Tuesday, July 29, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: Robert Clouse's GAME OF DEATH (1978)

Kicking motorcycles into existence while Han Solo uses him for cover. This dude was awesome!

Bruce Lee was a force of nature. In addition to his contributions to martial arts and philosophy, he was also an actor. He tried to do stuff on TV, but the biggest role he ever landed within that system was Kato on The Green Hornet. He attempted other stuff on television, but constantly got shot down by Hollywood before most of his ideas could get off the ground.

Ever heard of the show Kung Fu? Lee's idea, but Hollywood said "Oh, nobody's gonna go home at night, turn on the TV, and watch a Chinese man on a regular basis!" and gave the lead role to David Carradine.

Lee, out of work and betrayed by Tinseltown, left for Hong Kong. It turned out that The Green Hornet had quite a following there and Golden Harvest approached him to be in a movie, The Big Boss (or, Fists of Fury if you're in America). He was intended to be a supporting character, but the first scene filmed was the ice factory brawl. Lee's explosive performance in this scene alone forced the staff to rewrite the script and make his character the protagonist.

The Big Boss was a huge hit in Hong Kong, but it would soon be eclipsed by Lee's second film: Fist (not plural) of Fury (called The Chinese Connection in English).

Way of the Dragon (English: Return of the Dragon) came next, a film that Lee personally helmed production of. There, Lee plays a country bumpkin visiting his relatives running a Chinese restaurant in Rome, who are being threatened all the time by mobsters. It's funny seeing Lee as a fish out of water type here, but he still kicks everyone's butt. But the cherry on the sundae can be summed up in five words: Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris!

After the success of Way of the Dragon, Lee set out on a new project: a movie that would showcase not only martial arts, but also philosophy about the subject: Game of Death. Lee was to play retired martial arts champion Hai Tien, who is forced by the Korean mafia to raid a five-story pagoda with four other fighters. On each floor, there is a highly trained fighter guarding each set of stairs. Lee only managed to film approximately thirty-five minutes of the ending before something unexpected happened: Hollywood came to say "sorry".

Warner Bros. was studying the box office grosses in Hong Kong and came across his movies burning up the charts. He was offered the starring role in Enter the Dragon, effectively pausing Game of Death's production.

Enter the Dragon would prove to be Lee's biggest movie, but also his last; he died before it even premiered. The cause of Lee's death has been debated for over forty years (allergy, cerebral edema, "vibrating palm" theory, UFOs, black helicopters, etc.), but in the wake of the event came a new trend in oriental cinema: Bruceploitation.

Bruceploitation was a phenomenon that swept Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China, where producers trying to make a buck off of Lee's legacy hired impersonators to be in a bunch of low-budget knock-off movies you'd probably see on a DVD rack at your local gas station.

The names of the "Lee-alikes" were really inspired: "Bruce Le", "Bruce Lai", "Bruce Liang", "Bruce Thai", "Bruce Chen", "Lee Bruce", "Bronson Lee", "Brute Lee", "Dragon Lee"... I think there could have been a "Bruce Bruce" and a "Lee Lee" among them as well.

Eventually, Hollywood tried to get in on the action with a 1978 movie called Game of Death, directed by Enter the Dragon's Robert Clouse. It sounds like they tried to finish what Lee had started back before he died, doesn't it? Think again.

NOTE: Descriptions of what was changed from the original concept will be marked dark green.


The opening sequence is actually really nice. It makes me think of an intro to a 007 movie, an idea helped by the fact that John Barry did the score.

The movie proper opens with actor Billy Lo (Bruce Lee and the clones thereof) doing a shot-for-shot, move-by-move remake of the Colosseum fight from near the cendlimax of Way of the Dragon... in fact, it IS the Colosseum fight from near the end of Way of the Dragon!

After they finish the scene, Billy nearly gets killed by a falling floodlight. This lets him know that a... "respectable businessman" wants to see him, so he goes to his trailer to have said meeting.

Keep in mind that this flick hit theaters five years after Lee got a permanent job as a worm buffet, so sometimes the film shows a little snippet of footage from a previous movie inter-cut with new footage of a body double with his face obscured. That allows for us to see the stand-in walk to his trailer with a towel over his shoulders and cut to this:

Gotta love how the towel transcends background AND foreground!

Once he goes in, we see pre-existing footage of the real Lee... with the added bonus of a towel edited over his shoulders in a choppy manner!

It reminds me of when Saban put panties on Goku in the 1995 dub of Dragon Ball!

Anyway, Mr. Mafia (called Steiner, played by Hugh O'Brien) keeps making veiled threats about mutilating Billy before the actor tells him to bug off and...


Oh... Hahahahahaha!


(Twenty minutes later...)

Okay, okay... I think I'm over it... Let's...


(Fifteen minutes later...)


