"Game of Death," now at area theaters, is the solution producer Raymond Chow and director Robert Clouse finally came up with to salvage Bruce Lee's last starring vehicle.
Lee appeared to be on the verge of a unique, formidable career as an action star - perhaps the first great physical star since Burt Lancaster in his swashbuckling period - when he died suddenly in 1973, apparently of an aneurism, at the age of 32.
"Enter the Dragon," his first splashy production, was a box-office powerhouse. Before he died, Lee had completed one feature, "Way of the Dragon," which was released in 1974 and proved to be his most amusing blend of ingenuous heroism and kung-fu production numbers. And he had evidently completed the climactic action sequences of "Game of Death," including a lengthy pas de deux of flying feet, lightning fisticuffs and strenuous wrestling with Kareem-Abdul Jabbar.
While rivals constantly pretended to have discovered the "new" Bruce Lee, whose appeal combined inimitable comic mugging and physical grace, characterized by explosive, incisive movements, Lee's colleagues spent six years figuring out a way to integrate his last takes. They might have inserted the completed sequences, which are self-contained routines anyway, in a feature-length biographical documentary. Instead they've cooked up a fiction designed to rationalize Lee's curtain calls.
A performer named Kim Tai Jong stands in for Lee during most of the picture. He's usually wearing shades and sometimes he's shot from the back or obscured in shadows.
The hero, called Billy Lo, is a martial-arts film star being pressured to sign with a management firm bossed by gangsters Dean Jagger and Hugh O'brian. In the opening reel, O'brian threatens the hero, who is sometimes Jong on the same set and sometimes the late Bruce Lee in inserts from old movies. When the hero refuses to play along with the crooks, he is shot and the bullet shatters his face. This device rationalizes Billy Lo's climactic reappearance in the person of Lee - and obliges Jong to dart through intervening sequences in bandages and beard.
When he finally takes the screen for a prolonged routine, Lee reminds you that he was indeed a thing of beauty in motion. However, if it's the missing Lee footage you've come for, there's no reason to catch the first hour or so of the film, which opens with scenes from "Way of the Dragon," quickly disposing of the advertising claims that the material in "Game of Death" is "totally new." Obviously, curiosity about necrological filmmaking problems will make "Game of Death" as fascinating as "Saratoga," which MGM contrived to salvage after the untimely death of Jean Harlow.