If you were a fan of martial arts fare in the ’70s, “Brucesploitation” was the bane of your existence. After Bruce Lee died too young on the eve of his international breakthrough with 1973’s Enter The Dragon, profit-minded distributors began producing and renaming/redubbing films to cash in on the public’s interest in Bruce Lee. Thus, the Asian action film market was soon flooded with films starring men with fanciful names like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, Bronson Lee, Dragon Lee, etc. Respecting Lee’s passing was not a concern – one memorable Brucesploitation outing was titled Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave.
Another part of Brucesploitation was cashing in on any scraps of footage with Lee that had not yet been commercially exploited. Green Hornet episodes were recut into feature form to highlight Lee’s role as Kato, footage from his childhood work in Chinese cinema was crammed into hastily conceived pseudo-documentaries, etc. That said, the worst, most shameless example of this archive-raiding Brucesploitation – and in fact, the sleaziest example of Brucesploitation, bar none – was Game Of Death.
Game Of Death was spawned because producer Raymond Chow, distributor of Lee’s early martial arts films, had the last footage that Lee shot and starred in for an uncompleted action opus. He handed it off to Robert Clouse, director of Enter The Dragon, to turn into a sellable final Bruce Lee opus. Clouse dreamt up a wraparound story about one Billy Lo, an action star being pressured by a syndicate run by Dr. Land (Dean Jagger).
After he refuses threats/offers from the Doctor’s associate, Steiner (Hugh O’Brian), the Doctor has Billy shot in an on-set “accident.” Billy survives the attempt and goes into hiding while his girlfriend Ann (Colleen Camp) grieves. Once he has recovered, Billy goes into action and begins stalking the Doctor and his crew – a process that winds its way back to a three-part fight scene that Lee conceived, shot and starred in. Taken on its own, said fight is pretty impressive, showing off Lee’s development as both director and choreographer.
Unfortunately, the film that surrounds that fight sequence is as tacky as it is ill-conceived. Clouse’s script – penned under the pseudonym Jan Rubes – is a mess. The plotting is vague as it stumbles from one hastily-conceived setpiece to the next and the characterizations are a string of dull-as-dishwater clichés (the noble loner, the greedy crime boss, the long-suffering girlfriend, etc.). It feels hastily and carelessly conceived.
The filmmaking is worse than the script. Clouse tries to make up for the absence of Lee with unconvincing doubles (mainly Kim Tai Jong with Yuen Biao in some action scenes) but the doubles look nothing like Lee. Clouse seems embarrassed by this because he intermittently places the doubles in shadows, thus only calling greater attention to their inauthentic nature. The final nail in the coffin is some really amateurish deployment of clips of Lee from his other films for reaction shots, sometimes with a bit of hasty dubbing to retrofit them into the new story. The clips never match and are always obvious, particularly when a still image of Lee’s head is superimposed over a double in one scene. This process reaches its nadir when footage of Lee’s real funeral is used for the character’s faux-funeral.
Clouse is similarly slapdash in how he uses the rest of his cast. O’Brian and Jagger agreeably ham it up like t.v. movie villains but Kim Tai Jong’s performance is embarrassingly stilted. Gig Young fares the worst in a throwaway role as a helpful reporter: he looks embarrassed and visibly drunk as he slurs his way through poorly-written dialogue here (sadly, this was his final role before he ended his life in a bizarre murder-suicide).
Even the action is of variable quality. The choreography by Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao is decent but filmed in an indifferent way by Clouse. The only time the director snaps to life action-wise comes during a scene in the finale in which Billy has take on a group of motorcycle-riding thugs in a warehouse. It’s the only scene in the film that looks like it was directed by the same man who made Enter The Dragon.
In short, Game Of Death is the worst of all the Brucesploitation cash-ins because it takes Lee’s final work as director and martial artist and uses it as the springboard for something as seedy and shameless as all the fake-Bruce cash-ins. If you must watch it, skip to last twenty minutes, look for Lee’s final fight sequences and turn it off after they’re done. Rest assured you won’t miss anything important if you do.
DVD Notes: this title was recently reissued by Shout! Factory on a two-for-one DVD with Way Of The Dragon. The transfer was supplied by Fortune Star so it isn’t too different from previous 2006 Fox discs that used Fortune Star-supplied transfers. The anamorphic image is a little pale in terms of color but looks decent overall. Both 2.0 and 5.1 stereo mixes are provided for the film: the 5.1 sounds the better of the two. There are no extras.