Sorry everyone, this is laughably pitiful! A picture of Lee's face taped onto a mirror to hide the double's face -- this easily trumps the fake towel! Six minutes in and we've reached the bottom!

Billy finally kicks Steiner in the face in exchange for scratching his mirror. Steiner immediately leaves, calling what Billy did "a very big mistake". Maybe it's just me, but don't you think Mitchell's "Watch out for falling rocks" is a little bit cooler?

Oh, you think this is all too silly to be real? Well here's the whole scene!

Don't worry, there won't be cardboard faces beyond this point! From now on, Billy wears silly sunglasses!

Steiner goes to a meeting with his boss, a pretty old-looking dude named Dr. Land (Dean Jagger) and the rest of the gang, such as a guy called Stick (who stacks matches, played by Mel Novak), professional fighter Carl Miller (Bruce Lee movie alumnus Bob Wall) and a huge guy called Hakim.

Hey, wait a minute! I know you! You're Roger Murdock! You're the co-pilot!
The character above was in Lee's incomplete version of Game of Death, played there by former student and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When Clouse's crew approached him to be in this movie, Kareem refused, wanting Lee's footage to be left alone. As a result, they got an impersonator whose name is as unknown as the fighting style his character originally employed. Here, however, he works for the mob.

Billy goes out to dinner with his singer girlfriend Ann Morris (Colleen Camp) and she's being harassed by the gangsters as well. Eventually the mob shows up on motorcycles and gets into a fight with Billy. Despite him pretty much mopping the floor with them, Ann calls out to him as if it were the other way 'round!

Once Steiner threatens to kill Ann with the concealed blade in his walking stick, Billy just lets the henchmen beat him up... a sight completely alien to those who have seen the four films the real Lee actually starred in.

After getting the tar beat out of him, the couple goes to dinner and discuss the syndicate with a journalist friend of theirs, Jim Marshall (Gig Young). During the talk, Jim relates to them the story of a guy called Charlie Wang (if anyone cracks a joke, you're going to get to see what your own aorta looks like!) and we get our first glimpse at Lee's original Game of Death footage!

Charlie Wang was played by Hong Kong actor James Tien, who had co-starred with Lee in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. In Lee's version of GoD, Tien's character was to play one of the five fighters the Korean mafia hired to infiltrate the pagoda. The footage the still above was taken from was from when his character was able to slip past the Floor 4 guardian and has a futile fight the one on Floor 5 (Kareem's character).

Here, through the magic of archival footage, Charlie was suckered by the mob and is about to be clobbered by Hakim. It's stated that after he was reduced to a pulp, his body was "fished out of the harbor". Keep this in mind for later.

Despite Jim trying to get Billy to consider quitting his acting career, Billy keeps trying to figure out a third option. He goes to the Chinese opera to speak with his uncle (Roy Chiao, the guy who played the head monk in Enter the Dragon).

Billy's uncle knows that the mob's after his nephew and gives him some advice: the more famous you are, the more you have to lose. If you have low self-esteem, losing what you've earned becomes much easier. Billy makes the decision to fight back, but is worried about Ann; his uncle tells him to send her away.

In no time, the motorcycle goons show up in their colorful tracksuits show up and fight Billy. Billy manages to do pretty well until a belt comes down over his arms. ("Bruce Lee" gets his butt kicked again!?)

He still refuses to play ball with the mob and begs Ann to hide out in America until the situation blows over... but she doesn't listen.

At the studio, Billy's film crew is giving the last scene of Fist of Fury the same treatment they gave the Chuck Norris fight. Little does our impersonator know, Stick was sent to the set with live ammunition and shoots him in the face.

The eerie thing about this is that this would be the fate of Brandon Lee during production of The Crow fifteen years later. Only here, Billy doesn't die.

Yep. He gets shot in the face and lives. His face will have to undergo plastic surgery, which would mean no more recycled footage... but we won't be so lucky.

Nobody is allowed to know the truth about Billy's survival, not even Ann. They even stage a funeral while surgery goes on behind the scenes. It would have been pretty good... IF IT WASN'T FOOTAGE OF BRUCE LEE'S ACTUAL FUNERAL!

The movie even shows Lee's actual body! Disgraceful!
(...does this make me just as bad?)

Ann, believing that Billy is dead, wants to start up her own fight against the mafia but passes out from the whole ordeal and gets sent to a rehab center. After three weeks, she's getting over the trauma... but when Dr. Land brings Stick along with Steiner, she has a relapse into "crazy":

Hey, you dudes were the ones who shot her boyfriend!

While mob runs away from Ann's hissy fit, Billy imagines how he'd look if he played Grizzly Adams with sunglasses. He's doing this so he can trail the mob to Macau and disrupt a fight they've been planning that involves Miller.

