Dave Foster has reviewed the Region 2/4 release of Game of Death. The last Hong Kong Legends Bruce Lee film release is their best package yet that comes with the HKL Platinum Edition seal of approval. Fortunately this otherwise lacklustre film is saved by the explosive fight sequences and a superb range of extra features.
Although I am sure many of those reading will be well aware of this fact, I need to point out that Game of Death was never actually completed by Bruce Lee, as sadly he died after finishing just 40-minutes worth of edited footage. For various reasons (money quite obviously being one) Golden Harvest returned to the film 5-years after Lee’s death with the plan to use some of the footage Lee had completed and weave an all new story around it via the use of doubles, insert shots from old footage and what was surely meant to be a well written script. Sadly, when Game of Death was completed in 1978 by Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse it failed to meet any of the criteria that Bruce Lee himself was originally aiming for and instead became a movie that is only worth watching to capture Lee at what is possibly his all time best.
A mixture of body doubles and of course Bruce Lee take the lead role of Billy Lo, a Hong Kong film star that, along with his girlfriend, Ann Morris (Colleen Camp) is being targeted by a local Syndicate to work for them (which would no doubt lead to some shady deals). Steadfastly refusing to be beaten by their underhand tactics Billy Lo takes advantage of a botched assassination attempt to fake his death so he can go undercover to unearth the Syndicate. This in turn leads to Billy Lo ending up in a restaurant for the final showdown wherein the original 1972 Bruce Lee footage is seamlessly interwoven (well, almost!) to create a quite stunning finale to an otherwise dire film.
Game of Death truly is one of those Hong Kong Movies that you ONLY watch for the action. Thanks to the creative genius that is Sammo Hung we are treated to several fights (using the various Bruce Lee doubles) that manage to spice up the otherwise lifeless, poorly scripted, laughably acted (well, I guess they did the best they could with the script) and outright evil first 60-minutes of the film. Sammo’s crowning glory is the fight he choreographed for Bob Wall (in the Locker Room) that even today, still has me questioning (briefly) whether it really is Bruce Lee or not performing some stunning moves! It is however scenes like this that make you wish the Clouse had been given the boot so Sammo could take over as he would no doubt have taken the time to work on the previous fight scenes (and the movie itself!) to create a look and feel that would have elevated Game of Death no end. Getting back to the film then, after 70-minutes of what is mostly pure drivel we are treated to 11-minutes of some of the finest onscreen Martial Arts action that Bruce Lee ever filmed and in many ways it is quite disheartening to watch as you realise that after two films with full control over the fight choreography he was really coming into his own and creating some truly visually stunning work. Trust me, your mouth will drop at the newly re-instated (thank you BBFC!) one-on-one Nunchuku fight sequence (with the equally superb Dan Inosanto) and you will (or at least you should!) be delighted at how Lee adapts the various fighting methods of his three opponents to beat them in the closing scenes.
If you can stomach the lesser than TV-Movie quality plot, scripting and acting, or if you simply skip to the fight sequences (which apart from the actual Bruce Lee footage is rather difficult to do thanks to a lack of chapter stops) then Game of Death is a movie that is well worth a look and although you may wonder just why HKL chose such a poor film to dispose their Platinum Edition seal upon then maybe you should read on to find out it is the wealth of extra features that make this release a worthy purchase.
This Hong Kong Legends DVD is dual encoded for both R2 and R4. Please note that some Playstation 2 owners have not been able to play Disc 2 of this release, there is a Press Release regarding this issue on the HKL website and suffice to say it is the PS2 DVD Drivers that are at fault, not this DVD (although the problem can be fixed).
For a film that was completed in 1978 Game of Death looks absolutely amazing by Hong Kong standards. Maintaining the original 2:35:1 Aspect Ratio and employing Anamorphic Enhancement the print used is in quite exceptional condition showing very little in terms of the typical deterioration that Hong Kong titles exhibit with only the occasional speck here and there betraying its origins, this I believe is probably down to the production being a joint American/Chinese effort (so therefore the film stock used was most likely of a higher quality). The only area of the film where the print condition does lower in quality is where the original 1972 footage is used, here you will see the grain level increase along with a greater level of specks making themselves known while colour rendition and black levels are also noticeably different and of a lower quality than the 1978 footage (although it still looks good!). For the most part though detail is high as is the colour rendition while black levels are again quite impressive for a film of this age, even grain is kept to a bare minimum on what is probably the best Bruce Lee disc HKL have produced.
