"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Game of Death

tn_gameofdeathbruceleeiconMan, I hadn’t seen GAME OF DEATH in a long time. I forgot it was this ridiculous. It’s known for the yellow jumpsuit (homaged in BERRY GORDY’S THE LAST DRAGON, SHAOLIN SOCCER, KILL BILL VOLUME 1, etc.) and his fight against Kareem Abdul Jabbar while wearing it. But that’s only 11 minutes at the end, taken from the unfinished movie Bruce started directing before he took the opportunity to star in ENTER THE DRAGON. The other 90% is a bunch of filler bullshit trying to stretch those scenes out to feature length, with an entirely different plot that sleazily exploits the mystery surrounding Lee’s death.

But you know what, some of Lee’s friends and students are in it, so they must’ve approved. For example, Chuck Norris. Oh wait, that’s just clips from WAY OF THE DRAGON. Well, what about Kareem Abdul Jabbar? Oh wait, that’s some other tall black dude in sunglasses, because Kareem didn’t want to take part in the new scenes.

mp_gameofdeathWell, they did get some of the ENTER THE DRAGON crew on board. They got director Robert Clouse and co-stars Bob Wall (as champion Carl “Killer” Miller) and Sammo Hung (as one of Miller’s opponents – the only real solid non-Bruce fight in the movie). Also there’s a real fancy credits sequence and cool theme song by John Barry, so you know it’s legit.

But just to be safe they also filled the cast with famous American actors in useless bit parts as villains and shit. They got two Oscar winners in there, Dean Jagger and Gig Young. It was a posthumous release for Gig Young too, because he committed suicide before it was released. I don’t know if there was a better more philosophical version of his scenes that got cut out and will be revealed in a separate documentary, like what happened with Bruce’s scenes. But at least they don’t have a guy wearing sunglasses pretending to be Gig Young.

The main character is Billy Lo, a famous martial arts star seen filming Bruce Lee’s movies (specifically the endings of WAY OF THE DRAGON and FIST OF FURY). But so-called accidents on set (including a gunshot that will forever be linked to poor Brandon Lee’s real life accident) keep almost killing him. Some sleazy businessmen/criminals are trying to get a cut of his earnings, but he refuses to sign the contract, so they’re going after him and his famous singer girlfriend. He fakes his death (with a dummy in the coffin) then re-emerges to have a series of great Bruce Lee fights against the henchmen, then the fat cats. It’s funny to see him chasing after an old guy who looks about 80. It might be embarrassing if they actually dueled, even if it’s switched back to fake Bruce Lee by this point. So it’s for the best that the old man doesn’t have to put ’em up. He just has a spectacular plummet down the side of a building, bouncing off all kinds of neon lights.

Clouse couldn’t use digital face replacement like in THE CROW, and Johnny Depp/Jude Law/Colin Farrell were too young to take over at that point. So he chose the PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE method of replacing a deceased actor: use a guy who looks kind of like him when he has something covering most of his face.

For most of the movie Billy Lo is played by Tai Chung Kim, who later played Lee’s ghost in NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER. But alot of the stunts are apparently done by Jackie Chan’s buddy Yuen Biao. I would be happy to accept this lookalike in sunglasses as Billy Lo since I know what happened to Bruce. It could be like that Bunuel movie where two different women play the same character. But instead the filmatists keep insulting my intelligence with pathetic tricks they seem to think I might fall for, for example cutting to closeups of Lee’s face from other movies. It never matches up, and the film quality is totally different. Then he’ll walk onto a movie set and they’ll use clips from that movie. A great way to get Chuck Noriss’s name in the credits.

The most tasteless part is when Billy fakes his death and they have a bunch of actual footage of Bruce’s real coffin being paraded through Hong Kong. They didn’t have enough footage of him alive so they used some of him dead!

And it keeps getting funnier the more excuses they come up with to not show his face clearly. I couldn’t believe it when they actually had him get shot in the face and have to wrap his whole head in bandages. I was disappointed that there were no Halloween, masquerade ball, lucha libre or bondage convention sequences. But at least there’s a part where he looks in the mirror and a picture of the real Bruce’s face is taped over his reflection. That’s some funny shit.

I mean, before he puts on the fake beard they have him draw sunglasses and a beard on a photo of the real Bruce Lee. And you have to wonder if anybody involved in this really had faith in that psychology there. They really thought drawing a beard on a photo of Bruce Lee and then putting a fake beard on a guy who’s not Bruce Lee would create an optical illusion. And also they thought a guy would want to sketch out his plan for wearing a fake beard before trying it out. Must be a boy scout.

The plot is pretty dumb, and how are we supposed to become attached to a character that they’re constantly trying to hide from us? The fights are choreographed by Hung and there are some motorcycle crashes and shit, but they’re clearly not up to the Lee standard. The moves aren’t as impressive, the fights don’t have the same kind of attention to visual storytelling, and alot of Bruce Lee’s power is in his facial expressions – his crazed eyes, his cockiness, his anger – so this back-of-the-head business is no substitute.

About the only good character moment for the non-Bruce Billy Lo is when his girlfriend, thinking he’s dead, pulls a gun out of her purse at the big fight to assassinate the culprit. Suddenly Billy appears behind her in old man makeup and tells her not to worry, it’s being taken care of. I always enjoy a guy faking his death and then sneaking around looking after his girl, especially if he’s wearing old man makeup as a disguise.

When the real honest-to-God Bruce Lee finally shows up late in the movie it’s a total transformation. Suddenly the character not only looks different but has so much more personality in his expressions and movements. And his shoes morph from Adidas to Onitsuka Tigers. At last the fights are Bruce Lee fights – each one a little story. It’s like a real movie just punched its way out of the stomach of the bullshit one it had been swallowed by.

He fights a couple guys, but the best of course is the Kareem fight. Bruce walks in the room and this motherfucker is standing there, a couple feet taller than him, wearing shades. He looks like a giraffe wearing shorts. Bruce looks at Kareem like “Oh shit” but then Kareem sits down in a chair, and you sense a bit of relief. Like oh good, he’s gonna give me a chance at least. Bruce runs and tries to kick the giant but from his casual position Kareem extends his giant leg and sends Bruce flying with a giant footprint across his chest (the Size 16 Mark of Shame).

This fight is like an ant taking on a beetle. He has to be tenacious. He has to break this guy down, hurt him in different spots, until he gets him on the ground, then goes in for the kill.

These fights were Bruce’s showcase for Jeet Kun Do, and they seem to predict (or inspire) the combined styles of today’s “mixed martial arts.” In particular he’s using alot of wrestling moves – leg takedowns, throws, a backbreaker over his knee, grappling on the floor, and he even defeats Kareem by choking him out.

GAME OF DEATH is pretty much an abomination. They took the best, most personal thing Bruce Lee ever did and turned it into one of the most crass posthumous exploitations of all time. But he was so powerful he survived it even in death. His 11 minutes were so good that they kicked the ass of the rest of the movie and took charge. Those are the parts that survive in people’s memories, that come to mind when they hear the title, that force me to “follow” Kareem on “Twitter” even though I really have no interest in his Lakers updates.

Yeah, it’s an abomination, and a terrible, exploitative classic.


[x] Large sunglasses
[x] Fake beard
[  ] Newspaper
[x] Shroud of darkness
[  ] William Shatner mask painted white with eyeholes enlarged and sideburns trimmed
[x] Bandages from bullet wound to face
[x] Motorcycle helmet with visor down
[  ] Humpty nose
[x] Old man makeup
[x] Cardboard cutout of Bruce Lee’s face

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 at 3:31 am and is filed under Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

39 Responses to “Game of Death”

  1. Has anyone seen the restored version that includes lots of previously unreleased footage of the great man? Might make an interesting comparison piece Vern…


  2. I’ve seen the “restored” version as part of a biography made by some cable channel on the anniversary of Bruce Lee’s something or other (birth, death, etc.) I had it taped for a while, but I don’t know what happened to it. The bio climaxed with the restored tower climb sequence, which Bruce apparently shot first; almost all that sequence is intact, and looks amazing. (The link Chase gave is not to this biography, the name of which I HAVE TOTALLY FORGOTTEN AND WILL SIMPLY NOT COME BACK TO ME DESPITE ME GIVING IT EVERY OPPORTUNITY BY WRITING OUT A NEEDLESSLY LONG COMMENT TO JOG MY MEMORY AAAAAAAAAAGGHHHHHH!)

  3. MEANWHI—sorry, all caps still on. {ahem}

    Meanwhile: so are we going to have a series of reviews based on movies “of Death”? {g}

  4. Success! I AM INVINCIBLE!!!

    It’s called “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey”; available used at Amazon. Features 30 minutes of reconstructed “Game of Death” (instead of the 11 minutes found in the ‘official’ release).

