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Film / Game of Death

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Game of Death is an the second-to-last feature film projectnote  starring Bruce Lee, who also produced, wrote and directed the film. It would achieve infamy, both for being the last major film released with original footage of Lee, and for the real-life circumstances that led it to be left permanently unfinished due to Lee's death in 1973.

The film, which was partially shot in 1972, followed a retired chamption martial artist named Hai Tien (Lee), who is approached by a Korean underworld gang and told that he must infiltrate and ascend a heavily-guarded five-floor wooden pagoda in South Korea where guns are prohibited. The gang asks Tien, whose sister and brother have been kidnapped and used as leverage against him, to infiltrate the pagoda alongside four other martial artists and fight their way up, facing different challengers on each floor. The top of the pagoda would hold something of significance that the gang wanted to retrieve, though that object/purpose has never been stated in any known material written by Lee.

TGoD was the debut of Lee's long time training partner, Eskrima specialist Dan "Danny" Inosanto, who plays one of the martial artists of the pagoda. It was also the film debut of NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, playing another memorable opponent.

Lee shot approximately 40 minutes worth of footage for Game in late 1972, with scenes dedicated to showcasing his personal style of Jeet Kune Do. During production, Lee received an offer to star in Enter the Dragon — the first kung fu film to be produced by a Hollywood studio. With a budget unprecedented for the genre, it was an offer Lee was unable to refuse. He was slated to resume filming Game as soon as his work on Enter the Dragon was finished. Alas, before EtD was even released, Lee died.

The uncompleted footage for Game sat and collected dust, with some of it getting misplaced and lost. However, the film's producers weren't about to let the project go to waste. In 1978, they enlisted Robert Clouse, the director of EtD, 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. This version of the film uses 11 minutes of footage Lee shot for the project and creates an entirely new plot, focusing on a renowned martial arts movie star named Billy Lo (played intermittently by Yuen Biao, Kim Tai Chung, and Chen Yao Po). A trafficking syndicate wants Lo's help, 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. This version uses 11 minutes of footage where Lee is genuinely the main character, and achieved success from audiences, particularly in terms of its style and enduring legacy. The yellow-and-black striped tracksuit Lee uses in the shot footage would become a posthumous trademark for Lee, and was given a Homage in numerous works (notably, Kill Bill, Vol. 1, where lead character The Bride wears a motorcycle race suit with the exact same color scheme and style).

Tower of Death (also known as Game of Death 2) was an unrelated project shot and released in 1980 to capitalize on this film's success. Despite the fact that it was made years after Lee's death, the project used recycled footage from Game (including a fight against Casanova Wong that originally appeared in the Hong Kong release of the first film), deleted footage from EtD, new scenes choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping and footage of Lee (from his time as a child actor) to create a new plot. A third, rare cut for the Korean market removed the Lee footage in its entirety and recut the film to focus solely on Kim Tai Chung.

The Bruce Lee at Golden Harvest 4K boxset, released by Arrow Films in 2023, integrates all known surviving footage shot by Lee for Game into a new documentary, along with a new intro and credits sequence made specifically for the set and an HD release of the "log fight" with Inosanto, to approximate the most "complete" version of what was filmed.

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    Both versions 

Both versions provide examples of:

