Hong Kong Reviews Reviews

Film Review: Game of Death (1978) by Bruce Lee and Robert Clouse

A martial arts feature about an actor taking revenge on a criminal syndicate

When died in July 1973, he left behind a true legacy, having changed the way people perceive martial arts and Asian people in movies in general. Lee also had a very specific understanding of what he wanted to achieve as an artist, which was not only to entertain, but also to teach his audience about martial arts, its variety and expressions. Through projects like the unfinished “”, that he had planned to finish after the shooting of “Enter the Dragon”, he tried to follow this path, but after his death, the project was left as a fragment, until , director of “Enter the Dragon”, was given the task to finish it using the recorded as well as archival footage taken from Lee's other features. The result is quite different to the story Lee had in mind, as it only uses a small percentage of the footage Lee shot, but ends up being a rather messy and at times disjointed movie.

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Bruce Lee (along with many other actors doubling him) plays Billy Lo, an actor starring in martial arts movies, who has been blackmailed by an international racketeering syndicate led by Dr. Land (), who wants Lo to sign a new contract with his organization. As Billy refuses time and time again, Land's patience is running low and what started as threats from his henchmen, becomes increasingly serious with the threats now also being directed at his girlfriend, culminating in an assassination attempt during the shooting of the movie's final scene. While the world is in shock at what is presumably a tragic accident, Land's organization continues its attempts to get to Lo's girlfriend, who has been meeting with a journalist and aims to uncover the extortion tactics of Land and his thugs.

However, unknown to the world, Billy has indeed survived the assassination attempt, but was forced to undergo extensive reconstructive surgery. Since Land thinks he is dead, Billy recovers and starts planning his revenge on the syndicate that has caused him so much pain, while also looking after his loved ones.

Without a doubt, reconstructing an unfinished movie or making sense of the footage which has already been shot is quite a challenge for any director, no matter how much experience he or she has. Robert Clouse, having directed “Enter the Dragon”, is experienced in the kind of blend of action, martial arts and drama that Lee was after with this project, but, presumably also pressured by the studio, decided to go in a very different direction with a new storyline that bears much resemblance to Lee's biography. Billy Lo is a character who, like Lee, experiences a lot of pressure, personally as well as professionally and struggles to fight back a force which seems to be always one step ahead of him, and also has the financial means to crush him. While this concept has potential, it suffers from a multitude of issues with perhaps the most important being the simple fact Lee has been misplaced by doubles – at one point a cardboard cut-out of Lee's face is used – to somehow make the new footage fit to the archival material and the footage Lee shot. The overall impression can be compared to the image of a jigsaw puzzle with the different parts taken from various different sources resulting in a mess of a movie.

Perhaps the only sequence which truly works is the finale of “Game of Death”, which, somewhat fitting, uses the majority of Lee's footage. As the original idea would see Lee's character ascending the various layers of a pagoda in order to reclaim a mysterious item, he would have to face multiple opponents such as Steiner (High O'Brian) and Hakim (). Although there are some bit and pieces missing, these sequences stand out, showing the level of skill Lee had achieved over time. Reminiscent of the final fight in “Way of the Dragon”, the presentation of the various fighting techniques, the level of expression and the characterization of each fighter through his style is by all means the best part of “Game of Death”, hinting at what could have been.

“Game of Death”, in the version directed by Robert Clouse, is a project built on good intentions perhaps, but ultimately fails to convince aesthetically and storywise. Apart from the various bits of footage looking different, the way this new story is implemented and blend together with other material is chaotic and at times quite confusing. Despite its finale, which uses much of the original footage, this is a feature which fails to convince its audience and also fails to entertain for the most part.

About the author

Rouven Linnarz

Ever since I watched Takeshi Kitano's "Hana-Bi" for the first time (and many times after that) I have been a cinephile. While much can be said about the technical aspects of film, coming from a small town in Germany, I cherish the notion of art showing its audience something which one does normally avoid, neglect or is unable to see for many different reasons. Often the stories told in films have helped me understand, discover and connect to something new which is a concept I would like to convey in the way I talk and write about films. Thus, I try to include some info on the background of each film as well as a short analysis (without spoilers, of course), an approach which should reflect the context of a work of art no matter what genre, director or cast. In the end, I hope to pass on my joy of watching film and talking about it.

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