  5. Heh. I took the opportunity to upgrade my old (and lost) VHS taped copy while I was at it. {ggg!}

  6. One of the DVD editions of “Enter the Dragon” has the missing Game of Death footage as a special feature. There’s tons of little transition moves and other neat shots that I’m surprised were taken out of the final product – you would have figured they’d use as much footage as they could!

  7. Jackie Chan does a good homage to the Kareem fight in City Hunter, where he’s fighting two giant dudes in a movie theater showing Game of Death. The Kareem fight is on-screen, the two fights kind of mirroring each other, and Jackie eventually adopts the same strategy that Bruce uses.

  8. Jareth Cutestory

    May 25th, 2010 at 6:47 am

    Now it makes sense why Vern was following the story about Meagan Fox leaving TRANSFORMERS: he was anticipating the various strategies Bay might employ to disguise her absence, like a fake beard. Or Dick Sargent.

  9. Damn , I’ve seen this one years ago , and I said to myself : “I will never , ever watch this insult of a movie again in my life ” . I mean , they show his body in this abomination ! Remember a while back when there was that controversy in Three Kings for using a real corpse ? Well that turned out to be false , but this thing actually did it for real ! And again , they used footage of his funeral for Game of Death 2! That’s unacceptable.

    Now , just to piss me off , there’s a new verion with even more original footage ( That’s like : Game of Death : Now with even more Bruce Lee ! Like 30% more !) and I sure as hell want to see it , but I sure as hell will be pissed off by the rest of the bullshit . I know I will eventually see the restored scenes in this more faithful restored version , only because it’s more of the real deal . After all even a few minutes of Bruce Lee in the original spawned great action scenes and iconic imagery referenced by many .

  10. By the way , if you want to see a little companion piece to this Vern review , I recommend James Rolfe’s little video about Game of Death at Cinemassacre.com . It’s under the “movie reviews” section , and it’s very entertaining , focusing on some of the points made by Vern , the sequel and Bruce Lee imitators.

  11. Oh , and another thing……

    THINGS USED TO OBSCURE BILLY LO’S FACE CHECKLIST ( If Game of Death Was filmed today or re-restored) : FAT SUIT .

    You know it’s true.

  12. Credit where credit is due: The motorcycle scene is pretty cool.

  13. Oh, and Vern, now you should review a few of the better Brucesploitation flicks. I recommend CHALLENGE OF THE TIGER, starring Bruce Le (or as the French call him, Bruce The). It’s about a nefarious plot to destroy the world’s sperm, and it opens with four minutes of slow-mo topless tennis. The movie also comes on the same disc as Weng Weng’s masterpiece, FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY, so hint hint…

  14. Kermit: If they remade it now they’d just make Bruce a Na’avi and be done with it.

  15. Mr. Majestyk : That’s…somehow , even more insulting than the fat suit. And they even did something similar with Brando in the last Superman . Really , I think we’re not very far from a new movie with a completely CGI Bruce Lee .

    And ,yes please , I too want to read some Brucesploitation reviews from Vern .

  16. Ver needs to review CLONES of Bruce Lee, with Bruce Le, Bruce Lai and Dragon Lee….

  17. Kermit,

    If you meant “A Warrior’s Journey”, it’s more like 173% more Bruce. And it’s a real biography, very respectful, not a film that uses footage from GoD for its own story. Much of the point of its release was built around the restoration of this footage, and so the biography builds up to it while discussing Lee’s other films (and aspects of his life and philosophy, including a discussion of why he designed the Tower and its challenges) along the way.

    Also, if I recall correctly, the extra footage is mostly centered on the Tower. Four fights are shown in their entirety (with transitions between matches more-or-less intact), plus portions of the first fight in the Tower. (It’s been several years since I’ve seen it.) That was by far the most important sequence, so naturally he shot it first.

  18. Btw, I don’t know what other GoD versions show, but there are at least two or three other guys trying to go up the Tower, and the restored sequence in “A Warrior’s Journey” shows them trying and failing against various fighters.

    In that sense, it may not be just more Bruce Lee. But in another way it is, because it’s still his choreography, direction, story/fight design, etc.

    Anyway, Vern should certainly review and compare!

  19. Sabreman : No , I wasn’t talking about a particular version of Game of Death , I just know that there’s more than one version of the movie , with added footage . It’s been years since I last saw the original version ( I don’t have any Bruce Lee DVD , only old VHS copies ), and by reading your comment , it seems that this “A Warrior’s Journey” is the way to go. So let me get this straight : it’s a documentary about Bruce Lee , Game of Death and his movies , with all the footage from GoD and without all the bullshit ? Because that sounds like the best way to watch Game of Death. Thanks , man , I really think that I will track it down !

