By Jenni Nather, StaciAnne Kaeleigh Grove, and Joshua Blum
The martial arts community has had few practitioners stand out in the way Bruce Lee has done. Even to this day, years after his untimely death, Bruce may be the most recognizable figure in our world. With 1978’s Game of Death, a group of Hollywood folks seemed to bank on Lee’s popularity by deciding to release this flick, even though Bruce passed away before filming could be completed.
Filming for Game of Death began in 1972. Bruce Lee was the director, writer, producer, and star of the film. Lee received an invitation to star in Enter the Dragon during filming, and he left the project incomplete to accept the offer. Lee planned to resume shooting Game of Death, but those plans were interrupted when he tragically died from a cerebral edema less than one year later.
In Lee’s version of the film, the main character is approached by members of the Korean underworld to join a group of hired martial artists tasked with the retrieval of a stolen Chinese national treasure from the top floor of a five-story pagoda in South Korea. The character originally refuses to participate, but changes his mind when his sister and brother are kidnapped as leverage. Each floor of the pagoda was guarded by a martial artist, and Lee’s character would progress up through the tower level by level, defeating the martial artist that guarded the floor and then proceeding to the next.
Lee’s concept was designed to emphasize the importance of having a fluid martial art style. Lee’s character used a fluid style, adapting to the challenges of fighting guardians who practiced different arts. As each guardian is defeated, the weakness in their martial art practice is revealed, emphasizing the importance of adaptability.
Although Lee was unable to finish filming Game of Death, he was able to film approximately 40 minutes of footage, mostly centered around the film’s climax. The folks at Golden Harvest Productions decided they wanted to push forward with the flick using the footage that was available, as well as a slew of other Hollywood tricks. Director Robert Clouse was brought on board to finish the film. The storyline was almost entirely rewritten. Body doubles were used as stand-ins for Lee’s character throughout the film, and where they couldn’t use doubles, they cut in footage from other Bruce Lee movies. Game of Death was released in 1978, five years after Bruce Lee’s death, and has been referred to as his final film.
The final product was not without controversy. Footage of Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee from the film The Way of the Dragon was used to finish Game of Death. For this footage, Norris was given a screen credit in Game of Death. Chuck Norris threatened legal action against Golden Harvest for this. Some stars refused roles in Game of Death as it appeared to exploit Bruce Lee’s death. Some of the stars who began filming with Lee before his passing even refused to return for the 1978 version. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of these stars, and his character in the 1978 movie scenes was filmed using a body double.
Still, the film is considered to be a favorite martial arts flick by many. What about you? Are you ready to take a chance with Game of Death?
After FINALLY seeing a Bruce Lee movie from start to finish, I STILL have not seen a Bruce Lee movie from start to finish. What I have seen, however, was a creative story that captured me from start to finish.
Many scenes from other films were cut into this flick as a Hollywood trick to tell the story after Bruce Lee’s tragic passing. I was not fooled for a moment by the spliced in scenes from other Bruce Lee films, and I’m proud, in fact, of the scenes that I recognized. Despite these cuts and other cinematic tactics, I was still able to drift away and fall into the story. It wasn’t long before the main character wearing sunglasses in a dimly-lit restaurant became part of the character’s mystery, and I was absorbed into the tale of an action flick superhero forced to fake his own death to seek revenge on those who threatened him and his love.
For the sake of preserving the fight footage seen at the end of the flick, I’ll take all the Hollywood tricks, the stand-in actors, the bad lighting, the cardboard face cutouts … all of it. From the moment Bruce enters the tower and coincidently grabs nunchaku that match his famous yellow jumpsuit perfectly, I was blown away. I enjoy the choreography, but I also enjoy the cocky attitude Bruce Lee displays, from his facial expressions to his body language, all of it screaming, “I’ve got this. Come at me, bro.” So arrogant. But so amazing.
Watch this movie for the amazing final fight sequence if for nothing else. Be warned, however … Who wears short shorts? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wears short shorts. Still worth it.