As Game of Death was foremost an American production with American actors HKL have provided us with the original English Dub remixed into the Dolby Digital 5.1 format (so no complaining about the lack of a Cantonese soundtrack). Dialogue is clearly presented via the centre speaker while sound effects are crisp (but lack in directional effects) but best of all, the original John Barry score – that is one of the high points of the 1978 production – has been projected around the room to make great use of the rears. As was to be expected this is another low-key remix from the HKL team but again it sounds great and does its job well. Dutch subtitles are present for those that require them.
For their first Platinum Edition 2-Disc set HKL have quite rightly shifted the large majority of extra features to the second disc, but in typical fashion Disc 1 still features a bumper selection of extra features that make most standard releases pale in comparison. The first offering to be found on Disc 1 is a feature length Audio Commentary with Hong Kong Movie expert Bey Logan. Any HKL regular will be well aware of what to expect and here Bey completes his Bruce Lee film commentaries (come on Warner, hire this man for Enter the Dragon!) in style by adding another track that is worthy of repeated listens. Wisely skipping over the Bruce Lee story (he has told it before on other commentaries, plus it is covered in-depth elsewhere on this DVD) he mostly looks into the history of Game of Death (although, again, quite briefly) and its current status. Every major (and most minor) actor is covered, as are Director Robert Clouse and action director Sammo Hung in what is a highly comprehensive commentary where Bey will also explain the differences between the International Print and the Cantonese print and of course information on the difference in the films original concept and how the original footage was used. For such a complete commentary I was surprised that Bey does not elaborate on how he discovered the original footage, especially as there is barely a mention of it elsewhere on this DVD but ultimately what we have here is the always entertaining Bey Logan who is even capable of making this severely average film extremely watchable.
Moving on you will find the same animated biography that was present on previous HKL Bruce Lee titles The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. Running for 21-minutes this is a comprehensive insight into ‘The Little Dragon’ that is thoughtfully broken into 10 convenient chapter stops (a feature HKL should consider for their other, considerably longer, animated biographies). Finally on Disc 1 you will also find 5 Deleted Scenes that are taken from the extended Cantonese Print of the film (Please Note these scenes are included as Deleted Scenes as they were added for the Asian market and were not part of the directors original vision). Of particular note here is the ‘Glass House Fight’ that showcases the best Sammo Hung created fight sequence for Game of Death and features the extremely talented Casanova Wong in fine form. The other scenes consist of an alternative Title sequence, an extended Ending and a couple more scenes with some extended dialogue. Each scene has a text introduction explaining where they fit into the film and you will be pleased to know that HKL restoration does not stop with the main feature itself as all of these scenes have been restored and are presented in Anamorphic Widescreen (2:35:1) with DD2.0 sound and English subtitles.
Apart from a Theatrical Trailer for HKL forthcoming Chow Yun-Fat title, Hong Kong 1941, that is about it for Disc 1. When you pop disc 2 into your DVD player you are presented with ‘5 floors’ of extras, each floor has a particular theme with the fifth being the most exciting.
Floor One – Gate to Enlightenment: features extras of the static kind. A text based Game of Death Retrospective penned by Will Johnstone (Bruce Lee Association) makes for an excellent read as we learn about Bruce’s original plans for the film in a depth that none of the other extra features can manage. History of Jeet Kune Do is another text based feature that looks at Bruce’s own training and how he eventually adapted that and his various encounters into his own personal concept known as Jeet Kune do. The final extra feature to be found on floor one is a Photo Gallery section that, like previous Bruce Lee HKL DVDs, is both well presented and consists of many interesting photographs (rather than the typical screen grabs) including Lobby cards, Theatrical Posters and many other rare photos relating to Bruce Lee and Game of Death.
Floor Two – Temple of the Praying Mantis: Here you will find Trailers and TV-Spots for Bruce Lee HKL titles and while these extras make this floor the least interesting they will certainly please all you completists out there. Six Trailers consist of the Original English and Cantonese Trailers for Game of Death along with the HKL Promo’s for Game of Death, Way of the Dragon, Fist of Fury and The Big Boss. Possibly most interesting are the TV Spots HKL created for Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, I certainly only remember catching these on Channel 4 late at night and I am sure many of you missed them completely so be sure to take a look.
