Review: Game of Death (1978)


Starring Bruce Lee, Dan Inosanto, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,

Robert Wall, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Kim Tai Jong, James Tien

Fight Choreography for Bruce Lee’s fights by Bruce Lee

Fight Choreography for everyone else by Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao

Directed by Robert Clouse

Let’s get one thing cleared up first: Game of Death is not Bruce Lee’s last film. That moniker belongs to Enter the Dragon, and to that film alone. Game of Death could be best described as a compilation/tribute/b-sides album. The film compiles memorable scenes from Bruce’s earlier films, new scenes shot by a bunch of fake Bruces (Yuen Biao being one of them) and the final fights that feature the actual Bruce Lee.

Was it a good tribute to Bruce? In a small way.

Was it a grab for more cash after the success of Enter the Dragon? Hell yes.

Bruce Lee–or actually his body doubles–stars as Billy Lo, a martial arts film star who is filming a scene with Chuck Norris (archived scenes from Way of the Dragon) when a light from above crashes on the ground near him, stopping production. During these scenes you see Bruce from behind only, and I just knew this was gonna be a long film. I almost died laughing when they would show Bruce speaking to different people from behind, and then Bruce’s reaction shots would be clipped scenes from his other films. Anyway, some douchy fight promotor who works for some shadowy company called the Syndicate wants Billy to fight in the ring, and Billy slaps the guy away. Shit, the real Bruce would’ve slapped the guy through the door. During this scene they had the audacity to actually superimpose a cut out of Bruce’s head on the actor’s body!

Anyway, we then cut to the Meeting of Evil Villians, where the same douchy promotor and his lackeys played by Robert Wall (what’s the deal with him being Bruce’s bitch?) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar decide to beat Billy into signing the contract. Billy goes out to dinner that night with his girlfriend played by Colleen Camp, when he gets ambushed by some of douchy’s men. This first fight of Fake Bruce is exactly what you would expect-badly shot scenes of a guy trying to pretend to be Bruce, but isn’t even close.

This brings me to what would be common theme in this film until you get near the end: Billy gets his ass kicked. A lot. WTF?! Okay, I can accept a lot of things, but the sight of a couple of hired thugs beating up someone who is supposed to be BRUCE LEE just kills me. I’m surprised Bruce not only didn’t roll around in his grave at this, but didn’t outright punch his way back to the land of the living so he could smack Robert Clouse around for a second, telling him what the hell, man?! There is not one scene, in any of Bruce’s films, where anyone—and I mean no one—kicks his ass. Yeah, some guys get their shots in, but Bruce NEVER LOSES. It’s not boring, that’s just Bruce. He doesn’t lose. And who would be equal to him for him to lose to? Nobody, that’s who. And yet in several fight scenes with Fake Bruce, he gets his ass owned by everyone, hell even Robert Wall. He punches and kicks these thugs, and they get right back up. If Real Bruce hits them, they ain’t gettin’ back up.

Before long Billy is shot on the set of his film, but isn’t killed, and with the help of an old friend stages what has to be the absolute worst scene ever filmed, lacking in any amount of taste whatsoever. Any respect I might’ve had for Robert Clouse died right at this moment. Billy fakes his own death, and the funeral scenes were ACTUAL FOOTAGE OF BRUCE’S FUNERAL. That takes some balls, but holy shit that was a dung pile of bad decision making to allow it into a fictional film.

Not long afterward I was able to briefly set aside my disdain by watching a fight between Robert Wall and Sammo Hung, which was actually well done—no where near Sammo’s normal quality—but well done nevertheless. It allowed Sammo to show off some fancy moves before Robert Wall kicks his ass, and then in turn gets his ass killed by Fake Bruce following this fight. I’ll say this for Mr. Wall, he always looks great getting his ass kicked.

Soon Billy’s girlfriend is kidnapped by Douchy, and Billy frees her and goes after Douchy and his boys, and here is where Real Bruce returns for the final fights between himself and Dan Inosanto, nunchuck to nunchuck, a fight with another karate master, and the crowning moment, the fight between Bruce and his real life student NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Each fight is great in it’s own way, and the fight with Kareem is fantastic, a study of fighting while facing a great size disadvantage (it could be argued both ways) and Kareem does a great job here.

