Featured Article: Echo Of The Dragon -- The Post Mortem Completion of Bruce Lee's Game of Death.

When Bruce Lee began his fourth film Game of Death, he was China’s biggest star. His previous film Way of the Dragon smashed the Hong Kong box office record, which was previously held by his second film Fist of Fury, and before that, his first movie The Big Boss. He was quickly dismantling kung fu film cliches, introducing a new approach to martial arts. On screen he was explosive, a presence that demanded attention. His signature cat like taunting both physically and verbally has influenced countless martial artists. As skilled as he was with his fists, he was equally talented as an actor, a rarity among action stars. Like Way of the Dragon, Lee would have complete control of Game of Death, writing, directing, producing, and starring in the film. He would use the movie to help explain his philosophical beliefs of kung fu.

In Game of Death, Lee stars as Hei Tien, a retired martial arts star who is forced to fight his way up a five story temple to rescue his kidnapped brother and sister. Each level would be guarded by a kung fu master representing a different style. This challenging platform would represent Lee’s beliefs that each style has a weakness, and that a blend of all styles makes for a far more effective technique. Lee would subliminally introduce audiences to the fundamentals of his personal kung fu style, Jeet Kune Do. Production began by filming the five level pagoda scenes in Korea. Only three of the levels were filmed when Lee got offered the role to star in Enter The Dragon, the first kung fu film produced by Hollywood (a joint effort between Warner Brothers and Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest Production). Lee took the role, and temporarily stopped production on Game of Death in November of 1972 after only filming 100 minutes of footage. It was a move unheard of in the film industry. Considering Lee had complete control over the film, he was at power to do so.

Lee injected much of himself into Enter The Dragon. He wrote many of his own lines and choreographed all his fight scenes. Lee is brilliant in the film, giving some of his best screen performances. The most memorable scene has Lee fighting in a maze of mirrors, giving viewers multiple perspectives of the actor’s martial arts skills. The script was the most far fetched of Lee's films, but his dominance overshadowed the weak story. There was a lot of buzz about Dragon before its release and Warner Brothers were convinced they had a blockbuster. Six days before the film premiered in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee unexpectedly passed away at the age of 32 from a cerebral edema. 

Enter the Dragon was a colossal hit, smashing Asian stereotypes in American cinema and creating a new standard for modern day action movies. The film also gave the blaxploitation movement a giant blockbuster platform. Jim Kelly's performance in the film would help launch his career, leading to a starring role in the 1974 film Black Belt Jones. Enter the Dragon created a kung fu craze in America, and Lee's first three films were suddenly in hot demand. In China, Lee’s death was a devastating loss. Simply put, he was the biggest star they had ever seen, and his abrupt death shook the country, especially its film industry. Over 20,000 mourners jammed the streets of Hong Kong during Lee’s funeral procession. Lee’s unexpected death left a huge void at the Hong Kong box office. His new style of kung fu and its presentation on film was still an exciting new concept. He passed away only 21 months after the release of his first action film. The cultural impact he achieved during such a short period of time is staggering. It wasn’t long before Lee’s unfinished film Game of Death became a focus of interest. Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse was hired to review the footage and see if he could complete the film. There wasn’t much to work with but the demand for another Bruce Lee film was so great that he and producer Raymond Chow decided to write another script with a completely new plot to accommodate the existing footage. The end result is as ridiculous as it is brilliant given the limited resources at the time.