  20. The shameless use of an already dead actionstar, to draw a few bucks out of the pocket of some poor nerdy fanboy, who watches those Martial Art – Flicks religiously, to get his daily fix of self esteem?
    This calls desperately for a Screenplay by a guy like Charlie Kaufman, with touches of mid-eighties DePalma (Body Double anyone?), spliced with the absurd feel for farce of an Altman (Nashville, The Player).
    Man, I would definitely watch that Movie, even if it would tank like “The Last Action Movie” at the Boxoffice.

  21. Corretion:
    …even if it would tank like “The Last Action Hero” at the Boxoffice.

  22. Correction:

    …even if it would tank like “The Last Action Hero” at the Boxoffice.

  23. Oh and , by the way , the Italian title of Game of Death is “L’ultimo combattimento di Chen” , translated as “Chen’s last fight” . Yes he’s called Chen in the title to cash in on the Italian title of Way of the Dragon , so it’s even more of a shameless cash in. Shame !

  24. I saw this when I was extremely young and easily impressed, rather than the jaded old cynic that I’ve become, and enjoyed it. I’d have to watch it again at some point though to see just how badly it measures up. Even at the time I first saw it I remember the contrast between the “real” funeral bits and the fake ones. It’ll be somewhere on my list of “movies to watch”.

    (Watched “Open Water” earlier on, by the way, and enjoyed the hell out of it. One more recent “original” horror film I’ve been looking forward to that’s met my expectations admirably.)

  25. Kermit,

    Yep!–or so I recall. (My newly purchased DVD upgrade hasn’t arrived yet, and I haven’t read Vern’s review which OMG HE JUST POSTED UP!!! So my memory may be faulty. We’ll see… hoping…. hoping…..)

  26. …yay! My memory wasn’t lying!

    Vern agrees, this is by far the best way to appreciate Game of Death.

    (Or rather, get the latest 2-disc version of Enter the Dragon, with this as the bonus disc, if you happen not to have a good DVD copy of EtD yet. It’s been Blu’d, but from what I’ve read the transfer was inept and the DVD actually looks better. Warrior’s Journey is available separately, too, on a good DVD, if you’ve already got a good version of EtD and its associated docs.)

  27. I should also note that there’s at least one version of Game of Death floating around with the full restored footage (part of a Lee collection). But why get that and have to suffer through the movie when you can watch a good documentary instead?

  28. Onitsuka Tigers! Thanks, Vern. I never noticed that before. I love Onitsuka Tigers. I have about 10 different pairs in various colors. I’m wearing some now. I always knew they were the shit, but now that I know Bruce wore ’em… well, damn!


    I watched this last night. The review is hilarious. The film not so much. Is it even worth watching GAME OF DEATH II? It came in the box set but it sounds even more tasteless than its predecessor.

  30. Hey folks, I’m ashamed to say I don’t know shit about Bruce Lee outside ENTER THE DRAGON, but it seems like everyone agrees that GAME OF DEATH is pretty much a completely different story than Bruce originally imagined. My question is: why? Wasn’t there already a script which they could have used with some minimal changes? If there was, what the fuck were they thinking not using it? Or is it mostly Bruce’s original script but executed shoddily? And if the second, why remove any footage at all?

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    Game of Death « The Life and Art of Vern

  32. Paul Whose Computer Is No Longer Fried

    November 11th, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    So Vern said of this one, “In my experience most people don’t know GAME OF DEATH, which is a good thing.” And to be honest I can’t agree with him there. The bits that DO contain Bruce Lee also contain some of his best work. The nunchuk fight at the end is a classic. The fight with the American in the loft is a classic. The fight with Kareem Abdul Jabbar is frankly unforgettable.

    Look, I’ll go on the record as saying this: the bits that do work in GAME OF DEATH are better than anything in THE BIG BOSS. You don’t have to deal with Bruce being a “pacifist” for the first third of the movie, meaning that you spend a horrifically long time getting “character development” with characters who are, frankly, too damn stupid to live (seriously, fuck those guys.) You have actual memorable antagonists for Bruce to fight, instead of the generic thugs that Bruce mostly deals with in THE BIG BOSS. The main villain isn’t boring or miscast, unlike THE BIG BOSS. I’ll give TBB some great-looking fight scenes; after all it’s still Bruce. But you have to sit through all the rest of the shit to get to those, and man, is it a slog. To top things off, not only is the final antagonist in THE BIG BOSS completely unconvincing, but Lee’s final fight scene with him might be one of his least memorable fights ever. THE BIG BOSS is boring and frustrating in equal parts, and it’s only when Bruce gets to show off his skills (which is a disappointingly rare occurrence until the last act) that the movie really comes to life.

