Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Game of Death (1979)

In 1973, at the very cusp of his break into Hollywood, Bruce Lee died suddenly and tragically from an ailment still shrouded in mystery. Even after his demise, Lee's popularity soared, and by the late 70s his posthumous celebrity status was undeniable.

Such is the origin of Game of Death, released six years after Lee's passing. Director Robert Clouse decided that this footage should not go unwatched. Not only did he release it, but also included a bunch of superfluous plot to create a ten-to-one ratio of crap to awesome.

Clouse eases the audience into the tedium by introducing the film with footage from Way of the Dragon, in which the real Bruce Lee fights the real Chuck Norris (with a real hairy back).

I say the "real" Bruce Lee because, as mentioned earlier, Bruce Lee was DEAD when this film was made. To fill in the gaps, Clouse hires three Bruce Lee lookalikes (whose chief qualifications are "being Asian"), and has them stumble through poorly lit scenes in thick sunglasses, masquerading as a kind of costume party Lee. This filler is occasionally interspersed with 1-2 second clips of the actual Lee, marked conspicuously by a drop in film quality, and about 40 pounds of additional muscle mass. There's even a shot where they superimpose a picture of Bruce Lee's face over the double's.

Game of Death tells the story of Billy Lo, a martial arts superstar hounded by local mobsters to participate in their big karate showdown, which they hope will rake in millions in gambling profits. Lo is reluctant to participate, and the syndicate responds with the completely reasonable and repeated use of threats and beatings. The first 20 minutes basically cut back and forth between gangsters talking about Billy Lo, to gangsters pummeling Billy Lo. How a small contingent of hired goons is able to take down one of the most skilled martial artists in the world is beyond me.

Despite these inconvenient beatings, Billy still has time to take his singer girlfriend Ann out to fine spaghetti dinners. This may explain his erratic shifts in martial arts ability. The added fight scenes, choreographed by Sammo Hung, are capably executed but the doubles are of a markedly lower skill level than Lee, making Lo appear sluggish, like after a massive intake of carbohydrates and tomato sauce.

Eventually, the mob becomes frustrated with Lo's refusal to participate, and implements their final coercive tactic: shooting him in the face. On the set of his film, a mobster (in an eerie parallel to son Brandon Lee's death) switches out a blank for a real bullet. I'm not entirely sure why they needed to fire a gun off-screen. Apparently audiences won't believe a shooting without the faint hint of white smoke over the camera lens.

In a perfect opportunity to justify Lo's altered appearance, he is hit square in the face, but lives. Rather than take advantage of this plot point, the doctors tell him he will look exactly the same. Lo gives Bruce's headshot the Wooly Willy treatment, and proceeds to don a fake beard and signature thick sunglasses.

Meanwhile, girlfriend Ann thinks he's dead. She's so hysterical and stricken with grief that she is committed to a sort of Mental Institution for the Temporarily Sad. It wasn't until the late 80s that women were allowed to cope with trauma without being sedated, slapped or institutionalized.

Lo begins his vendetta against the syndicate. Many plots to Bruce Lee films are merely elaborate excuses to justify his inevitable barefisted killing spree. Ann eventually discovers he's alive, at which point she is immediately kidnapped. The syndicate gives Lo directions to the trap, where a half dozen motorcycle goons wait for him.

Unfortunately for the mob, the location they choose isn't exactly ideal for motorized combat. It is a darkened warehouse with tight, short corridors and numerous places for a skilled martial artist to hide. Lo knocks a yellow-jumpsuited thug unconscious and steals his famous outfit, and then handily picks off each goon one by one. He learns the boss's location: the Red Pepper Restaurant.

Lo sneaks into the restaurant in the dead of night and heads upstairs. It is at this point, 80 minutes and 31 seconds into the film, that we finally get to the notorious three-leveled Bruce Lee battle. As Lo makes the transition from doppelganger to Real Lee, the director even remembers to have him grab some items off the wall that Lee carries as he enters. What he doesn't remember, however, is that Lo enters at night, and the Lee footage is in the middle of the day.

I won't dwell too much on these fight scenes, as they are particularly awesome and well executed. The restaurant has five extra floors (where apparently they pushed the tables aside to make room). Each floor has an opponent, and as Lo ascends, the fights become more difficult. They are, in order:
  • Filipino martial artist Dan Inosanto
  • Hapkido master Ji Han Jae
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, using his massive height difference combined with Lee's own Jeet Kune Do
  • A White Guy with a Stick

Can you guess which was added later?

Without the Bruce Lee footage, Game of Death is a capable but pedestrian martial arts film. With the footage, it's a capable but pedestrian martial arts film with an awesome fight scene at the end.

What to drink:

A fine Italian wine (with spaghetti)

Quotable quotes:

"What ever happened to Billy Lo?" (recurring)

"Figure it's done, man."

"Hey Billy can we get spaghetti tonight?"

"I've got a hunch one of these days we're going to have to cram his typewriter up his ass."

"Rude bitch!"

"One rebel begets another. That's the Billy Lo Syndrome."

"You lose, Carl Miller!"

"Of course I looked in the casket. He didn't look exactly the same, but they never look exactly the same!"

Arbitrary ranking system:

11.117 out of 103 minutes

Favorite Clip:


  1. dude, this is my shit! bruce lee + kareem abdul-jabbar= greatest ever. it's like a praying mantis fighting the most badass fire ant of all time.

  2. I'm pretty sure his mysterious ailment was a love for hash which unfortunately he was allergic to. Like if I were allergic to alcohol.

  3. His mysterious ailment was he achieved 0% body fat and disappeared in a puff of smoke.