Robert Clouse’s The Game of Death (1978)
23 November 2014
I was at first really conflicted about my thoughts of watching Bruce Lee’s Game of Death. Growing up watching all of his films with my dad, this was the one movie I didn’t get to see. My dad warned me back then that I might just be disappointed given that it wasn’t a “pure” Bruce Lee film (for those of you who don’t know Bruce Lee passed away before completing this movie and they had to use doubles to film all the missing parts). Anyway I finally gave it a shot. I guess as a way of culminating my childhood experience with the legendary martial artist.
The film was moving and action-packed at the same. The play on Billy Lo’s (Bruce Lee’s character) death and the homage to Bruce Lee’s life after his real-life passing was well incorporated into the story. Integrating scenes from Bruce Lee’s previous blockbusters (the Return of the Dragon’s fight scene against Chuck Norris and the Chinese Connection’s defiant ending) as reenacted by the superstar actor Billy Lo for his upcoming movie, was a clever and sentimental way to merge the tribute to the legend with the plot’s development. It felt like getting an inside scoop into Bruce Lee’s career as an actor. The touching tribute, at the same time, was also balanced out by the intense, adrenaline-rush, fight scenes (complete with a nunchuck exhibition that one can always expect in every Bruce Lee film). In short, the film stayed true to the Bruce Lee legacy, which I am very thankful for.
Billy Lo, as originally played by Lee and to some extent while being played by his doubles, meanwhile, remained consistent with Bruce Lee’s previous roles. Fierce, cocky (in the fight scenes at least, which made you want to worship his God-like fighting skills even more), defiant, ruthless save for the concern he shows for his loved ones that made him a more complete character. The character stayed faithful to the dominant yet caring figure we have come to know and love in all the Bruce Lee films.
Admittedly, though, Bruce Lee’s incomplete presence took a toll on the film. Kim Tai-jong’s and Yuen Biao’s (the actors who played Billy Lo after Lee’s death) performances were decent enough but it was far from the awe-inspiring presence Brue Lee commanded. Their Billy Lo was weak to the point of being wimpish. Their fight scenes successfully imitated all of Bruce Lee’s kicks and punches on the surface level but lacked the overflowing cockiness, the dragon-like ferocity coupled with the smooth, fluid motions (Bruce Lee was an expert cha cha dancer after all) and the killer scowl, the Jeet Kune Do founder was famous for. The contrast between the original and the doubles were felt even more thanks to the clear difference in film quality in the interchanging shots of Bruce Lee and the other actors.
Of course this was all expected. Anyone who tries to imitate Bruce Lee is bound to fail (precisely why Jackie Chan, who was one of the extras in the film, chose a different path and gave kung fu a more comedic look). Game of Death, however, was successful in using the doubles to produce an interesting enough story to keep the audience going before Bruce Lee was to come in and steal the show. It felt like an old school Bulls vs. Lakers match where the Bulls, for some odd reason, had to play without MJ for the first three quarters, surviving somehow with all the other players doing their best. Come fourth quarter, he comes to the rescue by kicking Kareem Abdul Jabar’s ass (…which is exactly what happened in the film). Bruce Lee’s absence in majority of the film, ironically enough, served Game of Death well by hyping up his eventual insertion into the movie. 11 minutes and 7 seconds of Bruce Lee saving the day is better than an eternity of all martial arts films combined. It was the greatest “cameo” in action-movie history.
Overall, it was a fitting homage to the legend. It was no culminating film (that honor is reserved for Enter the Dragon) but a great way to pay tribute to Bruce Lee several years after his passing. Billy Lo’s fake death and eventual “resurrection” is a statement about Bruce Lee’s eternal legacy. The character’s climb up the multiple storeys of the Red Pepper restaurant (this part was played mostly by Bruce Lee himself) to defeat the different martial artists is a symbol of his, until now, unrivaled superior strength and skill and his ever increasing popularity.
Bruce Lee’s early death was one of the greatest tragedies to ever have befallen mankind, but at least he will forever be immortalized as the strong fighter that he was. The film’s ultimate tribute to the kung fu master was encapsulated in Billy Lo’s line — as he was warned about his life and advised to surrende to the will of the syndicates who wanted to control his life — “it is better to die a broken piece of jade than to live a life of clay.” Time and old age were not to temper the power of the great Bruce Lee.
(By the way, this film made me really nostalgic about my childhood days watching Bruce Lee that I’ve not only decided to marathon all of his movies this week, I’m also gonna be obsessively playing Tekken 6 until I get enough cash to buy Marshall Law’s yellow jumpsuit).