Of all the films Bruce Lee made, the five that constitute his "star vehicles" (The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon, and Game of Death) depict a wild sprint to perfect a formula for Lee. Looking at the first two films (paired by Shout! in the first Bruce Lee Double Feature), Fist more than makes up for Boss' limited number of Lee fights (the movie was actually trying to make co-star James Tien into the star), sending Lee on a brooding rampage to reclaim the dignity stolen from his school and mentor. Way of the Dragon finds Lee in the director's chair, where he freely experiments with the tone and his own image, but Game of Death is the unfulfilled last step, making this second double feature a very mixed bag.
In Way of the Dragon, Lee is Tang Lung, brought from Hong Kong to Rome to help out at a restaurant owned by his Uncle Wang (Wang-Chung-hsin). Uncle Wang and his niece, Chen Ching-hua (Miao Tien) are being terrorized by a mafia boss (John T. Benn), who keeps sending henchmen over to terrorize the customers in an attempt to get Uncle Chen to sell him the restaurant, so that it can be mowed down to make way for new construction. At first, Tang Lung isn't quite sure how he's meant to help and struggles to understand a foreign culture, but the brutal force of Chinese boxing turns out to be a universal language for the boss' goons.
Lee infuses Way of the Dragon with some goofy comedy to try and set it apart from Fist of Fury, and it works, even when the comedy is hit and miss. An opening scene of Tang eating in an airport restaurant is more awkward than funny because there's only inferred context to go on: Tang is in the airport with a bag, so we're meant to piece together that he's waiting to be picked up and not vice versa, but there are touches, such as a shot of a cat playing with a piece of rubble during the climactic fight between Tang and Colt (Chuck Norris), that work a little better. Ultimately, the experiment is kind of a toss-up: on one hand, the comedy never makes the villains less menacing or Lee less cool, so the gags play like seasoning on a similar dish, but on the other hand, the movie still gets pretty brutal and dark in the home stretch.
The same year Way of the Dragon was released, Lee began filming material for Game of Death, his next directorial effort. The story was meant to follow a retired martial artist working his way through a five-level tower, defeating a new threat on each floor, to get to an unidentified item held by Korean underworld gangs on the top floor. After shooting a portion of the film, Lee was offered Enter the Dragon, and the call of a starring role in a big-budget American film was too much to resist. Lee signed on, intending to finish Game of Death afterward, but his death in 1973 ended those plans. Five years later, director Robert Clouse took the unfinished footage and wrote a new script about a martial arts movie star named Billy Lo, who resists pressure from gangsters who try to assassinate him (somewhat eerily, they do so by putting a real bullet in a movie gun). The re-written film was completed using body doubles and sporadic use of footage from Lee's other movies.
Game of Death's "after-the-fact" completion is pretty well-known, but knowing doesn't necessarily prepare viewers for how poorly and how extensively the doubling of Lee really is. One source claims 100 minutes of footage was shot, while IMDb claims only 30, but in any case, only 11 and a half minutes of Bruce Lee scenes filmed for Game of Death appear in the 100-minute movie. The other 88 minutes are extensively padded scenes of American cast woodenly delivering exposition about, around, and to Billy, played by Clouse's poorly-disguised doubles. Worse, since these doubles (Yuen Biao and Kim Tai-jong) don't really look anything like Lee, Clouse employs an increasingly ludicrous series of tricks to help obscure a character who is ostensibly the film's protagonist. Dinner conversations are cast in shadow, scenes that cry for close-up are shot from 10 feet away, and many of the fight scenes bend over backward to show the action from a single angle. In one early shot, Clouse goes so far as to place a still frame of Lee's head over motion footage of one of the doubles (it looks like an optical composite, although the internet says it's even cheaper: a cardboard mask, taped to the mirror). It would almost be kind of fun in a "train-wreck" kind of way, but Clouse seriously crosses a line when the Lo character fakes his own death, and Clouse includes footage of Bruce Lee's actual dead body (that this happens almost an hour before any footage of the actual Lee appears just adds insult to injury).
Fight-wise, Biao and Tai-jong do their best, but 90 minutes of some other guy only serve to make the audience deeply impatient for a glimpse of the real thing. Despite some speed-ramped footage and awkward inserts from other Lee movies, neither of his replacements can move as fast or evoke the same cool (in no small part because Clouse is trying to hide their faces). A scene where one of the doubles fights Bob Wall in a locker room is especially terrible; a little callback to Way of the Dragon suggests that Wall's role may have been intended for Norris, who wisely turned the role down. A replacement fighting a replacement -- Game of Death in a nutshell. Even the "finale," in which Lee finally appears, feels like too little, too late, especially since Clouse has to return to the double for the movie's final scene: Lo walks in on a dummy of the big boss designed to fool him...an unintentionally fitting conclusion.
Like Shout! Factory's other DVD double feature, this disc arrives in a transparent case, with photos of Bruce Lee from the two films inside a flaming yin-yang symbol. It's a fairly decent design and much more visually appealing than the art for the Jackie Chan double features Shout! has been putting out, but the back covers lack photos from the films, and don't include crucial information about the audio (see below). Another capture of Lee from one of the two movies shows through inside the case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Shout! has licensed Fortune Star transfers for this release, and they look okay, if slightly different (and, in the case of Way of the Dragon, possibly a touch inferior) to the previously-released 2006 20th Century Fox box set, which also featured Fortune Star-branded transfers. As with the other Lee Double Feature disc, the skintones on Way appear to have gone a little pink, which may be distracting. Otherwise, both transfers look fine, with minor improvements in the richness of color for Game of Death. During Way of the Dragon, there is some fluctuation in color, which is identical to the 20th Century Fox set, but Shout! has de-emphasized it slightly. On their own, this is a strong image for a foreign film from the '70s, with little to no print damage, and I didn't see any significant compression artifacts despite having two features stuck on one disc.
Of course -- again, just like Shout's other Lee Double Feature -- the only audio for these films is English, both in 5.1 and 2.0. This is okay for Game of Death, which was only ever released (in this form) in English, but it's a disappointment for Way of the Dragon. The dubs are tinny and muffled, with slight distortion on original sound effects and slight over-amplification of the new English audio and effects. There are also some new, terrible effects (like the occasional cartoon bass noise for thugs falling down in Dragon), and the acting hits all the usual terrible bases for a dub: stilted delivery, weird syntax and cadence stemming from attempts to match the actors' mouths, etc. No subtitles are included.
Any death at 32 is tragic, but Lee's is only made moreso by the incredible pace at which he was able to refine his screen persona. Way of the Dragon isn't bad, but it's clearly a transition film designed to allow Lee to stretch his legs as a director and screenwriter. Game of Death could have been something really special, another huge leap forward for him as a performer, but this version of the finished film (there's at least one other reconstruction and at least a couple of documentaries on the film's production) is an embarrassment that exploits him for all he's worth. In a box set with some documentary pieces to give it historical context, Game of Death would be welcome, but a middling experiment and a colossal failure don't make a good pair. Add in the English-only presentation of Way of the Dragon and this is a big skip it.
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