Billy Lo (played by archival footage of Bruce Lee and two stand-ins) is the world’s biggest film star and the Syndicate (represented by Dean Jagger and Hugh O’Brian) want a piece of the action. When Billy refuses to allow the Syndicate to take control of his career, the Syndicate responds by threatening both Billy and his girlfriend (Colleen Camp). After a Syndicate hitman sneaks onto the set of Billy’s latest film and shoots him in the face, Billy allows the world to believe that he’s dead. Using a variety of disguises, Billy seeks revenge on the Syndicate and all of its assassins, including the 7 foot tall Hakim (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Lee’s original plan for the Game of Death was that it would feature him as a retired martial artist who, in order to save the lives of his family, had to make his way up a five-level pagoda, defeating a different guardian on each floor. Each guardian would represent a different fighting style and the journey up the pagoda would allow Lee to discuss his beliefs regarding the principles of martial arts. Serving as both director and star, Lee did during the making of the film, of cerebral edema though some said Lee was either murdered or that he had faked his own death.
Released seven years after his death, the final version Game of Death has little in common with Lee’s original vision. Only about 11 minutes of footage from the original film was used in the revised version and most of Lee’s philosophical concerns were abandoned for a plot that, today, feels like it could have been lifted from Randy Quaid’s twitter timeline. (Also, when watching the film today, it’s also impossible to watch the Syndicate’s assassins disguise Billy Lo’s shooting as an on-set accident without being reminded of what would happen to Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow.) Game of Death opens with footage lifted from Lee’s battle with Chuck Norris at the end of Way of the Dragon and the other fight scenes are full of close-ups of Lee that were obviously lifted from other films. There’s even a scene in Billy’s dressing room where a cardboard cut-out of Lee’s face has obviously been taped onto a mirror. After Billy fakes his own death, footage of Bruce Lee’s actual funeral is shown, including a shot of Lee in his coffin.
If you can overlook the ethical issues of making a Bruce Lee film without the actual participation of Bruce Lee, Game of Death is actually a pretty entertaining movie. Director Robert Clouse had previously directed Enter the Dragon and obviously knew how to direct a fight scene while even stock footage of Bruce Lee has more charisma than the average action star. Best of all, Bruce Lee battles Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, in an epic scene that Lee himself directed for the original version of Game of Death. When the 7’2 Kareem Abdul Jabber plants his foot in the middle of Bruce Lee’s chest, Game of Death achieves pop cultural immortality.
Thorny ethical concerns aside, Game of Death proves that Bruce Lee will live forever.