  • Afro Asskicker: Kareem's character has a short afro.
  • Agony of the Feet: During Lee's fight with Kareem's character, he stomps on Kareem's bare foot.
  • Artistic License – Martial Arts: Lee's character is somehow able to keep Dan Inosanto at range (and even disarm him!) with a flexible bamboo wand that should not even allow him even parry a honest attack from Inosanto's solid wooden bastón sticks. It only works because Inosanto is so baffled at being unable to parry Lee's quick attacks that he doesn't try to do the same. Ironically, this was exactly what happened while filming the scene: Inosanto kept breaking Lee's bamboo stick by accident and this was why they switched to their nunchaku.
  • At Arm's Length: Teased with. When Kareem sits cross-legged, Lee attempts to attack him, but the former just extends his much longer arms to block it and Lee stops himself upon realizing it would be useless.
  • Camera Abuse: When Bruce Lee uses his nunchaku's rope to break Dan Inosanto's character's neck, the camera wobbled to intensify dramatic effect.
  • Curb Stomp Cushion: While Lee does get a few good hits in, Kareem's character is simply too strong for him to handle. It's only when Lee exploits Kareem's sensitivity to light that he's able to defeat him.
  • David Versus Goliath: Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bruce Lee was 5ft 7.5 in (1,71 m), Kareem was 7ft. 2 in (2,18 m), but Bruce Lee still could land a jump kick on his head.
  • Fixed-Floor Fighting: The guardians of the pagoda/restaurant never leave the floor they are on and Bruce Lee can't move up until he has beaten 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 Lee and Inosanto 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 floors 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 Lo is one of the surprisingly strong kind.
  • Martial Arts Headband: Dan Inosanto's character 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 eskrima specialist with his nunchaku. The wobbling camera reinforces this even more. He also does this 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 the much taller Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: In western eyes, yellow is associated with gawdiness, but Lee seems pretty proud of that suit. Also, the 4th master (Ji Han Jae) is pretty bishi, his suit seeming 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'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 held a progressively harder fighter.
  • Super-Strength: Kareem's character shows supernatural strength and can lift his opponent 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 Abdul-Jabbar somehow has lizard eyes.
  • Wrestler in All of Us: Bruce's character takes out Ji Han Jae's character with a backbreaker variation and later uses an arm triangle choke and a bulldog choke on Kareem. Those fights were controversial, as grappling and ground fighting was very rare in kung fu movies of this time, not to talk about pro wrestling.

     1972 version 

The 1972 original version provides examples of:

  • Allegorical Character: One could ask if the guardians of the pagoda spend all of their lives in 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.
  • Ambiguously Human: Kareem's character is not an albino, yet he shows the eyes of one when he loses his sunglasses and his high sensitivity to light turns out to be his bane. In an alternate take, he has animalistic lizard-like eyes. It was rumored that the character was meant to be a product of a genetic experiment, apparently one of a superior human race created by a Mad Scientist, but that never has been confirmed by any official sources.
  • Animal Eyes: Kareem-Abdul Jabbar's character is revealed to have lizard eyes after he loses his sunglasses.
  • 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 Boast: The hapkido master (Ji Han Jae) is the only one of the fighters to warn the heroes that fighting with him will result in death. This is brave on his part, as he should know already that they're accomplished martial artists and he's alone and they are a crowd of three.
  • Boss Warning Siren: A very rare non-video game example and probably the Ur-Example: 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, adaptable 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.
  • "Die Hard" on an X: Game of Death is essentially "Die Hard in a pagoda tower" yet it predates Die Hard (1988) itself by 16 years. In Game of Death, Lee ascends a pagoda tower while defeating bad guys along the way in martial arts battles.
  • Evil Tower of Ominousness: The pagoda appears as this when seen from a 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 eskrima 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 while stating that he has no fear of dying.
  • It's the Journey That Counts: A very strong implication of the ending. Bruce decides not to 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.
  • Jive Turkey: Kareem's character combines it with typical kung fu flick talk.
    Hai Tien: I do not let the word "death" bother me.
    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Same here baby.
  • 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 as to exactly what it 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 improvise 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 that or what they're literally guarding with their lives 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 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).
  • Opposing Combat Philosophies: Played with. The point of the movie is to prove that fixed routines in martial arts suck and being adaptable and flexible is king.
  • 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 advantage.
    • In his fight with Pascal (Dan Inosanto), he uses a flexible bamboo stick that breaks Pascal's rhythm.
    • On the final floor, he simply asks Kareem why he just won't let him pass to the highest floor. When Kareem refuses, Bruce kills him off mercilessly.
  • Post-Victory Collapse: After Hai Tien (Bruce Lee) defeats his last opponent, he collapses from exhaustion. He does not go to highest floor and asks the mafia guys for help. They don't care very much and tell him that there's more fighting downstairs.
  • 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 prove styles and patterns wrong and as such the guardians appear as obvious stand-ins for the martial arts community of the early 1970s, stuck in tradition and inflexibility to his eyes: including the intended characters, there are opponents of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Filipino styles, as well as a black, jive-talking giant possibly representing stereotypical urban street fighting or just sheer physicality (or maybe some unknown, uncategorizable style that would represent the highest level of martial arts). This extends to people who believe that Jeet Kune Do is another style or the perfect style, which it isn't (it's a philosophy).
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Related to the above, the whole concept of the movie is nothing more than a 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 eskrima specialist (3rd) and hapikdo (4th). Kareem was at the top and used Lee's style of no style. The other two styles were going to have a kicking master (1st) and a master in a mantis-based martial art (2nd). In Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey, during the fight with the eskrima specialist, Lee points out that eskrima'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, riches, nothing, or - according to several of Bruce's friends - a mirror, which would be based on the philosophical idea that since he had overcome all of his opponents by adapting, HE HIMSELF was the treasure), one can also assume that Bruce Lee's intention was that it's unimportant as to what is on top of the pagoda, the quest to the highest level counts, but none of these have ever been conclusively proven to be canon.
  • Supernatural Martial Arts: Downplayed as it only applies to the last fight: Kareem'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 (likely Bob Wall's unfilmed character) takes Hai Tien aside the night before the journey to their target and tells him about the eponymous "Game" in philosophical terms.
  • Unbuilt Trope: As noted in "Die Hard" on an X, this film predates Die Hard by 16 years, yet has a plot where the main character must "ascend" to the top floor of a structure to obtain something of value and/or complete their mission. More notably, however, Game would have Hai Tien face a "boss" on each floor, which is remarkably similar to numerous video games that would have situations specifically created around boss raids (for a popular example that's also a Shout-Out, see the Wutai/Yuffie pagoda subplot in Final Fantasy VII.) Unlike most/all of the example, statements from Lee's friends suggest that the ultimate "prize" at the top of the pagoda wouldn't have been an item of great value, but a mirror, to show the realization that Hai Tien himself was the prize, as he had mastered himself and defeated all of the obstacles that held him back along the way.
  • 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.

     1978 version 

The 1978 version provides examples of:

  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Assuming Dan Inosanto's character is meant to be Filipino too, the correct form of his name should be Pascual, not Pasqual.
  • 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 empty floors only for fighters to rest.
  • Bound and Gagged: Billy's girlfriend Ann, played by Colleen Camp.
  • Bruce Lee Clone: Bruce Lee was mostly replaced with Kim Tai-jong and Yuan Biao in the scenes that were shot for the 1978 version. The movie tries to hide away from this, but fans have pointed out that the illusion isn't any more convincing than in any random real Bruceploitation movie of the time.
  • 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 Taekwondo expert Kim Tai Chung played Billy Lo for most of the movie, his face partially obscured by fake beards, large sunglasses, dark shadows, behind shots, a motorcycle helmet, facial gauze, 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).
    • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also didn't come back for the new version, so all the new 1978 footage his character is in features a lookalike in sunglasses.
  • 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 is himself shot by one of Dr. Land's henchmen. He survives and plans for his revenge.
  • Funny Bruce Lee Noises: Rather than reuse sound clips of Bruce's trademark cries, the movie instead has his voice actor attempt to mimic them. It doesn't sound convincing.
  • Good Old Fisticuffs: Steiner uses this against Billy Lo after all the other henchmen have died. This is completely mismatched, as Steiner is completely unskilled, beyond his best years, and handicapped, and Billy Lo (supposedly Bruce Lee) is the absolute king of martial arts. Steiner still loses in the end.
  • 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 Bruce Lee's double and Korean taekwondo master Casanova Wong in a greenhouse (this scene would be repurposed for Game Of Death II). The ending is also significantly longer in the HK version, where the dead Dr. Land is picked up by an ambulance and Billy is arrested. 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.
  • Strictly Formula: The movie does away with the original concept and replaces it with a generic story where a hero has to fight a syndicate and kills one by one (although there are some motorcycle stunts here and there).
  • 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, while his double is at least one head shorter.