Bruce Lee never finished The Game of Death. There is an outline, roughly 40 minutes of footage, and a ton of rumors. But no finished product. How fitting for a legend to disappear in a puff of smoke, just like that, leaving behind the most iconic jumpsuit known to man and enough bits and pieces for later filmmakers to have a go at what was obviously an ambitious vision. There is a general agreement about what the story would have been: Korean thugs kidnap Billy Lo’s brother and sister, forcing him to join a raid on a pagoda housing a great treasure. The pagoda is guarded by bosses of ever-increasing skill level. Lo and his band of decent martial artists must take on a posse of kung fu/karate black belts, a Praying Mantis master, a Filipino Kali master (played by Dan Inosanto), and eventually a seven-foot-tall black kung fu demon played by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. After whipping them all, the cocky Billy Lo would have presumably made off with the treasure (or returned it to its rightful owners?), defeated the crime lord who kidnapped his family, and strolled off into the sunset. But we can never know. The only hints we have are from a very terse outline Bruce Lee wrote in the early 1970s:
“The big fight. An arrest is made. The airport. The end.”
At least we have some of the footage of the big fight—the level-by-level assault on the pagoda to gain the secret treasure. The problem is, only three of the five fights were actually filmed in their entirety. The first two tests would have featured Huang In-shik, a Korean hapkido instructor who unfortunately was only filmed getting beat up outside in a parking lot near the pagoda. Weird, because that footage of Huang was only revealed in John Little’s documentary film, Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, and never made it into the 1978 cobbled together film, The Game of Death, which featured about 11 minutes of the original footage.
The second fight was slated to feature Taky Kimura, a Wing Chun and Mantis practitioner. That too was never filmed. The fights that did get included are the battle with Filipino Kali expert Dan Inosanto, another Korean hapkido fighter named Ji Jan Jae, and of course the final battle with Kareem, the demon-eyed master of the penultimate level. Few action sequences in film have burrowed their way into the cultural consciousness like the final fight between Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A towering kung fu master and known basketball star versus the legend in a yellow jump suit. The battle was choreographed with Jeet Kun Do in mind—flowing movements utilizing any attack that fits at the moment, as opposed to static style versus style face-offs—and Jabbar does a pretty good job of hanging with the greatest martial arts actor of his time, but the fight still compels not because of the moves and strikes, but the sheer spectacle of the two engaged in combat, in a the upper levels of an ancient, wooden pagoda.
The original film may have been another classic, especially if the end fight Bruce lee envisioned actually managed to top the fight with Jabbar. But Lee died before the film could be finished, and alas, all we have is the remake: a mummer’s cloak of cast-off footage from Enter the Dragon, Way of the Dragon, floor clippings from Bruce Lee’s Game of Death and original footage shot on location. The remake was produced by Raymond Chow and directed by Robert Clouse was an admirable attempt to make some money off the newly cooled corpse of a kung fu legend… they even filmed Lee’s funeral in order to make their story fit into the footage that existed.
The plot of the new film features Billy Lo as a successful martial arts performer being squeezed by organized crime into bad deals. The film starts off with a quick beating of Chuck Norris and stumbles along through a series of painful scenes with Bruce Lee stand-ins getting beat up and shot. His beautiful Caucasian girlfriend gets kidnapped and Billy—with a bad make-up job and a beard to hide scars—must come to her aid. The Syndicate has their HQ in the pagoda, which is awesome and should be something all evil organization should consider, so this little trick propels Billy into the climactic fights up the stairs and toward the final boss. By this time, the stand-ins have almost ruined the move for good, but then suddenly, the real Bruce Lee comes bounding up the stairs to face Dan Inosanto.
It is truly the saving grace of the film, seeing the cocky, brash smile and swagger of Bruce Lee all in yellow. When he breaks Inosanto’s neck mid-quip, and then swipes Jabbar’s glasses from his face to reveal the demon’s weakness, all is redeemed.
Check out these related stories: