The Game of Death [死亡遊戲] (1978)

Starring Tong Lung, Bruce Lee, Gig Young, Dean Jagger, Colleen Camp, Hugh O’Brian, Mel Novak, Roy Chiao, Robert Wall, Dan Inosanto, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Billy McGill, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Casanova Wong, Ji Han-Jae, James Tin Chuen

Directed by Robert Clouse

Expectations: Not much.

The Game of Death is a tricky film to review, but I’m sure it won’t be nearly as painful as actually watching the movie. The actual Bruce Lee footage is as great as it ever was, but everything that leads up to it is pretty sub-standard. The Robert Clouse-directed stuff is most of the movie, too — only 10 minutes or so are from Bruce Lee’s shoot — and there’s just no way around the fact that it’s boring. Even with Sammo Hung choreographing the fights, and Yuen Biao doing a lot of acrobatic double work for “Bruce,” the fights are largely uninspired and average compared to the best the Hong Kong industry was producing in 1978. For instance, Sammo made the absolutely incredible Wing Chun movie Warriors Two later the same year, and the quality gap between these two films is about as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps the difference lies in Robert Clouse’s direction; there is certainly no palpable passion in any of his material. The shift in tone and quality is jarring when Bruce finally shows up in the final 10 minutes with every bit of charisma he ever had. Bruce Lee was always passionate about his martial philosophy, and he focused on presenting it through his films — particularly The Way of the Dragon and the unfinished Game of Death. Care could have been taken to preserve this spirit, and present a version of Game of Death that was as much a celebration of Bruce Lee as it was an attempt to salvage the unfinished footage. Instead, it was decided to ditch Bruce’s vision for a cliched and rather dumb plot that just sort of stumbles its way towards the electric Lee footage.

I have no problem with Bruceploitaion movies, many of which are fairly bad in general. What elevates the lower budget films over The Game of Death is that they feel much more creative in their usage of the Bruce Lee legacy. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed The Game of Death more if Bruce teamed up with Popeye to fight mummies, or three Bruce Lees took on an army of bronzemen. Without this beautiful imagination at the helm, we’re left with an average plot that leads to average fights and it isn’t nearly enough to keep the audience awake long enough to see the actual Bruce Lee footage. I definitely admire the “facial gunshot requiring bandages and reconstructive surgery + a beard” plot point, but it’s a small diamond thrown into a muddy pig pen.

Despite the film’s lack of quality, it was still a huge hit in Hong Kong, racking up numbers that placed it #4 at the year’s local box office. I know Bruce Lee is a legend, but it’s still a bit hard to imagine that a few minutes of footage would propel a film to that level of success. But consider a world before the legendary yellow tracksuit and the battle between Kareem and Bruce were a part of pop culture. You probably heard stories, maybe you saw a still in a magazine, but you’d never seen it in action. If it were me, I’d definitely go see The Game of Death to catch a glimpse of the fallen icon, no matter how bad the rest of the movie was. So considering this context, the film’s success isn’t all that surprising.

I’m usually of the mind that everyone should watch something on their own and make up their own mind about it, but in the case of Robert Clouse’s The Game of Death, I think everyone should save themselves the trouble. Just watch the actual Bruce Lee finale, and leave it at that. You’re not missing anything.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is Sun Chung’s The Proud Youth! See ya then (hopefully soon)!