Bruce Lee: the man, the myth, the legend. He was both a martial artist and a movie star who left us too soon with a magnificent, cinematic legacy. After his passing, the showbusiness just could not fill such a big void, so the trend of Bruceploitation films emerged. In this editorial, let’s take a closer look at Game of Death movies made in 1978 and 1981.
To be honest, I have heard a great deal of positive as well as negative opinions about the controversial Game of Death movie, the “final”, we could say, Bruce Lee’s movie. Although Bruce had shot a considerable amount of footage before he was approached with the offer of making Enter the Dragon, due to his untimely death in 1973, Game of Death remained an unfinished endeavour. However, producer Raymond Chow and director Robert Clouse joined forces in order to complete Bruce’s last movie and bring it to the big screen. Needless to say, their vision vastly differs from Lee’s original script…
Game of Death (1978)
Don’t you understand anything? Everybody looked at him, but there was no person to see anything!
Synopsis: Billy Lo (Tong Lung, Yuen Biao, Albert Sham) is a Hong Kong superstar, churning out such hits as Fists of Fury and The Way of the Dragon. He is stalked by a vicious syndicate which wants to organise some kind of an illegal martial arts tournament. Billy refuses to participate and, as a result, he is shot in the head by one of the henchmen on a film set. Miracuously, Billy survives and, with the help of a friend (Gig Young), fakes his own death and changes identity. However, the syndicate is now interested in Billy’s girlfriend, Ann Morris (Colleen Camp). Billy has to act fast and stop the gangsters.
Right from the start, you should get an idea that you are not in for a Bruce Lee flick. The intro sequence, albeit incredibly well-done for the 1970s, makes you feel as you are watching a James Bond movie. In addition, the presence of the legendary composer John Barry only reinforces this feeling whenever music cues kick in.
The task with which Raymond Chow and Robert Clouse had challenged themselves was not building a coherent story around Bruce Lee’s existing footage, but rather, how to make a Bruce Lee action film without having Bruce Lee in it. As a result, we get to see three stuntmen (voiced by an English actor) impersonating Bruce Lee… Had only the editing been more skillful, but it is not! You can see Bruce’s close-ups taken from his previous productions intercut with stuntmen in heavy make-up or cardboard cutouts…
To be honest, I can understand that back then the team behind Game of Death tried to make something which today Hollywood easily does with top-of-the-line technology (Paul Walker in Furious 7, Peter Cushing in Rogue One). The shortcomings of blending new footage with that of Bruce Lee’s are more than noticeable, yet they do not constitute the main disadvantage of the film.
In my opinion, the shoddy screenplay completely takes away the entertainment factor of this flick. We get a generic crime drama about the bad guys trying to kill the main protagonist, but the most disrespectful thing this storyline does is as follows: All Bruce Lee’s films exist in the universe of Game of Death. These are, quite rightfully, fiction… and Bruce Lee is fictional as well… Hence, this is not a film about Bruce Lee, but about a certain Billy Lo (supposedly played by Bruce Lee, which is not true) trying to act (and look) like Bruce Lee.
As for the dialogue, it leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, please consider such sentences as “If we’re stopped, don’t do anything that will give them an excuse to hurt you!” or “Where’s the Doctor?!!!!!!” Also, the incorporation of the same battle cries into Billy Lo’s fight scenes is just so off the mark.
However, I have to give justice to Bruce Lee’s footage. When we finally get to see the pagoda showdown (which functions in the context of the film as confrontation in a restaurant), it feels like a breath of fresh air. Just these 10 minutes of Bruce Lee kicking ass with his maverick demeanour are definitely worth watching.
I think I should also mention the most controversial aspect of Game of Death. As mentioned in the synopsis, Billy Lo fakes his own death, and (this is not a joke)… the movie features an actual shot (from the funeral) of dead Bruce Lee lying in an open coffin... Talk about a whole new level of graverobbing.
Without any doubt, Game of Death was made as a blatant cash-grab, riding on the wave of Bruceploitation trend of the late 1970s. My respect goes to Karim Abdul Jabaar who refused to take part in this failed project (he’s still credited though due to the pagoda footage). If you want to get the feel of how Bruce Lee’s Game of Death was supposed to look like, then grab the awesome documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000) instead.
Game of Death II (1981)
Dear Bobby, how are you? I was hoping to see you, but you were out. Sorry I missed you. I gather you are not studying or training so hard lately. I guess I don't have to tell you that to become an expert in the art of Kung Fu, you must practise more. There'll be time for girls later. Take care of yourself.
After the release of Robert Clouse’s Game of Death in 1978, one could think that producer Raymond Chow was done and dusted with the phenomenon of Bruceploitation movies (see numerous copycat movies like Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger (1976) or Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave (1976)), but three year later, he greenlit yet another Game of Death, this time directed by Ng See-yuen and distributed solely by Golden Harvest.
Synopsis: Billy Lo (Tong Lung posing as Bruce Lee) leaves his younger brother, Bobby Lo (also Tong Lung), under the care of his former teacher, Chin Ku (Hwang Jang-lee). However, it turns out that Chin Ku suddenly dies in mysterious circumstances. Billy Lo goes to Japan to investigate the matter, but he gets killed while trying to protect the remains of his master. Bobby Lo takes up the challenge and goes after the men who led to the death of his brother.
Allegedly, there are three cuts of Game of Death II, so after a brief investigation, I found out that my dilapidated DVD copy contains an international UK version which clocks in at 96 minutes (there are also Hong Kong and South Korean cuts out there).
To be honest, I am pleasantly surprised with this film. From the get go you can clearly see that it is a vast improvement over the 1978 Game of Death. The storyline is super easy to follow and the stock footage of Bruce Lee (taken mainly from Enter the Dragon (1973)) blends in very neatly with the fight scenes. The filmmakers even included scenes of young Bruce Lee at the very beginning of his acting career!
That being said, our Billy Lo/Bruce Lee protagonist works only for the first half of the film until he is killed off in a debilitating manner (and yeah, the horrific coffin mugshot returns as well). From this point on, it is up to Bobby Lo to save the honour of the flick.
Just when you think that the movie is on the verge of completely falling apart (bad guy eating raw meat, etc.), it manages to remain an entertaining action showcase. Obviously, Bruce’s pagoda footage is not reused here, but at least the concept of it is kept for the finale. We see Bobby entering an inverted tower buried within an underground compound (it is basically a villain’s base from Moonraker (1979)) and facing a few imposing baddies. The final showdown is ridiculous fun!
Basically, Game of Death II is not so much about exploiting Bruce Lee, but about replicating the spirit of what made his movies so great. Had Bruce been alive and well to do this picture, Game of Death II could have been a classic. Still, it is a fairly enjoyable ride.
If you are in a desperate need for a Bruce Lee film without Bruce, then Game of Death II is the best choice for you. Ditch the atrocious Robert Clouse’s movie and play this one instead. Huge respect for the filmmaking team behind this flick: Ng See-yuen, Yuen woo-ping, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao.
This was my retrospective look at Game of Death movies. Is the first flick your guilty pleasure? Do you think the sequel is better? Please let us know in the comments and thank you for reading. Allow me to end this article with immortal words of wisdom from the master himself:
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Be water, my friend.” ~ Bruce Lee