AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD
RUNNING TIME: 95 min/92 min
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 intimidated 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 him during filming. A fragment of the bullet passes through Billy’s face, leaving him 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…….
One wonders how on earth the filmmakers thought they could get away it, and one almost has to admire their audacity, but I reckon that most Bruce Lee fans think “shame on Golden Harvest for making such an exploitative travesty”. Game Of Death is the peak [or depth] of the wave of Bruceploitation that followed the death of Bruce Lee, when a large number of martial arts films were made featuring guys with stage names like Bruce Li, Bruce Lo and Brute Lee, and who often imitated the man as best they could. However, I doubt that any of the makers of these films really expected to fool anybody. However, in 1978 Golden Harvest decided that they could go one [or two or three] better, by using 13 minutes of fighting footage Lee shot for an unfinished film back in 1973, and then pretend that Lee was in the rest of the film by having another actor who only vaguely resembles Lee play the same character. They obviously thought that if he wore sunglasses then people would be fooled, and obviously thought that shots cut in from other Lee films wouldn’t jar. They even thought that people wouldn’t be fooled by a shot of a cardboard Lee mask, and that fans wouldn’t be offended not just by footage from Lee’s actual funeral procession but a shot of the real Lee lying in his open casket. It all leaves a bad taste in the mouth though it’s sometimes so poorly put together that you just have to laugh. However it has some cracking fights, which goes someway to making up for everything else considering this is a martial arts movie.
Lee actually shot around 100 mins of footage of his version of Game Of Death not long before he died, though much of it which was lost and only 37 mins remained. He played a man called Hai Tien forced by gangsters to steal something valuable [sources don’t identify it] and along with others battle a succession of other fighters. Intended to emphasise Lee’s philosophies about martial arts as well as fighting, it co-starred many of his students including Dan Inosanto and baseball player Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, and was even to include George Lazenby. When Golden Harvest decided to make their Game Of Death and even got Enter The Dragon’s Robert Clouse to direct, they only used some of Lee’s footage and threw out the plot, though they managed to get two of the original cast members to return and brought back familiar faces Bob Wall and Sammo Hung, the latter both appearing and choreographing the non-Lee fights. Chuck Norris turned down the part of Steiner. A man named Tai Chung Kim starred, though Yuen Biao took over for some of his fighting. Unusually, the English language version is the original cut and the Hong Kong version is inferior. Though it replaces two middling early fights with a longer and better one shot in a greenhouse, it cuts some sections, making the plot sometimes hard to follow. It also adds a typical Hong Kong movie title song and shows Billy captured by the police at the end. The UK version, as usual, removed all nunchuku shots. Surprisingly, Game Of Death was a hit, and led to Game Of Death 2, an unrelated sequel with some Lee outtakes at the beginning supposedly justifying its existence, which also used the greenhouse fight.
The first shot of the film is of Lee from The Way Of The Dragon twirling his nunchukus, which is hardly promising, but the opening titles, with game-related imagery including a backgammon board, roulette wheel, cards and dice, are pretty nifty until we see more and more of Lee fighting Norris. Hell, Norris is even listed as a co-star even though his couple of minutes of footage is from The Way Of The Dragon! Anyway, the fight is then revealed to be a scene in Billy Lo’s new film. We don’t see Lo’s face very much, and when we do it’s usually shots of the real Lee from other movies. Even if you haven’t seen those other films, there’s an obvious discrepancy between the new and the old shots, the latter ones tending to look quite rough and brighter. For God’s sake they didn’t even try very hard to make the backgrounds match. When Lo is confronted by Dr Land’s second in command Steiner in his dressing room we have a shot of Lee’s face superimposed onto someone else’s, and then, after a couple of fights where Lo is defeated by some of Land’s goons [which should also have clued audiences into the fact that this wasn’t Lee because Lee’s characters would never lose a fight], Lo is supposed to be filming a scene that is a pathetic approximation of the final scene of Fist Of Fury. An assassin who sticks out like a sore thumb is allowed to come on to the set, shoot Lo for real while Lo’s performing Lee’s classic jump, and than leave still holding his gun. By now I reckon that many first Lee fans almost loos the will to live watching this for the first time, as well as be a little creeped out considering that Lee’s son Brandon died for real in a similar fashion and the film he was working on was finished without him [albeit much more successfully].
Lo fakes his own death and has facial reconstruction surgery….though it’s highly odd facial reconstruction surgery in that it doesn’t make Lo look any different from before aside from a few scars which appear and disappear at will, though it does somehow seem to make him more powerful. Of course the bad guys fail to recognise him. Game Of Death actually – though it’s probably hard to believe – considerably improves around this point and there are even stretches without any awkward Lee cut-ins. At least you’re never more than ten minutes away from a fight, though many of these scenes are partially ruined. After Wall’s character Carl Miller has bested Samo Hung in the ring in a fine display of skill from both men, Lo corners him in his dressing room and the two go at it in a pretty exciting set-to. Then the shots of Lee appear and drastically weaken the scene, which finishes with the real Lee saying: “You lose, Carl Miller”. The guy voicing this line is trying to sound like Lee, but this makes no sense because the different person providing Lo’s voice elsewhere sounds nothing like Lee at all. As for Kim himself, throughout he lacks both charisma and fighting skill, at least on camera [he was apparently a taekwondo expert], but he does possess a certain athleticism and an ability to copy things Lee did – though of course nobody can do Lee 100% right and they really overdid his war cries when doing the dubbing.
After a rather cool motorbike set piece in a warehouse, we eventually get to see the actual Lee footage, and it is worth the wait. Lee’s nunchuku duel with Inosanto is the most skilful usage of that rather odd weapon that I’ve certainly seen, and his battle with Abdul-Jabbar is probably my favourite Lee fight, even if it’s obvious that it hadn’t quite been completed with some poor continuity in evidence. Lee really seems to have met his match for once in this giant whom he initially can’t even seem to get near, and has to truly adapt his style, while the fight employs a diverse array of martial arts and even some street fighting. And actually, if you’re able to ignore [which is very hard] the stench of crassness of the project, the dumb moments, and the edits in of the real Lee, the previous hour and a half does have a few pleasures. The premise is interesting and would be very believable if it concerned Hong Kong mobsters rather than white ones who would have probably been driven out instantly. There’s an over reliance on scenes of the villains plotting their next moves because they didn’t want too many dialogue scenes involvng Lo [they obviously thought it may give the game away], but they’re a fun bunch to spend time with, particularly the slimy Dean Jagger whose character seems genuinely offended when Ann tells him to bugger off.
Gig Young does the world weary reporter act very well though Colleen Camp is a weak female lead and has no chemistry with Kim, while I don’t understand [considering the obvious fakery elsewhere] why they didn’t get somebody to dub her when she sings Will This Be The Song I’ll Be Singing Tomorrow, an especially melancholic tune from composer John Barry who unusually also wrote the rather meaningful lyrics. It’s strange to see his name on this film [though he did do Star Crash the same year]. He helps gives proceedings a slight 007 feel – the main theme sounds like it could be for a Bond TV series in the 1970’s – though you may get sick of hearing the same music repeatedly used for the fights. Though I feel that it would be substantially improved if you took out all the Lee cutaways, there’s no doubt about it – Game Of Death is a pretty wretched exercise. I don’t think that it can be really be defended by saying that they didn’t have the technology to realise some things properly and just did the best they could, though I can’t entirely decide 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.