Usually it takes a lot for me to excuse a film for not being good, either it has to have an endearing quality about it so much so that I can look past its general awful nature and see the heart of a director and cast attempting with all earnest to pull something off, but failing in the end. I am also willing to let a film slide a bit if it is the first of its kind to undertake a narrative, or in other cases revive a genre through a considerable revision, a prime example of this being the far from perfect The Blair Witch Project, that, nonetheless, garners unquestioned praise on my part for its reinvigoration of a then flailing horror industry. The third situation where I am able to provide some leeway to a film is when tragedy results in a severe change to the production, but a product still manages to emerge. A prime example of this being The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, which met tragedy when its star Heath Ledger died mid-shoot, fortunately, a set of well-respected actors stepped in an made it a viable and decidedly watchable work. It is this third scenario where a film like The Game of Death fits, because its star, the master of martial arts, Bruce Lee died from a traumatic head injury and was never able to complete the film, as such what exists is a series of fight sequences including the late star and a film centering around revenge by a martial arts movie star for attempts at his death. I mention that I find myself quite forgiving of this film, because so much of the first hour and fifteen minutes clearly reflects a sporadic and wild attempt at salvaging something worth delivering to audiences, but in its frantic execution it often comes off as dull or completely fabricated, never delivering the instant accessibility like Enter the Dragon. It does not help that the replacement actors are clearly not Bruce Lee, nor does the awful dubbing lend to engaging cinema, often dropping lines completely or becoming so mumbled as to be inaudible. However, those are the parts that do not contain the late Lee. His portion of the film, the last twenty minutes are probably some of the best in all the genre, whether it be his fighting Kareem-Abdul Jabbar or chasing an old man on the rooftops of Hong Kong, it is indicative of action cinema at its finest, indeed, if Game of Death were just this as a short film, I would not be surprised if it were not considered to be one of the highlights of the genre, while also contending fairly well as one of the great short films of all time. Unfortunately, what exists as Game of Death is a tacked on story that drags on, ultimately leaving viewers a bit unenthusiastic by the time real action does emerge on the screen.
The Game of Death clearly evokes the Bond espionage style right from the opening credits which include music by John Barry and credits design that could easily have been the product of Maurice Binder. Nonetheless, the film begins by focusing on Billy Lou (Bruce Lee, Kim Tai-Jong, Yuen Biao) a martial arts star who has come under threat by a group of racketeers who think his success is a means to attack his wealth. Refusing to pay the money demanded by the mobsters, Billy is shot on set by one of the lackeys in the syndicate, leading to what is assumedly his death. However, it is revealed that while the bullet did do a considerable amount of damage to Billy, he has survived and can go on surviving if he agrees to getting plastic surgery, as it will help to hide him from the still working syndicate. Reluctantly agreeing to do so, Billy gets the plastic surgery and while the scars are beginning to heal he plans his revenge upon the syndicate, while attempting to hide from his former girlfriend who has also taken it upon herself to exact revenge against the mobsters. Realizing that he will have to move through the ranks in order to find out who ordered the hit on him, he begins by tailing various leaders through the docks of China, discovering that many of the henchmen are fighting within the Chinese martial arts circuit, specifically Carl Miller (Robert Wall) a rambunctious fighter who Billy confronts in his locker room after a fight, quickly destroying him with skill and power, much to the suprise of Miller's fans and the media present. This fight does afford Billy with the information necessary to track down the syndicate boss Dr. Land (Dean Jaeger) whose slippery ways have placed him on the top floor of a pagoda, in which each level is protected by a kung fu expert. Billy knowing that the only way to get his revenge is to move through the various encounters, some of which require him to wield weapons, while others require him to grapple more than strike. Billy proves adept in each fight, often making quick work of his opponent, only ever seeming challenged by Hakim (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), which is almost entirely a result of height differences. Billy eventually makes it to Dr. Land's floor but the crime boss flees to the roof and while attempting to escape via a latter slips and falls to his death. Billy has exacted his revenge in a theoretical sense, but as the closing shots suggest, frustration emerges in the knowledge that the death was not technically of his own doing.
The plot probably seems very straightforward and rather bare bones and that really is not the case, because there is assumedly a lot going on between the opening movie sparring between Billy and another martial artist, played by Chuck Norris, and what happens in the closing moments. However, it is not worth considering, because in my book, and from what it seems others as well, Game of Death only matters for what Bruce Lee brings to the table, which in the case of Game of Death are martial arts skills so varied and realized as to be completely baffling. As such, it is necessary only to consider what elements relate specifically to Bruce Lee's presence on screen, while he rocks his iconic yellow jump suit. I will note that while the jump suit is bad ass, I am more a fan of the rad Adidas he wears., but I digress. Were I to be a mad man in charge of film programming, I would do a double feature of Game of Death and Harold Lloyd's silent comedy Safety Last, which may not seem like an obvious connection since one is a hackneyed kung fu flick and the other is an early icon of slapstick comedy, but one could contest that in the cases of both films, it is entirely what happens in the last act that make the film memorable. Furthermore, another obvious connection arises when one considers that both these closing acts concern trouble figures ascending from points of nothingness, for Lloyd's character it is from economic impoverishment, whereas, for Billy it is more of a Phoenix rising from the ashes, or as the film clearly suggest him to be, a christ figure. The two are also expected to engage in this climbing by proving themselves worthy of extraordinary feats of strength and poise, while being challenged with a variety of absurd or insurmountable obstacles and often times it is a combination of both. The films also manage to leave the result of the ascension rather ambiguous, particularly in the case of Game of Death where, given available archival footage, there were not many scenes to pull from for Lee, meaning that his staring off into the camera has nothing to move on to, which adds an eerie layer of regret to an otherwise action pact moment. I know it is a stretch to pair the two, but the struggle for upward mobility metaphor is rampant in cinema, yet, these two films deal with the issue in a way so literal, as though to be mocking, yet both suggest that the endeavor is both valid and worthwhile, even if it seems daunting at the onset.
Key Scene: As noted the last twenty minutes are glorious cinema.
This is available on Hulu, but the quality is horrendous. To be honest, I would just suggest finding the last section online, it is much more worth watching than sitting through all the nonsense prior.