Home Video Hovel: Game of Death, by Chase Beck
Shout! Factory has released Game of Death under its Shout! Select branding. It is the last film that Bruce Lee worked on before his untimely death. Game of Death was to be Lee’s directorial debut. However, his passing left the film unfinished. Producer Raymond Chow looked at what had been shot, and, with director Robert Clouse, decided to edit Lee’s original footage, constructing a new film and story line with heavy use of look-alikes.
Throughout the film, the Lee look-alikes are never convincing. Either due to a low budget or lack of know-how, the attempts to make use of body doubles are laughably bad to modern sensibilities. However, the use of stand-ins takes on a new importance when reflected against modern films’ attempts to complete projects affect by an actor’s untimely passing. The use of digital actor’s and performance capture has transformed the film landscape and raised many questions on the ethics of the inclusion of long-dead actors in projects they never agreed to in life. As for Game of Death, Lee’s main “acting” double wears sunglasses whenever on screen to obscure the more egregious differences. Another famous scene uses a cardboard cut-out of Lee’s face, taped to a mirror while Lee’s double lines up opposite it so the two appear to be one.
The story of Game of Death centers on Billy Lo (originally Bruce Lee, later, Yuen Biao and Kim Tai-jong). Billy is a rather famous martial arts actor who perpetually defies the mob. As a response, the mob then hire a man to assassinate Lo on set. Lo survives only to suffer massive (but temporary) facial scarring. Lo uses the assassination attempt to fake his own death, allowing him the anonymity to strategically strike back at the mob.
Shout! Factory’s release includes two discs. One disc features the U.S. release of the film while the other, the Mandarin/Cantonese edition. I love Blu-ray extras and was therefore excited to see that the U.S. version of the film features a commentary track. While I am not familiar with Asian film expert Mike Leeder, I hoped that he would provide some insight into the history of Game of Death. Unfortunately, while Leeder does an excellent job, the sound quality on the commentary track is atrocious. For me, the audio quality of the provided commentary track immediately invoked the sense of the early days of podcast recording. Leeder’s voice sounds as if it was distorted by poor reception on a telephone line or his audio was heavily compressed. The sibilance, or “s” hissing, in the commentary recording is particularly painful and strikes me as a problem that could have easily been solved during recording or with post-processing software.
Game of Death features multiple important moments in cinema, including Lee’s iconic black-striped yellow jumpsuit and tennis shoes, a look referenced by Tarantino’s The Bride (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Another not to be missed scene is Billy Lo’s fight with Hakim (professional basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Filmed before Lee’s passing, we get to see Lee’s impressive direction and fight choreography as what could otherwise be an ungainly, mismatched fight turns into a pugilistic ballet.
Sadly though, Game of Death also includes perhaps one of the worst scenes I know of in cinema history as the filmmakers used actual footage from Lee’s funeral, including the real body of Lee in a glass viewing casket. The decision to use this footage is a move which I find deeply upsetting, not because it includes an actual human corpse, but rather because it seems to be a decision motivated purely by profit and is so obviously disrespectful to Lee’s wonderfully impactful life and film legacy. Perhaps sadder still is that we are left to wonder what Game of Death would have been had Bruce Lee lived to complete it.
Ultimately, while Shout! Select should be praised for making this film available, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it. My decision is based solely because of the inclusion of footage from Bruce Lee’s funeral. For me it overshadows any accomplishment or any merit the film offers. However, for true fans of martial arts films in general and Bruce Lee specifically, the purchase choice should be a simple one.