Are you okay Bruce? 
you look a little board. Get it? 
Released five years after Lee’s death, Game of Death focuses on a martial arts movie star named Billy Lo who is being pressured by the Korean mob. When Lo refuses to join the crime syndicate, the mob boss calls for his assassination. Lo is shot in the head during a movie shoot shortly after, but the bullet only passes through his cheeks. Now disfigured and in need of plastic surgery, Lo fakes his death to exact revenge on the mob. The disfigured storyline alters Lo’s appearance, which allows two Bruce Lee lookalikes to stand in for the deceased actor. Now in hiding, Lo often wears large sunglasses to disguise his appearance, and in one scene he even wears a fake beard so he can get close to his attackers without attracting suspicion to his identity. Another clever scene calls for Lo to sneak into a warehouse and fight several henchman while wearing a motorcycle helmet covered with a dark glass visor. Clouse was also given access to footage from Lee's previous films, and several close ups were chosen and cut into Death. These scenes are easy to identify due to the sudden changes in film quality in the movie. There were also a few scenes from Lee’s previous films that were chosen and dubbed over to fit the dialogue in Death. In what has become the most ridiculous attempt to re-create Lee’s likeness in the film, a cardboard cutout of Lee’s face is taped to a mirror in one scene while a stand in actor positions his body behind the cutout for the shot. It's a laughable moment as the stand in moves ever so slightly while Lee's face remains motionless. The most desperate attempt for new Lee footage also became the most egregious moment in the film when actual newsreel footage of Bruce Lee's funeral is used. The scene includes a brief clip of Lee’s corpse displayed in his open top casket. While it fit the script of an action star faking his death, the inclusion of this newsreel in the film was considered poor taste, especially in China. These scenes are easy to laugh at now given the technology available today, but considering the circumstances, the production team must be acknowledged for their creativity. Overall, they do the best they can considering the situation and resources available in 1978, piecing together a storyline that leads up to Lee's previously filmed footage.

When Lee finally makes his official appearance in the film, the movie completely changes. His personality takes up the entire screen. The fights that transpire are explosive, and Lee is at the top of his game, wearing his now iconic yellow and black jump suit. The nunchuck battle against Dan Inosanto is mesmerizing. Lee’s lightning quickness taunts Inosanto with an unrivaled fury. The next two levels feature Korean hapkido master Ji Han Jae, and the now famous fight with 7 foot tall Kareem Abdul Jabar. While the movie was a box office success, it was not well received by critics. In all, Clouse was only able to use 11 minutes and 7 seconds of Lee's footage. It marked the end of Lee's tragically short career. Yet this brief last glimpse of Lee solidified him as an icon, reigniting the kung fu craze ten fold.

Seizing the opportunity, many studios cashed in on Lee’s fame with dozens of inexpensive Bruce Lee inspired films. Following the success of Game of Death, several kung fu actors changed their names. It wasn’t long before every new kung-fu film starred “Bruce - fill in the blank.” Sequels were made to Fist of Fury and Way Of The Dragon, and cleverly titled films such as Re-Enter The Dragon, Enter The Game Of Death saturated the kung-fu film market. When distributed to America, these films were often advertised as starring Bruce Lee, even though they starred tribute actors such as Bruce Le and Bruce Li. Brucesploitation hit a low point with the film The Dragon Lives Again, a plot that involves Bruce Lee descending into Hell to join forces with Popeye to fight James Bond and Dracula. At least 60 known Brucesploitation films were made during the late ‘70s in what has now become one of the grossest displays of exploitation is cinematic history. In the end, a lot of actors could mimic Bruce Lee, but no one could replace him.

There is no way of knowing what heights Lee would have soared. The success of Enter The Dragon made him a world wide star, and that status would have afforded every opportunity imaginable. Similar to the premature deaths of James Dean and Buddy Holly, Lee never got to enjoy the height of his success. Game of Death, with all its flaws gave fans the most powerful lasting image of Lee. The yellow and black jump suit has become a trademark with the kung fu star. It has been paid homage to over 50 times in pop culture entertainment. It was most notably used in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film Kill Bill. With a screen presence larger than life Bruce Lee’s legacy lives on. Many have attempted to follow in his footsteps, each mimicking his likeness, philosophy and technique. It is a testament to Lee’s influence, and the magnitude of his personality. Forty years after his death, the fire of the Dragon is still burning strong, inspiring all to achieve their own personal greatness.

Lee L. Lind