GAME OF DEATH (Fight scenes filmed in 1972)
In 1972 after WAY OF THE DRAGON Bruce filmed a series of astounding scenes in Hong Kong that would be the centrepiece for another film. In the middle of filming, he received an unmissable offer from Warner Brothers to make ENTER THE DRAGON for Hollywood and for a budget of $850,000, unheard of for this genre. The unfinished scenes were a linked series of fights that were never expanded into a finished film as he sadly died before returning. In the original story. Bruce was to be a retired martial arts champion forced by Korean gangs to undertake a challenge in which he must battle a different artist on the five levels of a pagoda, each opponent being an expert in a different fighting style. It was never explained by Bruce exactly what the goal was although there was mention of a priceless treasure…
Rather than let the fifteen minutes they could find languish in a vault, Raymond Chow asked Robert Clouse, the director of ENTER THE DRAGON to build a film around the surviving sequences and add new scenes shot with stand-ins and American actors. Essentially this would be two movies stitched together under the title of GAME OF DEATH and whose clumsy needlework is all too evident.
In this article, I’ll be discussing the welcome return of the more complete re-edited 40 minutes of Bruce Lee sequences unearthed years later (as they were meant to be seen according to Bruce’s notes) and also the travesty that is the terrible imposter GAME OF DEATH constructed around it.
This new plot has the Bruce replacement character ‘Billy Lo’ unsuccessfully threatened by an American underworld ring after he becomes a renowned martial artist. A contract is put out on him which fails; in an unintentionally awful foreshadowing of Bruce’s son Brandon’s death, it is a shooting on the set of his next film (albeit a horrific accident in Brandon’s case). Billy survives, needing plastic surgery, and uses the opportunity to revenge himself by taking out each of the mobster Dr Land’s henchmen sequentially, incorporating the found real Bruce footage, but within the levels of a restaurant rather than a pagoda.
On the small mercies side, John Barry’s theme tune is superb; a grand stirring Hollywood action movie instrumental coupled with cinematic opening titles reminiscent of a Bond film. It promises much – but almost immediately we are treated with sheer disrespect when the film starts. A cash-in montage from the famous Coliseum battle with Chuck Norris in WAY OF THE DRAGON is intercut with a crew supposedly shooting it. Worse still is that at one point the footage is speeded up, an optical trick which Bruce prided himself on never allowing or needing when he was alive. The insults to his memory then come thick and fast. A light falls on the set almost hurting a ‘replacement’ actor (called Billy here), with a dreadful use of an unmatched WAY close-up of Bruce clearly looking up into the sky at the Coliseum cut with the stand-in who is in a roofed studio. This non-double who clearly doesn’t resemble Bruce is then blackmailed by Hugh O’Brian in his dressing room. To avoid the obvious physical deficit, his reactions are taken from Bruce’s impatient close-ups at the beginning of WAY, with an added line where the film-makers have superimposed a towel around another real Bruce close-up. If that isn’t bad enough, there’s even a mirror close-up with an unbelievably poor Bruce head image superimposed like a hasty post-it note over the actor’s face. “Ohh you shouldn’ta done that” grin O’Brian after Billy lamps him for his threats. You’re telling us.
The film is full of horrendously bad paperings-over. Clouse tries to bolster his chances with quality western actors like Dean Jagger, Gig Young, the glamorous Colleen Camp and genre villain Mel Novak, links to Bruce’s movie past like martial arts star Bob Wall as Carl ‘Killer’ Miller, Dan Inosanto and adding a quick insert with a non-lookalike of Kareem Abdul Jabbar to lead into his celebrated fight with the real Bruce later on.
One of the doubles was future star Yuen Biao, the monotone dubbing by Chris Kent and yet whether in fight or dialogue scenes the difference between them and the real Mr Lee is excruciating, hence the cunning use of shades to obscure his face wherever possible.
It’s painful to see Gig Young drift through the movie as well. This was his last film role as alcoholism fatally ruined him and in his scenes he is on a woefully sad, drawled but genial auto-pilot – possibly the only way to endure the utter exploitation.
The gruesome raiding of Bruce’s past glories continues as the covert assassination attempt tries to piggy-back on the striking freeze-frame ending of FIST OF FURY. As Bruce jumps immortally toward the camera, the iconic image is ruined as Stick (Mel Novak) shoots him down onto an abysmally mortal mattress landing. Equally, the grave-robbing is almost literal as actual shots of Bruce’s funeral casket from his procession are used in the staged funeral to fool the mobsters.
