As is true for James Dean, the legend of martial-arts superstar Bruce Lee revolves around a surprisingly small body of work. In fact, Lee starred in only one English-language feature, Enter the Dragon (1973), the release of which he did not live to see. Left unfinished in the wake of Lee’s death were various projects including Game of Death, an allegorical action film whose production was suspended when Lee got the chance to make Enter the Dragon. Several years after Lee’s death, however, Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse was hired to build a film around the extant Game of Death footage. Game of Death is as exploitive, ghoulish, and tacky as most attempts to collateralize the public’s affection for a dead actor—here’s looking at you, The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982)—but Game of Death still has significance for Lee fans. For a good 10 minutes during the climax, when the real Lee is visible kicking and punching his way through a trio of fight scenarios, Game of Death becomes a “lost” film rediscovered. Unfortunately, everything else about Game of Death is highly problematic.
After sneakily opening the movie by repurposing a famous screen fight between Lee and Chuck Norris (from 1973’s Return of the Dragon), Clouse employs stand-ins, occasionally punctuated by shots of the real Lee from Enter the Dragon outtakes, to simulate the star’s appearance. This technique doesn’t work, especially when chintzy optical effects are utilized to, say, superimpose a towel around Lee’s shoulders. By the end of the movie, Clouse blatantly cuts back and forth between vintage Lee footage and new shots of stand-ins, with the stand-ins’ faces plainly visible. It’s all quite insulting and ridiculous—adjectives that could just as easily be applied to the plot, about a movie star (Lee) who fakes his death so he can seek revenge against a mobster. In extensive English-language scenes, indifferent American actors Dean Jagger, Hugh O’Brian, and Gig Young deliver boring exposition while earnest American starlet Colleen Camp tries to fabricate a relationship with a phantom costar. The middle of the movie, in which the Americans and the stand-ins carry the plot almost completely, is borderline interminable. On the plus side, the folks behind Game of Death spent lavishly on post-production, commissioning a 007-style opening-credits sequence and hiring top-shelf composer John Barry (deepening the 007 association) to give the picture a fuller musical voice than it actually deserves.
The best material in Game of Death doesn’t arrive until the finale, when Lee slips on a yellow tracksuit (later referenced in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies) to square off against opponents including a giant temple guard played by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabar. The sight of comparatively tiny Lee battling the towering Jabar is hard to shake, as is, of course, the sheer charisma and elegance that Lee exudes whenever he’s onscreen. Lee is so commanding, in fact, that one wishes his Hollywood swan song was more fitting than this hack job. The makers of Game of Death trample so clumsily over Lee’s dignity that they even include a shot of the real Lee’s corpse, which was displayed publicly during a wake in Hong Kong.
Game of Death: LAME