Billy follows Dr. Land in a taxi and they all get stopped by a lion dance before getting to Land's townhouse. There, Billy tries to fight Land, but his attention quickly shifts his attention to a stream of cronies the mob boss summoned. This time Billy beats them... probably because they aren't wearing tracksuits.

Eventually, Miller shows up and he chases Billy through the streets, eventually losing sight of his quarry in the same lion dance from earlier.

That night, Miller defeats a guy called Lo Chen (Hong Kong movie legend Sammo Hung) in one of the dirtiest fights ever. Ann is also at the fight and tries to shoot Dr. Land, but Billy (disguised as an old man in traditional Chinese attire) tells her that everything's under control. 

With Miller the winner, he is escorted into his locker room by cheering crowds (the man kicked Chen in the back and hit one of his corner men!). He tries to take a shower, but gets locked in by Billy, who quickly reveals himself... through recycled footage from Way of the Dragon. (What's the point of the plastic surgery thing if they keep showing pre-existing clips?)

This results in one confusing fight...

Can anyone explain how you go from an alley behind a Chinese restaurant
in Rome (TOP) to a locker room in Macau (BOTTOM)? And where's that window?
Where did this wallpaper come from during Miller's combo?
Why is the stand-in's hairstyle so different from Lee's in the archival footage?

Billy kills Miller, which raises suspicion from Land about Billy's status as being dead. Steiner has the grave dug up and confirms that he's still kicking and a dummy was buried instead.

Meanwhile, Billy reveals to Ann that he's still alive and begs her to go back to America before the mob finds her. Unfortunately, she fails -- the motorcycle goons get her. Steiner tells Jim that they'll let her go if Billy gives himself up to them. Jim doesn't buy it and warns Billy.

Danny Trejo is hiding somewhere in this picture. Can you kids at home find him?

Billy runs off to the warehouse where he fights the motorcycle cronies one more time. He knocks out the dude in the yellow tracksuit and takes it off. In Lee's original concept, the tracksuit was used to symbolize no allegiance to any single martial art. Here... it's just a disguise. 

Lee beats up the motorcycle gang, allowing for Ann to leave the movie by running off into the rain. Stick tries to shoot Billy again, muffs it, and gets pounded by his would-be victim, who screams: "WEH'S THE DOCK-TAAH!?"

He finds out that Land's at the Red Pepper Restaurant, a Hong Kong eating establishment which also doubles as floors three through five of the Palsangjeon Pagoda in South Korea. Why do I say this? Because we're about to see a chopped-down version of the original Game of Death's climax. 

The first fight is against high-ranking henchman Pasqual (previously played by a stand-in, now by Escrima expert Dan Inosanto).

In Lee's original version, this was the third fight in the pagoda and was used to break up the hand-to-hand fighting in the previous unfilmed fights. His gimmick was to start off beating "Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits" on his sticks and beats his opponents with a formulaic routine. Lee's two remaining cohorts, James Tien and Chieh Yuan, can't beat him. Lee has to take him out.

Billy finds a pair of nunchaku (the weapon most associated with Lee) and a green bamboo stick on a weapons rack at the foot of the stairs. Originally, the stick was supposed to symbolize flexibility; the rehearsed stuff Inosanto's character was using couldn't adapt to the agility of the stick. Here, the deeper meaning is lost; it's just a weapon.

Disarmed, Pasqual takes his nunchaku out and Billy does the same. Billy ultimately breaks his neck with the weapon.

During the fight, keen-eyed viewers can find the big club Chieh Yuan tried to fight Inosanto with before quickly losing it.
(That sequence, sadly, has been lost to history)

Next floor, an unnamed "restaurant fighter" played by Hapkido grandmaster Ji Han-Jae. His gimmick is a lot of grappling and throwing. His room's also filled with broken pottery (as if he fought two other guys).

Hey, it's Chieh Yuan! He tried to sneak past this guardian and was thrown down the stairs by Kareem!

Billy busts the guy's back Bane-style and runs upstairs.

Hey! It's Charlie Wang! It's so nice that they brought his body back to the very room he was
killed in after it was pulled out of the water! It's almost like those two fights were consecutive!

At last we come to the footage of the legendary fight between Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In the original production, the fighter on the top floor had no particular style and was unfazed by the concept of dying. This made him the most effective fighter and made for a fight of attrition with Hai Tien. Hai only manages to beat him through sheer luck, for he punches holes in the wall by accident... revealing that his opponent's eyes are sensitive to sunlight (in the Clouse version, I think he's reacting to the floodlight Billy accidentally turned on trying to get into the restaurant/pagoda). This weakens his defenses and he is beaten by Hai choking him to death. 

The fight pretty much goes the same way it did in the original Lee version... but heavily condensed to the point that it becomes just another fight in the movie.

