Film / Game of Death

In 1973, Bruce Lee was in the middle of filming the film that was to showcase his personal style of Jeet Kune Do, The Game of Death when he received an offer to star in Enter the Dragon. The first kung fu film to be produced by a Hollywood studio, and with a budget unprecedented for the genre, it was an offer Lee was unable to refuse. He was slated to resume filming The Game of Death as soon as that was finished. Alas, before EtD was even released, he died.

So the uncompleted footage for The Game of Death sat and collected dust, with some of it being misplaced and Lost Forever. Greedy producers weren't about to let this stand, so in 1978, they enlisted the director of EtD, Robert Clouse, to make a new film using the surviving footage, footage from other times in Lee's career, and newly-filmed footage. The result is known simply as Game of Death.

TGoD was to be about Korean thugs coercing Lee's character, Hai Tien, into helping them retrieve a treasure from the top of a guarded pagoda, wherein they would have to fight a different martial artist on each of its five floors. GoD does away with this and features an entirely new plot. Billy Lo (played at various stages by Yuen Biao, Kim Tai Chung, and Chen Yao Po) is a renowned martial arts movie star. A trafficking syndicate wants his aid, and he refuses. When they fail to intimidate him, they order his assassination instead. Lo makes the attempt look like a success, and then uses the cover of supposedly being dead to bring the syndicate down.

The film uses only 11 minutes of footage from TGoD, in which Lee is genuinely the actor used to portray Lo. This fight scene is one of the most treasured in the history of martial arts movies, and probably the only reason to watch the film. In addition to it being the last time audiences would ever see Lee fight, it is also known for the costume Lee dons during it: a bright yellow track suit with black stripes up the sides. This suit has come to be seen as something of a trademark for the actor; homaged numerous, numerous times. The homage to it that you most likely know of, however, is when Uma Thurman dons a motorcycle race suit in the same style whilst fighting the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill.

An unrelated movie made due to high demand for more Bruce, using recycled Lee footage as well as deleted Enter the Dragon footage, new scenes choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping and Kim Tai Chung, called Tower Of Death, was released in 1981 and in some markets called Game Of Death II.

Both versions provide examples of:

