim lacks both charisma and fighting skill, at least on camera; what he does possess is a certain athleticism and ability to copy things Lee did. Colleen Camp is mostly dire as the female lead though the villains are fun, especially a supremely slimy Dean Jagger. It’s strange to see composer John Barry’s name on this film [though he did do Star Crash the same year]. He helps gives proceedings a slight 007 feel though you may get sick of hearing the same music repeatedly used for the fights. A nice love theme, with rather meaningful lyrics written by Barry himself for the vocal version, is sung by Camp twice, once during the end titles over clips of Lee. It would be quite touching…..if Camp could sing. There is no doubt about it, Game Of Death is a pretty wretched exercise, but scores well in certain areas, and, in the way most of us slow down to see a car crash, I stick it on every now and again to try to work out exactly what the filmmakers were trying to achieve. I still can’t decide if it was worth it, and whether it’s a misguided tribute or a sick insult to the man many still regard as the greatest screen martial artist of them all.