Turn Back the Clock
Game of Death
Distributed by Golden Harvest
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
I remember seeing the trailer for Game of Death when I was a kid and thinking to myself, “How can this movie star Bruce Lee? I thought he died years ago!” I was intrigued but never saw the film until it appeared on television some time in the 1980s. I couldn’t wait to watch the movie as I had always thought Bruce Lee was an amazingly explosive fighter. Years later, I still love watching Game of Death over and over again, despite the fact that Bruce Lee died before ever completing the film.
The original plans for Game of Death were quite different from the movie that actually hit the theaters in 1978. Bruce Lee had begun filming Game of Death in the early 1970s, but put it on hold to film Enter the Dragon. By the time that movie was completed in 1973, Bruce Lee was dead. Possessing over a hundred minutes of footage, director Robert Clouse did what he had to do to finish the film, including using archived footage from previous films, two stand-ins and even a cardboard cutout. Unfortunately, he could no longer use the original storyline and so he decided to scrap most of it and start fresh.
Game of Death as it was presented in theaters in 1978 featured Bruce Lee as Billy Lo, a successful martial arts movie actor. His girlfriend is Ann Morris (Colleen Camp), a singer in the midst of recording her latest album. When Billy finds himself being sought after relentlessly by a racketeering syndicate run by Dr. Land (Dean Jagger), his life and the life of his girlfriend are in danger, especially after his repeated refusals to join up lead to an attempt on his life during the filming of his latest movie.
Realizing that he can never get away from the syndicate by ignoring them or running, Billy decides to let the world believe he was actually killed in the assassination attempt. Now, traveling in disguise, he can not only take down this criminal underground syndicate, but exact a little revenge to boot.
Now, while Game of Death is one hundred minutes in length and the director had one hundred minutes of footage, the necessity of changing the plot required a great deal of the original footage to be cut. Colleen Camp was brought in after Bruce’s death and therefore, scenes featuring Billy Lo with Ann were filmed with Billy in shadow and a double (either Kim Tai-Jong or Yuen Biao) taking Bruce Lee’s place. While the shadow could often hide the fact that it wasn’t actually Bruce, real fans could tell the difference. That is why the attempt on Billy’s life in the movie becomes so important. The director can then use the excuse of the need for plastic surgery as the reason that the Billy in later stages of the film doesn’t really look like the Billy in earlier stages and later fight scenes.
The acting pretty much sucks in this film. The lines are delivered in a choppy manner, which isn’t unusual for a martial arts film from that era, but you get the distinct impression that the actors simply don’t believe in the lines they are jauntily spewing. The only time that people seem to be actually delivering lines with feeling is when they are cursing.
The storyline is believable, especially the footage of Billy Lo’s funeral - they used actual footage from the funeral of Bruce Lee as fill-in - but the dialogue tends to ruin things story wise. That’s why, when watching Game of Death, I tend to focus more on the fight scenes, especially the ones that take place in the upper floors of the Red Pepper Restaurant. Here, the original idea of fight scenes taking place level by level inside a pagoda is used, featuring much of the original footage shot with Bruce Lee. I loved watching Lee and his explosive fury while fighting Danny Inosanto, Ji Han Jei and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I loved Lee’s use of weaponry with Inosanto, his speed and precision with Ji Han Jei and his ability to best a much larger opponent in Abdul-Jabbar. There are moments when you can tell that a double is filling in for Bruce in fight scenes that weren’t previously filmed or had to be filmed without some of the original actors, but for the most part, this is Bruce Lee at his finest.
While not his best film, Game of Death goes a long way towards showing off Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, his very own creation - a fighting style that uses no specific technique, but flows smoothly, using the least movement for maximum effect. Lee’s explosive fighting style and his minimal movements, performed at extreme speed to exact the most pain from his opponents is what makes him one of the most popular fighters to date, long after his death. Game of Death is also the film where Bruce wears that trademark yellow and black track suit that has become ever so popular in video games and other films ever since.
Yes, the acting is horrendous and the dialogue is stilted, but the action in Game of Death is enough for me to keep watching this film over and over again. It’s a classic martial arts film that no fan of the genre should ever miss out on.