Stars: Bruce Lee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Tien
Genre: Kung Fu
This is a review for the original footage Bruce Lee shot for his uncompleted Game of Death in 1972, before he put the project on hold to go make Enter the Dragon, which shortly after he, unfortunately, passed away, leaving this film to never be completed. This is not a review for the 1978 Bruceploitation film, also entitled Game of Death.
There is nearly 40 minutes of footage which Lee had shot in existence. I will be reviewing the footage and what Lee had intended the film to be, i.e. the film's vision.
Bruce Lee was to play a successful martial artist who a Korean gang tries to recruit to help them rob a pagoda which is guarded by a skilled martial artist on each floor. Bruce Lee's character was to refuse but eventually forced into helping the gang once they kidnap his family. At the base of the pagoda there are ten karate black belts they must defeat. Inside the pagoda there are five floors each one with a progressively more challenging opponent.
The only parts that were filmed were as followed: Dan Inosanto (a student of Lee's and would later go on to train Bruce Lee's son Brandon) as the Third Floor Guardian, Ji Han-Jae as the Fourth Floor Guardian, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (former professional basketball player and student of Lee's) as the Fifth Floor Guardian, the final opponent. Hwang In-Shik and Taky Kimura were intended to play the First and Second Floor Guardians, and frequent Bruce Lee co-star Nora Miao (and the only person to share an on-screen kiss with Bruce) was set to play the sister of Bruce Lee's character. The likes of Robert Wall, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, George Lazenby, Sammo Hung, Jim Kelly, Bolo Yeung, and Lam Ching-ying were also intended to have roles in the film.
The film was set up to represent Bruce Lee's true philosophy: to be formless. He would overcome each challenger on each floor by adapting to each of their different styles. He would ultimately win because he was formless, adaptable and they were slaves to their style (aside from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the final floor, whose method reflected Lee's own real-life Jeet Kune Do). The yellow and black tracksuit actually was meant to represent flexibility and lack of uniform, whereas many of the other opponents in the pagoda were to wear the uniforms of their school of style. I have no doubt that had the film been completed it would have been Lee's magnum opus; accurately portraying his beliefs and philosophy and his fighting style (or lack thereof). Lee, after all, was to be credited as Director, Star, Writer, Producer, Choreographer, Co-cinematographer, among many other roles.
The footage that does exist, which can be viewed for the first time ever in the excellent documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey, is fucking awesome. The fighting is ruthless and the idea of having a challenger on each floor leads to great pacing, anticipation, build-up, and gives the sense of weariness seeing Lee climb up and up the stairs just to fight an opponent harder than the last.
I've said it before and I will say it again: the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fight is the greatest Bruce Lee fight out of all of his films. Many will argue that the best was the Chuck Norris fight in Way of the Dragon, a good fight no doubt, but still, in my opinion, not as good as Bruce vs Kareem. I remember watching Game of Death footage when I was very, very young (I'm sure it was from the shitty 1978 version) and I remember being terrified by Kareem. He was so giant and massive...mysterious even. He was silent and his eyes hid behind those dark glasses. Just sitting there in that room. It was one of the scariest things I'd ever seen as a kid. I remember as a child sharing the fatigue of Bruce Lee climbing those steps. I remember feeling just as rewarded as Lee's character must of felt after winning. It was truly a powerful fight for me when I was young, which only makes me all the more sad that the film was never completed.
One of my biggest wishes is that Bruce Lee had lived long enough to complete The Game of Death. I'm confident it would have been his best film and one of the greatest martial arts films of all time. I suppose we should be thankful that we at least have some of the footage.
The footage that was shot is fantastic and the concept of the film likewise. I can't quite apply a rating to this being that it's an uncompleted film, but by all means check the footage out in the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey.
Purchase Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey (which contains all known Game of Death footage): DVD - VHS