  • Corpsing During one of the bloopers, Lee who is normally The Stoic in his movies save for a few comedic scenes; struggled not to laugh when the stunt dummy of Chieh Yuan's character was hurled off the steps. His struggle only lasted 3 seconds.
  • David vs. Goliath: Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bruce Lee was 5ft 7.5 in (1,71 m), Jabbar was 7ft. 2 in (2,18 m), however Bruce Lee still could land a jump kick on his head.
  • Fighting with Chucks: The movie has a nunchaku vs. nunchaku battle between Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto. This was the first nunchaku vs. nuchaku fights in cinematic history.
  • Fixed Floor Fighting: The guardians of the pagoda/restaurant never leave the floor they are on and Bruce Lee move up until he has beat them. His associates try to run upstairs early, but they both are killed off quickly.
  • Funny Bruce Lee Noises: In the original, Bruce uses this to intimidate and disarray his opponents. In the 1978 version, Billy Lo uses the exactly same scream over and over and for every action he does.
  • Iconic Outfit: Bruce Lee's yellow and black tracksuit has been copied over and over and over again (see here). Initially, it was meant to be a strong aversion of all known martial arts uniforms and meant to represent shapelessness.
  • Intimidation Demonstration: When Billy and Pasqual (Dan Inosanto's character) both draw their nunchaku, they spend a good amount of time showing off their respective skills with them before getting around to fighting. The original version shows even more of this.
  • It's All Upstairs from Here: In the original version, this is the main premise and all of the surviving footage takes place in the 5-floor pagoda. In the 1978 version Bruce Lee (Billy Lo) enters the Red Pepper restaurant and fights through its floor to meet Dr. Land on top.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Two on the opposing ends of the spectrum. Hakim (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) is an example of the surprisingly fast kind. Bruce Lee's Hai Tien-Billy Loo is one of the surprisingly strong kind.
  • Martial Arts Headband: Pascal (Dan Inosanto) wears a red one during the nunchaku fight with Bruce Lee on the third to last level of the pagoda. In the 1978 version he wears it during all of his screen time, sometimes inexplicably over his shoulder.
  • Neck Snap: Bruce Lee does this to the escrima specialist with his nunchaku. The wobbling camera reinforces this even more. He also does to to Kareem-Abdul Jabbar.
  • Oh Crap!:
    • When Bruce first wields the nunchaku, the look on Dan Inosanto's face is priceless.
    • Bruce Lee does this himself when he first sees much taller Kareem-Abdul Jabbar.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: In western eyes yellow is associated with cowardice but Lee seems pretty proud of that suit. Also the 4th master (Ji Han Jae) is pretty bishie, his suit seems to be more for attraction than practicality and he has lacey veils around his bed-throne. But he is NOT a Sissy Villain.
  • Scary Black Man: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's character is 7ft 2in tall, has super strength and is very intimidating.
  • Sorting Algorithm of Evil: Practically the Trope Codifier, as it had him climbing a pagoda where each level had a progressively harder fighter.
  • Super Strength: Jabbar's character shows supernatural strength and can lift James Tien with ease. That is, as long as he is not blinded by the light.
  • Ur-Example: The movie shows the first nunchaku vs. nunchaku fight in cinematic history.
  • Weakened by the Light: Kareem Abdul Jabbar's character loses significant strength when Bruce Lee smashes the windows. This is completely unexplained in the 1978 version (where the scene happens to play in the middle of the night) but the original version shows that Jabbar has lizard eyes.
  • Wrestler in All of Us: Bruce's character takes out Ji Han Jae's character with a backbreaker variation. This fight was controversial, as grappling and ground fighting was very rare in kung fu movies of this time.

The 1972 original version provides examples of:

  • Allegorical Characters: One could ask if the guardians of the pagoda spend all of their lives n the pagoda waiting for some challenger, and what they're doing all day, when they eat, sleep etc., however represent the formalized system of martial arts that Bruce Lee wanted to prove wrong. Hai Tien (Bruce Lee) can beat them all with some ease because of their inability to adapt. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar has an unknown fighting style that represents the highest level of martial arts and has superhuman strength and is subsequently the hardest match for Bruce Lee.
  • Animal Eyes: Kareem-Abdul Jabbar's character is revealed to have lizard eyes after he loses his sunglasses. It was rumored that he's product of a genetic experiment but that never has been confirmed by any official sources.
  • Artistic License Martial Arts: When Bruce Lee filmed the fights, he realized that they were much too fast for the audience get all the details of the choreography so they had to slow down for subsequent shots.
  • Badass: Hai Tien (Bruce Lee) is this in several ways:
    • He's an undefeated full contact world champion.
    • He fights many fighters that are thought to be unbeatable.
    • He even wins against a supernatural fighter who has supernatural strength and reflexes (on the highest floor).
  • Boss Warning Siren: In the second filmed fight, Hapkido master Ji Han Jae switches on a red light and warns Hai Tien and his associates to not progress any further or otherwise he will have to kill them.
    Ji Han Jae: As you gentlemen know, red means danger. Therefore I advice to you people, not to step into this warning arena. If you want to go on living, stop here, go back downstairs. Life is precious.
  • Confusion Fu: The whole point of the movie was to demonstrate that an unpredictable fighting style is superior than any formalized system. Bruce Lee's associates use a traditional style and fail. He uses a fluid, adaptional system and succeeds.
  • Damsel in Distress: Hai Tien's sister and younger brother are kidnapped by the Korean mafia to force him to participate in the titular game of death.
  • Defeating the Undefeatable: The guardians of the pagoda have exceptional skills and are thought to be undefeatable. Bruce Lee disproves this.
  • Evil Tower of Ominousness: The pagoda appears as this when seen from distance. It's also the home of five of the most deadly martial artists in the world.
  • Honor Before Reason: The guardians of the pagoda never stop fighting no matter what.
    • The escrima master (Dan Inosanto) continues fighting although he knows that he will die.
    • The Hapkido master (Ji Han Jae) makes a speech before the fight that implies that people will eventually die in the fight, be it him or his adversaries.
    • Kareem-Abdul Jabbar turns down Bruce Lee's request to just let him pass although he is rendered powerless by this point.
  • It's the Journey That Counts: A very strong implication of the ending. Bruce decides to not go up to the highest floor but descend the stairs and not retrieve the treasure, as he learns that after all of the fighting, the treasure is ultimately unimportant but the quest for enlightenment and improvement is and no treasure can keep up with this.
  • Know When To Fold Them: Hai Tien doesn't even want to go to the top of the Pagoda after beating Kareem Abdul Jabbar in a highly exhausting fight. The most common interpretation for this is, that it's ultimately unimportant what is on top of the pagoda.
  • Mandatory Unretirement: Hai Tien (Bruce Lee) is a retired full contact world champion and initially refuses to take part in the "game of death" and only does so after his family is kidnapped by the Korean mafia.* My Kung-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours: The film wants to show that a good martial artist always has to improve and adapt to any situation that can occur.
  • Martyr Without a Cause: The guardians are completely willing to die to protect the highest floor. Why they do is never revealed.
  • Not Afraid to Die: All of the guardians show no signs of fear when they face death. See also Honor Before Reason.
    Hai Tien (Bruce Lee) Why continue? Just let me pass.
    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: You have forgotten, that I too am not afraid of death.
  • Offscreen Inertia: Whether the guardians ever leave their own floor, let alone the pagoda, is completely up to the viewer's interpretation (there's no indication that they do).
  • Outside-the-Box Tactic: Bruce Lee relies heavily on this:
    • With all of his enemies, he uses an unpredictable fighting style that can adapt to anything (Jeet Kune Do) and gains significant advantange.
    • In his fight with Pascal (Dan Inosanto), he uses a flexible bamboo stick that breaks Pascals rhythm.
    • On the final floor, he simply asks Jabbar why he just won't let him pass to the highest floor. When Jabbar refuses, Bruce kills him off mercilessly.
  • Punch Clock Villain: All of the pagoda's guardians. There's no indication that they're evil or why they even protect the highest floor with their lives, they just do. See also Allegorical Character above.
  • Take That, Audience!: The main premise of the movie is to proof styles and patterns wrong. The guardians appear as obvious stand-ins for the martial arts community of the early 1970s, that is stuck in tradition and inflexibility. This extends people who believe that Jeet Kune Do is another style or the perfect style which it isn't (it's a philosophy). Jabbar is the only fighter with an unknown, uncategorizable style and thus represents the highest level of martial arts.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Related to the above, the whole concept of the movie is nothing more than heroic version of this trope. Five masters with five different styles and Lee uses his style to show the holes and weaknesses in theirs. Styles included an escrima specialist (3rd) and Hapikdo (4th). Kareem was at the top and used Lee's style of no stlye. The other two styles were going to have a kicking master (1st) and a master in a mantis based martial arts (2nd). In Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey, during the fight with the escrima specialist (played by Dan Inosanto, a real life Filipino Martial Arts master and a friend of Bruce Lee), Lee points out that escrima's "rehearsed routine" doesn't have the same flexibility as his own Jeet Kune Do and thus can't adapt to "broken rhythm".
  • Riddle for the Ages: None of the surviving materials reveal what is on top of the pagoda. There are many rumors (a scroll with an inspirational message, another fighter, something supernatural, nothing or - according to several of Bruce's friends - a mirror, which would be was based on the philosophical idea that since he had overcome all of his opponents by adapting, HE HIMSELF, was the treasure), but none of these are canon. One can assume that Bruce Lee's intention was that it's unimportant what is on top of it, the quest to the highest level counts.
  • Supernatural Martial Arts: Downplayed as it only applies to the last fight: Jabbar's character has lizard eyes and displays super strength.
  • Title Drop: In the original concept, shown in Bruce's story notes, this would have occurred when the American member of the pagoda raid (who had yet to be cast) takes Hai Tien aside the night before the journey to their target, and tells him about the eponymous "Game" in philosophical terms.
  • Worthless Treasure Twist: Almost all of the suggestions and rumors about what is on the highest level of the pagoda invoke this. This would be in line with Bruce Lee's philosophy. See Riddle for the Ages above.