Many critics whine about the butchering of Bruce’s original film concept and the distasteful way this film seeks to make money in his memory, but I enjoyed the cheese-y overdramatic fight sequences with wide, exaggerated movements and high kicks, some theatrical fancy flips, and an abundance of unnecessary dying-cat noises. Keep your whine and bring on the cheese, because I recommend this film for martial artists and non-martial artists alike.
Perhaps it wasn’t the story that Bruce intended to tell us, but I have chosen to separate what could have been from what was and review the movie as released. In the end, it’s possible I hate myself for loving this movie, but love it I do, and I am now more encouraged than ever to watch the other films in the Bruce Lee catalogue. That’s a win.
aka They Wear Their Sunglasses at Night
So here it is – my first Bruce Lee movie. I’m excited to see what he’s all about. Well – let me just say, Game of Death, the movie did not help me out in that matter.
From the beginning things seemed off – lighting and sound quality changed from scene to scene. The storyline seems far-fetched at best. But at least I’ll get to see Bruce in action.
Or maybe not.
I watch a scene where it’s obvious that there is a cutout of Lee being used. My brain goes “whaaaaaaaat?” I’ve not gone to IMDb to see what I’m in for first, but the cardboard cutout makes me break that promise to not read about it until it’s done.
Lee, a good-looking man, is running around in large dark sunglasses everywhere he goes. It doesn’t make sense.
“Don’t switch the blade on the guy in shades, oh no. Don’t masquerade with the guy in shades, oh no.”*
Okay – so it was completed after his death. Cool – at least they saved the last film he’d been working on and done it in his honor and memory.
Or maybe not.
Is that Bruce Lee’s real funeral in the movie? You’ve got to be kidding me. This is going from bad to worse.
It becomes more and more obvious over my viewing that this is a really bad cut and splice, and I still can’t see what the big deal is.
Okay the fight at the end is cool – but feels like it’s completely out of place.
That’s because it is.
The last 20+ minutes of the movie contain the only real footage of Lee, choreographed by Lee, and produced by Lee. The cinematography and lighting are noticeably better. This leads me after the film, still scratching my head, to find Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey. This 2000 biopic about Lee has his biography, interviews with family and students, and wait for it – the FULL FIGHT SCENE. The way Lee envisioned it. It has the story the way it was written by Lee, and I can see now why he’s got the martial arts skills, the eye for choreography and filming. The story was actually meaningful the way it was originally written. THIS was a way better film.
About the only other thing I will add is that the bright yellow jumpsuit with the big old footprint in it is what led to the name of the Enduring Footprint Award from the whistleKick Martial Arts Never Settle Awards – because that’s the most enduring memory of this film.
(For more on the wK Never Settle Awards, click here. Nominations are open until August 15th!)
*Sunglasses at Night – Corey Hart
Watching Bruce Lee movies has always been a mixed experience for me. That may seem sacrilegious for a martial artist to say, but since I primarily knew him from The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, the Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method volumes, and vignettes by those who knew him (Chuck Norris, Joe Hyams – author of Zen in the Martial Arts, and his son – Brandon Lee), I always had a hard time reconciling the thoughtful philosopher I pictured from those writings with the brash, oftentimes arrogant persona he seemed to cultivate on screen. Who was the real Bruce Lee?
Little did I know I would be asking the same question repeatedly for another reason decades later. Despite having seen the last few minutes of The Game of Death (technically, Bruce Lee’s last movie), I had never seen the full film until recently. The plot of the 1978 film is very loosely based on an unfinished work Bruce started in the early 70s, where he ascends a tower populated by martial artists of differing styles until he reaches a treasure (or perhaps enlightenment) at the top level.
The thing is, though Bruce filmed some of it, it isn’t clear he ever knew how he wanted to finish it. After he passed away, the filmmakers had to figure out various ways to flesh out the story. They were quite creative, using actors who (kind of) looked and moved like him, a plot twist where he fakes his own death and gets plastic surgery to disguise his appearance, clips from Bruce’s past films, and even footage from his own (real life) funeral to attempt to Frankenstein the film into existence. There are Hollywood-level production values, a slew of well-choreographed fights (the actors standing in for Bruce are clearly very skilled in their own right), and bad guys that are easy to hate.
As bad as they were, though, the real villainy was that this film was made at all. To be fair, this was the age of the Bruceploitation film. In the years following the Little Dragon’s untimely passing, tons of these films were pumped out. And in some ways, this might be one of the best of them, since it has actual Bruce Lee footage. But it might also be one of the worst, since with a true Bruceploitation film, you knew what you were getting – a cheaper, less serious version of the real thing that attempted to make up for the gaping hole left by Bruce’s passing by trying to be fun. This one forgot that key ingredient, though, leaving a bad aftertaste in its wake.
What’s fun about death, you might ask? That’s the thing. If you’re dead set on making a film that essentially recreates Bruce Lee’s death on screen knowing his family and friends are probably going to see it, then you had better make it a cathartic experience – either an outright slapstick comedy or something on the order of a Greek tragedy – neither of which this film comes close to.
If that’s not bad enough, they had the audacity to give the film’s lead, Billy Lo (apparently coming up with different initials was too difficult), a Caucasian fiancée (Colleen Camp does her best with a thankless role). Given how unusual it was to see mixed race couples in the US at that time and Hollywood’s checkered track record on race in general, I can only conclude that they were trying to reference Lee’s real-life wife, Linda Lee Cadwell. The fact that her character, Ann, who, while grieving the loss of her fiancé, was dismissed as having “an attack of the crazies” for wanting to seek vengeance on her fiancé’s killer just seemed like the height of bad taste.
Perhaps this is the kind of misogyny one comes to expect with these older films, but it doesn’t mean we need to glorify them with more attention than they deserve. My recommendation is to watch the last ten minutes with Bruce’s original footage, the fight with Bob Wall and Sammo Hung (the film’s fight choreographer), the warehouse motorcycle scene (for Yuen Biao’s acrobatics), and give the rest of the film a hard pass.
Watch The Crow instead if you’re in a reflective mood. In an uncanny twist of fate, Billy Lo “dies” on screen due to a bullet being inserted in a prop revolver in a manner eerily similar to how Brandon Lee was killed on the set of The Crow, another movie filmmakers had to finish without their leading man. But in that case, it was clearly a labor of love to commemorate the tragedy of a life cut short, not cash in on it.
How We Rate This Flick
Staci: I’d give Game of Death a 40 out of 100. I’d give Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey an 80. It’s educational, and contains a better, more robust version of the best 13 minutes of Game of Death.
Josh: I’d probably give it 30 out of 100. Thirty as opposed to 10, since I think the cast and crew did their best!
Jenni: I’m still hating myself for loving it, so don’t be surprised as I rate this film as an 85 out of 100. The final fight sequence definitely gets a 100/100.
Who We Are
Jenni Nather began training later in life at a non-traditional age of 32. She is a 2nd Degree Black Belt in Pilsung Moo Do, a blend of Korean martial art styles including Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do, and Hapkido. In addition to training, this mom of four enjoys yoga, reading, baking, and cooking in her “spare time.” Jenni is a proud member of Team whistlekick as the Director of the Book Division as well as the Tour Manager for the Events Division. Find Jenni on Facebook or message her on Instagram (@jenninather397).
StaciAnne Grove trains in taekwondo at Yordan’s Black Belt Academy where she is currently a red belt. An avid amateur photographer, she got into taekwondo because she couldn’t get the timing right on her images – and had a vast photo collection of chambered kicks. She’s also a member of the USBA | WBA an organization that promotes breaking in all its forms. She’s part of Team Whistlekick and loves the connections across styles and borders. In her muggle world work, she works for a health network in Vermont and northern New York trying to create connections through story and databases. You can find Staci on Facebook or TikTok (sulis_dracarys).
Joshua Blum was introduced to tae kwon do at age 13 and has studied a variety of arts ever since. He is currently a practitioner of traditional Chinese archery and ninjutsu and writes fantasy novels inspired by his martial arts experiences as well as 1980s fantasy, science fiction, and martial arts films. He is reachable at 13thhr.wordpress.com.