There are sporadic improvements in fortune; a fight scene at Dr Land’s compound where the fight co-ordination of future Hong Kong martial arts star Sammo Hung is in evidence and the attack by the stand-in has some bite and vigour to it. (The portly but athletic Sammo also fights Bob Wall in a competitive bout scene just after). Billy then dispatches Wall in a locker room battle which despite some bravura moves is spoilt somewhat by Wall’s expressions of disbelief (understandable), the trainer who hilariously calls from outside “Hey, something’s wrong”, and the clumsy inserts of Bruce for attempted veracity. A warehouse fight versus motorcycle thugs allows a few slow-mo stunts and connects the stand-ins to the pagoda sequences by having Billy wear the famous yellow and black striped track-suit – later homaged most famously by Uma Thurman in KiILL BILL.
After a rain-sodden drubbing of villain Stick, Billy is then given the location of Red Pepper’s restaurant and this climax is where Clouse shoe-horns eleven minutes and seven seconds of Bruce’s real filmed scenes,
At this point, I’d rather switch to the more fulsome compilation which is as Bruce had intended the scenes to be shown from the twelve pages of notes found in the late 1990s. These are to be found in the superb 40 minute ’GAME OF DEATH Re-visited’ featurette in Hong Kong Legends’ 1999 Platinum DVD Edition (and also discussed in the documentary BRUCE LEE: THE WARRIOR’S JOURNEY’). Hong Kong Legends did a superb job of restoring the scenes, taking the time to add quality music scoring and diligent voice dubbing where Bruce’s dialogue in particular is given special care to match his extended vowel sounds.
The scenes were meant have philosophical meaning as well as action enjoyment. Bruce’s character Hai Tien was to ascend five levels of a Korean pagoda Palsang-jon (the only intact wooden pagoda in South Korea) flanked by James Tien and Chieh Yuan (and others uncas) who were excised from Clouse’s cash-in. Each level is guarded by a fighter using a different style. As he achieves each victory, he is learning to adapt to other styles and remain fluid - as Bruce would exemplify in real life.
The bottom level was to guarded by Whong In Sik, a master of a kicking style who had worked with Bruce on WAY OF THE DRAGON (unfilmed)
The second level was to be protected by Taky Kimura, Bruce’s most senior student in real life. He would be protraying a practioner of Gong-fu and elements of Wing Chun, both utilising mainly hands with kicks limited to below waist-level.
Level three (also filmed) was the Filipino Eskrima style and Kenpo Karate technique of Bruce protégé Dan Inosanto.
The fourth level (filmed) was Korean Ji Han Jae, a grand master seventh degree black belt in Hapkido.
The highest level is the Temple of the Unknown, protected enticingly by a fighter of an unknown technique. This is the statuesque Kareem Abdul Jabbar who uses a free-flowing style echoing Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. This was the first sequence shot and in its improvisation is meant to symbolise the pinnacle of martial arts knowledge.
What sequences we have surviving begin with Level Three. It’s a battle with Inosanto in which Lee’s slightly comedic frends are side-lined. Bruce begins by brandishing a bamboo stick to symbolise the flexibility of the truly enlightened warrior. The two fighters then have at each other in a whirlwind display of hyper-kinetic nunchaku skills much faster than Bruce’s previous uses of the instruments. He enjoys playful banter with his opponent before strangling Inosanto with a nunchaku chain.
Next up, Level Four is represented with Bruce still holding his yellow nunchaku set. Ji Han Jae urges them to drop their weapons as unnecessary here. Bruce discards his while both his buddies are easily beaten by Jae. He then steps in while one of his friends heads up unwisely alone and is promptly thrown down the stairs. The other, Thien, attacks Jae a second time but merely gives Bruce a minute’s rest. Once he is dispatched, he leaves Bruce to finish with Jae whilst he goes upstairs and is easily drubbed by the daunting seven foot two Jabbar at Level Four.
Bruce breaks Jae’s back over his knee and ascends to meet Jabbar himself. It’s a superb conflict of physical opposites and the combat has fun with their absurd contrasts in height and reach in liberal use of wide shots and an extensive running time to match the elongated limbs . Kareem’s passivity behind shades initially gives nothing away yet one of the huge differences between this complete footage and its former use is that here Kareem speaks a little (albeit dubbed), which is startling to hear if you’ve not seen this before. As Bruce breaks a window for air, we suddenly see his opponent’s Achilles heel: an over-sensitivity to light and bizarre supernatural cat’s eyes. The rest of the fight is then more evenly-balanced. Our hero’s sympathy appeals to Kareem to let him pass but when this meets prideful rejection, he is forced to strangle the giant and wearily descend in search of his friends…
It’s unfortunate that in the 1970s feature-length documentary releases in the cinema were not common, otherwise these scenes could have been respectfully mounted in a handsome tribute film rather than the tawdry cheapjack movie offering of GAME OF DEATH. However, at least we have some of Bruce’s tantalising work from his unfinished project to view on its own merits…