With Hakim dead, Steiner tries to fight Billy and he has the special ability to make the recently-deceased henchman appear off-camera and try to kick him; Billy can also magically move around the bruises on his face. Mr. Mafia's beaten when Billy kicks him down the stairs, right next to the unexplained dead body of Chieh Yuan.

I hope he used the restroom beforehand!

Billy finds a wax dummy of Dr. Land placed to fool him into thinking he was dead. In reality, Land waited until the last possible second to escape. Billy had ample time to catch up to him descending a short fire escape ladder and swat at him lightly with his right arm. Land loses his footing and slides down the roof screaming obscenities, gets electrocuted, and hits the pavement.


...if you're watching the English-language version, that is. The Hong Kong version ended with two silent alternate endings:

  1. An ambulance shows up to collect the body of Dr. Land and the police arrest one of the Bruce Lee clones for impersonation.
  2. Billy and Ann say goodbye to Jim and leave for America by ship, complete with a transparent image of Lee superimposed over the ship.

If you're reading this, you'll have a better chance of seeing the abrupt conclusion.


"Game of Death has forty minutes of footage and the rest is junk." -- Brandon Lee

Definitely the textbook example of Bruceploitation. It's kind of ironic, too: after Lee died in 1973 without finishing his movie, his fans wanted to see what he'd made. Some knowledge of what Lee was planning with his incomplete opus was at least known to the world, and Clouse's movie was neither the first nor the last to try to make a buck off of the concept. The plus for the Clouse version? He actually showed some of Lee's footage, but told his own story instead of finishing what had been started. The end result, ultimately, was about 20% Plan 9 From Outer Space and 80% Mitchell

It's pretty bizarre to see Lee's character get the snot knocked out of him, considering that in the four movies he made gave him the upper hand even when outnumbered (thanks to sheer skill). The fact that the staff was trying to pass off that Lee was actually in the movie was a trainwreck: having his face hidden in the shadows, having him wear enormous sunglasses (even at night!), and the infamous picture on the mirror. The jumping between Lee-alike and recycled footage tended to be obvious (watch the Carl Miller fight). The entire plastic surgery angle would have made sense to explain why Billy looks different from Lee, but they still recycle old scenes regardless, defeating its purpose. Kareem's double looked pretty phony as well, but his saving grace was that he was only in two scenes. 

The guy dubbing over Billy, Christopher Kent, has almost no enthusiasm in his role. Sounds kind of bored to me. 

Despite all this, there are some pluses. The John Barry score is very awesome and the fight choreography by Sammo Hung was good as well, in spite of the fact that he was a vocal critic of Bruceploitation and went on to satirize the genre with Enter the Fat Dragon. Colleen Camp did a pretty beautiful song for the movie, too; it's a bit tear-inducing if you marathoned the four legit movies. Camp had a really good voice, it's a shame she didn't have much of a singing career.

Ultimately, Robert Clouse's Game of Death can be considered a guilty pleasure in an extreme case and a joke in general. If you want to see the unaltered version of the climax, track down the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey

It's a little sad that Lee was never able to finish Game of Death the way he wanted. How it would have been received is as big a mystery as to what the treasure was that Kareem was guarding. The surviving notes from the movie didn't give a clear enough picture about what all happens and Lee himself wasn't quite sure what the treasure at the top would be. But at least we can be certain that people have learned a valuable lesson: if your top-billed star dies and only filmed a couple of scenes, don't progress with project (especially if he's been dead for over five years) or try to trick the public with inserted clips from older movies he did. Nobody would be that dumb as to try it a second time, right?

In the words of Mr. Plinkett, "Oh..."

I'm DLAbaoaqu. This review is dedicated to the memory of Beijing Bootlegs and other fine web shows that were victimized by Blip's Country Club Syndrome.

The Big Boss, Way of the Dragon, and Game of Death (Clouse) is owned by Golden Harvest.
Game of Death (Lee) is owned by Bruce Lee's estate (I think).
Dragon Ball is owned by FUNimation, Toei Animation, Fuji TV, and Akira Toriyama (Please support the official release!)
Trail of the Pink Panther is owned by Blake Edwards Entertainment and MGM/UA.


  1. This is pretty interesting to see. I knew a bit about this movie so it was funny to see your take on it. I'll have to read your reviews more often.

    1. YAY! A comment! =D

      You've got to watch it to see how silly it is!

  2. They used footage from Bruce's real funeral?!

  3. On the bright side, we now know where the yellow jumpsuit that Uma Thurman wore in Kill Bill came from. I always thought it came from Kill Bill.

  4. OT: Manny Pacquiao is so awesome to watch! Watch Manny Pacquiao speed shadowboxing all day on the official MP Youtube Channel now!

  5. Can anyone tell me what motorcycles were used in the game of death?