After that we go back to Fake Bruce and he has to fight Douchy, in a fight that tries to make Douchy feel like a threat, but his isn’t, and is weakly killed and the film thankfully ends. This is really a horrid film, but I get what they wanted to do. They tried to honor the memory of Bruce and to make sure that audiences would feel that absence would make the heart grow fonder, and at least in this film, it succeeds.

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)

CHOREOGRAPHY: (4) Sammo tried his best to choreograph fights the way Bruce would’ve, but without the secret ingredient of Bruce, none of it works. Sammo’s fight with Robert Wall was the best non-real Bruce Lee fight in the entire film.

BRUCE’S CHOREOGRAHY: (8) For what there was, was terrific. The fight with Kareem was a classic. The last we would ever get from Bruce.

STUNTS: (3) Not much here. Some good acrobatic here and there, but that’s about it.

STAR POWER: (8) There really was a lot of star power from the martial arts world here. Too bad that power was used in this film.

FINAL GRADE: (4) Only the Bruce fights, because they are classic, keeps this film from getting a lower grade that this. Unfortunately the success of this film would spawn the legion of fake Bruces to follow, and an insipid sequel.

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6 Responses to “Review: Game of Death (1978)”

  1. Uncle Jasper Says:

    Just want to echo your sentiments here. I’ve always had a strange affinity for Bruceploitation films and the Bruce Lee clones behind them. To me, Game of Death should be regarded as one of those. This film is no more a Bruce Lee film than Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave was.

    With that said, I do understand what this film was intended to be, and if it ever had come to fruition it would have been, without a doubt, Bruce’s most personal work. You may already be familiar with the Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey documentary, but if not, I highly recommend it. Not only does it restore the final fight sequences to their full glory, but it also does a good job shedding light on what the film was originally intended to be, both in style and philosophy.

    Great review, been reading your blog for a while now and love it.

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  2. I have heard of that film but not had a chance to watch it yet. I’m curious to learn more about the original idea for the film, not the horrid story Clouse and his crew rolled out. I’ll give it a looksie.

    Thanks for reading!

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  3. Never seen Game of Death, primarily because here in the UK it’s always been cut (scenes with nunchucks or shuriken used to get butchered by the censors).

    Looking forward to hearing your comments on Enter the Dragon.

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  4. Hey Guess what! Finally got round to watching Game of Death – it was on the SyFy channel the other night. For the most part it seemed like a horrible parody, with the reaction shots edited in from other films. The Bob Wall/Sammo fight was pretty good – I was glad it wasn’t some one-sided affair and you really didn’t know who was going to win until the final few seconds. I’d have given the film an extra half mark for the stunts, there were some good motorbike stunts towards the end of fake-bruce’s scenes. Of real Bruce’s end scenes, I was disappointed with the rubbish karate master. Karate tends to get a bad rap in movies ans is often portrayed as an impractical fighting style. Here the guy was just so stiff and awkward, it was embarrassing.

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  5. Yep, so many films not made in Japan portray Karate to be not very good, but of course that’s incorrect, but the best Karate movies come out of Japan anyway. China, and America to a lesser extent, don’t really give Karate the respect they should. A great Karate film I can recommend if you haven’t seen it already is Black Belt, made a few years ago. That film features the real thing. If anyone in the film has a Black Belt, it’s because in real life they are. It gets clunky toward the end, but for the most part is very good. I’ll be getting to it in the next couple of months. I’ve been a bit lax with reviewing karate films, mostly due to what I’ve been getting, but I’ll be rectifying that soon. It’s about time for Sonny Chiba to show up in these reviews…

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  6. We are so on the same wavelength Mike. Black Belt is a cool movie and is the first I’ve ever seen which shows just how deadly and quick karate can be. One of the students kills a soldier with a simple stomach-level punch! It’s a pity that the final confrontation devolves into a muddy grappling match. The rest is gold. I too need to delve into Sonny Chiba’s past movies – I still haven’t seen the Streetfighter films. I used to study Kyokoshinkai and would like to see the Mas Oyama films he did too.

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