Floor Three – Temple of the Tiger: otherwise known as the ‘Dan Inosanto Floor’. For Jeet Kune do practitioners, or indeed for those who practice or have an interest in any form of Martial Arts then this floor will provide you with much enjoyment. Starting off with a text based Biography of Dan Inosanto we learn about his initial training as a young boy to becoming one of Bruce Lee’s students and eventually achieving the prestigious status of the only ‘Bruce Lee approved teacher of Jeet Kune do’. Following this is a 10-minute interview with Dan Inosanto Warrior and Teacher (presented in Anamorphic Widescreen) where Dan explains the philosophy behind Jeet Kune do, and by delving fairly deep into his Masters teachings this becomes an interesting insight to the method Bruce Lee developed. Rounding off this floor is a Jeet Kune-Do Seminar with Dan Inosanto that lasts for a mammoth 40-minutes and is kindly split into three chapters (although there is no chapter list). Featuring Dan teaching the basics of the Jeet Kune-do concept with a student of his this is more focused on the basics of various styles and how by using the Jeet Kune do concept you can create a form that works best for you. This is a very interesting watch and although it is best suited to those who already practice a form of Martial Arts I am sure it will also provide an incentive for many others to go out and join a club, and at the very least you’ll learn some basic self-defence techniques (look out for a future news headline – “HKL DVD saved my life!”).
Floor Four – Temple of Gold: On this floor you will find two Interviews (presented in Anamorphic Widescreen) with friends of Bruce Lee who were to be involved with Game of Death (but sadly were not able to film any footage due to Lee’s untimely death) and there is also a montage of Out-Takes from the original unedited Game of Death footage that Lee shot. Taky Kimura Keeping the Flame Alive is a 10-minute interview with the man Lee wanted to play the second level master in his original Game of Death outline, Taky Kimura, but due to Lee’s early death Kimura never actually did any filming. Next up to talk about Bruce Lee is former Bond star, George Lazenby in a 7-minute interview entitled George Lazenby Reflections of the Master. Lazenby was again invited by Bruce to star in his original Game of Death outline but like Kimura never actually worked on the project. After these short but fairly interesting interviews there is the Game of Death Out-Take Montage that consists of unused shots, mistakes and general behind-the-scenes looks at the fight sequences that Lee shot for Game of Death. Strangely this section is presented in 4:3 Pan & Scan but as it only lasts for around 4-minutes I am sure we will survive!
Floor Five – Temple of the Unknown: Contained on this floor alone is nearly 90-minutes worth of extra material and unsurprisingly it turns out that HKL have saved the best till last. Legacy of the Dragon is a HKL produced 45-minute Bruce Lee Documentary (again presented in Anamorphic Widescreen) that, although initially looking as though it may be a little too ‘film-clip’ heavy soon proves to be a well written and entertaining look at Bruce’s Television and Movie history right up to and including the decision by various people to complete the unfinished Game of Death 5 years after his death. If there is anything missing from this Documentary (and indeed the rest of the disc) then it is the inclusion of at least a short clip with Bey Logan explaining his discovery of the original edited footage for Game of Death (as seen in the next extra feature on this floor) – this is quite a major omission especially when you consider that Logan is a prominent writer and speaker on Bruce Lee and was obviously on-hand to contribute to this disc (the Audio Commentary and Dubbing alone prove this fact).
Probably of most interest to any Bruce Lee fan out there is the Game of Death Revisited section that contains the original 40-minute edit of the three fight sequences Lee completed for Game of Death. Featuring two additional fighters that work alongside Bruce and all of the original dialogue that hints at what Bruce was aiming for in terms of Martial Arts philosophy this extra feature is almost worth the cost of this set alone! HKL have remastered the footage into 2:35:1 Non-Anamorphic Widescreen (that looks surprisingly good even when zoomed in on a Widescreen set) and included an all-new soundtrack as well as voice dubbing that includes talent such as (well, I am 99% sure about this) the now famous Audio Commentary Guru Bey Logan, who puts in a great performance as Bruce Lee himself! This really is a great extra feature that shows even more of that developing style in action choreography that I personally think Bruce was honing throughout his short career, and even if you disagree this is still an excellent look at what Game of Death could have been and features some outstanding displays of Martial Arts from everyone involved. Rounding off this stunning 2nd Disc is a Biography of Kareem Abdul Jabbar that is again text based and looks at the life of the final master of the Pagoda in Lee’s original Game of Death treatment.
Finally, I have to both praise and scold HKL over this second disc of extras. Praise comes thanks to the excellent quality to be found in all the extra features presented here and the outstanding Menu system that features original music and backgrounds for each floor and certainly puts to shame recent Hollywood efforts! The scolding comes in the form of ‘why oh why’ do we have to sit though the disclaimer on the extras disc! I can live with the lengthy disclaimer on Disc 1 (although I could do without it!) but there is absolutely no need for it on Disc 2!
For the outstanding picture and audio presentation, the re-instated uncut Nunchuku sequence and the Audio Commentary alone this would have been a worthy purchase for any Bruce Lee enthusiast (at a standard price of course). But thanks to this quite stunning 2-disc Platinum Edition with a wide range of interesting (and rewatchable) extra features this becomes a Bruce Lee DVD that any fan of Martial Arts would be quite foolish to miss out on!
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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