    And GAME OF DEATH has a story structure that makes sense without relying on all of the main characters to be complete morons. (I know the point of THE BIG BOSS is that the characters start out naive but gradually become more and more rebellious, but it just doesn’t work. Factory workers are disappearing, in circumstances that could only realistically point to the union-bashing boss as responsible, and yet the workers continue to not make anything of it until the finale, without even wilful ignorance as an excuse. Compare to WAY OF THE DRAGON, where everybody knows exactly who the enemy is but don’t have the skills to fight back; or to FIST OF FURY, where the villains are members of a racially-motivated tyrant regime where any kind of organised resistance is met with brutal force.)

    So is GAME OF DEATH an abomination or a bastardization? Unquestionably yes, to both, and I’m not defending what was done with it. It is far, far, far from being anywhere close to the quality of FIST OF FURY or the DRAGON movies. But even given that… I have a real problem with the idea that it’s a “good thing” that not many people have seen it, when it’s obvious that Bruce gave it his absolute all in the bits he was involved with. And again, there are some absolutely classic fight scenes in there. Even if you have to wait for them.

    Having said all of that though… even I flinch at the footage from Bruce’s actual funeral being used. Man, that was cold. Yeah, I have a hard time defending this one while thinking of moments like that.

  33. What I meant was people have seen clips of the Kareem fight but haven’t generally seen the whole movie. And that’s fine, because it’s a crass exploitation of his death and completely disrespectful of the movie he was trying to make. Have you watched the footage on WARRIOR’S JOURNEY, Paul? If not and you have ENTER THE DRAGON check, it’s an extra on some versions of that (also available separately). There you can see the full fights at least partially as intended, and they’re great.

  34. Paul Whose Computer Is No Longer Fried

    November 11th, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Don’t think I have, but I have a super-deluxe version of “Enter the Dragon” so I’ll take a look there. Thanks, Vern.

    And yeah, not disagreeing in any way about the disrespect (if that wasn’t obvious from my previous post). The funeral thing in particular gets my goat. It was just so obvious and so hammily done in the movie.

  35. So, what do you guys think of GAME OF DEATH 2? I find it a lot less offensive since there were hardly any new material that was contorted (some outtakes) and the action is terrific. It takes the cut-and-paste idiocy of GAME OF DEATH but made it more tolerable and in fact a helluva lot more fun. I love how the villain give anyone who challenges him a personal tour of the graveyard of his enemies to prove a point.
    The upside down tower is wonderfully silly and the pacing between the fights makes it quite an enjoyable schlockfest. I actually really love it.

    Paul- I agree with you on your complaints on THE BIG BOSS. It is at times a frustrating film to watch. It doesn´t hold up all that well.

  36. Paul Whose Computer Is No Longer Fried

    November 12th, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Shoot – I had no idea that anybody made a sequel to GAME OF DEATH (for reasons Vern has already articulated, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense that they would.) I’ll let you know if I ever find a copy of it, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d seek out.

  37. Paul- it is also known as TOWER OF DEATH. And it´s so delightfully silly and far more enjoyable than basically any Bruceploitation I ever saw because it never drags. Plenty of action, weirdass characters and situations ( Bruce Lee´s brother punches the fakest lion you´ve ever seen on film) Also the action are choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping which means the fights are superb. I would actually list GAME OF DEATH 2 as one of my favorite martial arts movies.


    Oh, and they kill off “Bruce Lee” or Billy Lo, and introduces his brother Bobby Lo, probably because they ran out of stock footage to re-use. Or they got tired of hiding “Bruce Lee”,and realized this isn´t gonna fly anyway with people. Everyone at this point pretty much knows this movie is bullshit.

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  39. Trash bag that it is, the music is great and they spent a few bucks to make it look nice and shiny. Kind of dug the garden fight too, with the guy who keeps getting kicked into the water (kind of like phone booth guy in Out For Justice), love that the old man is reduced to screaming for help midway in the movie, instead of being some kind of great fighter or cyborg.

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