The 1978 version provides examples of:

  • Artistic License History: Bruce Lee first shot Fist of Fury, then Way of the Dragon. In this movie, it's the other way round.
  • Badass Biker: Billy Lo faces a lot of bikers who he has to fight. In the end he uses a motorcycle himself to attack a mook with his frontwheel
  • Bizarrchitecture: The Buddhist pagoda of the original is meant to be a restaurant here. It is a very strange restaurant that has entire floors only for fighters to rest.
  • Bruce Lee Clone: GoD was put together predominantly to milk cash out of Lee's death.
    • And before then, two films made to capitalize on the legend of Game Of Death were made, Goodbye Bruce Lee: His Last Game Of Death (1975, starring Bruce Li) and Enter the Game of Death (1977, starring Bruce Le)... and one after, The True Game Of Death (1981, starring "Bruce Lee Siao-Long"), which ripped off the general plot and sometimes whole segments of the film were redone almost shot for shot.
  • Evil Cripple: Steiner is Dr. Land's right hand man and needs a cane which hides a knife to walk. He still takes on Billy Lo in a fight.
  • Fake Shemp: Korean tae-kwon-do expert Kim Tai Chung played Billy Lo for most of the movie, his face partially obscured by fake beards, large sunglasses and cardboard cutouts. Notorious Bruce Lee Clone Bruce Li was also offered the role in tandem with Chung, but he declined because he didn't think he should be officially filling Bruce's shoes.
  • Faking the Dead: Billy Lo fakes his own death to mislead the syndicate. He later returns to kill them off one by one.
  • Fatal Method Acting: Subverted in-universe. Billy Lo shoots the last scene for Fist of Fury and it shot by one of Dr. Land's henchmen. It turns out that he survived and plans for his revenge.
  • Good Old Fisticuffs: Steiner uses this against Billy Lo after all the other henchmen have died. This surprisingly even works even though Steiner is completely unskilled and handicapped and Billy Lo (supposedly Bruce Lee) is supposed to be the greatest fighting machine in the world.
  • Importation Expansion: The international version shows a longer sequence where Billy Lo meets his uncle in a theater. The HK version shows another fight scene with a Bruce Lee double and Korean Taekwondo master Casanova Wong in a greenhouse. The ending is also significantly longer in the HK version, where dead Dr. Land is picked up by an ambulance. More information on this here
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: After an unsuccessful murder attempt against him, Billy Lo returns to plan his revenge against the syndicate. He kills every single member of it.
  • Stock Footage: The 1978 version makes heavy use of this:
    • The film uses 11 minutes of the original Game of Death, which is cautiously edited to not star any of Bruce's associates.
    • There are a lot of shots edited in from previous Bruce Lee movies, like Way of the Dragon or Fist of Fury
    • There are shots used from Bruce Lee's real funeral when Billy Lo fakes his death.
  • The Syndicate: Dr. Land's group even calls itself the syndicate, resides in the Red Pepper restaurant, controls the whole martial arts industry and takes its fair share out of bets.
  • Your Size May Vary: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 7ft 2 in tall, his double is at least one head smaller.

Alternative Title(s): Game Of Death