Some five years after Bruce Lee’s death, director Robert Clouse and Golden Harvest brought Lee’s final project, The Game of Death to the big screen. One problem: before dying, Lee had filmed only a portion of the entire film, and to make matters worse, some of that footage had been misplaced by the studio. Undaunted, the powers-that-be hired a stand-in to replace Lee, and even reused footage from his earlier films to pad out the film’s running time.
The result? By most accounts, Game of Death is a cinematic travesty that did a grave disservice to Lee’s memory and/or one of the most unintentionally funny movies ever made. Considering all the onscreen and presumably offscreen ridiculousness that went into the making of that film, one could imagine that the behind-the-scenes story of Game of Death would make for one helluva movie.
In 2007, many thought that Justin Lin, director of Better Luck Tomorrow and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift would deliver such a film when it was announced that his post-Tokyo Drift project, Finishing the Game would be a mockumentary revolving around the filming of Game of Death and the “Search for a new Bruce Lee.” However, the finished film turned out to be something quite different, as its focus was not on the real-life circumstances surrounding the project, but a completely invented one instead.
Although it won’t be clear to viewers initially, the fictional events of Finishing the Game are supposed to occur before Robert Clouse took over the directorial reins of Game of Death. The film picks up shortly after Bruce Lee’s death just as the young, grossly inexperienced Ronney Kurtainbaum (Topher Grace lookalike Jake Sandvig) is tapped as the director for The Game of Death by his movie producer father (Sam Bottoms). With the help of a control freak casting director (Meredith Scott Lynn), Ronney embarks on an extensive casting search for Bruce Lee’s replacement. But what he thought would be a simple task turns out to be more problematic than he expected.
Topping the list of possible candidates is Breeze Loo (Roger Fan), a smooth-talking self-promoter who has already starred in numerous “Bruceploitation” films before finding himself vying for the coveted starring role in Game of Death. Although clearly a Bruce Lee copycat through and through, Breeze is able to distinguish himself from his illustrious predecessor in at least one amusing way: Breeze doesn’t do any of his own stunts, a fact he’s quite proud of. Amusingly enough, Raja (Mousa Kraish), a doctor of South Asian descent who is also attending the audition, serves as Breeze’s rather conspicuous stunt double.
Another relatively strong contender to take Lee’s place is the sweet-natured, if a little dumb Cole Kim (Sung Kang), whose earnest desire to break into showbiz previously resulted in him unknowingly taking a role in a Ron Jeremy porno film. One candidate who seems desperate to get cast is Troy Poon (Dustin Nguyen), a struggling actor-turned-vacuum cleaner salesman who endured numerous stereotypical roles in Hollywood before landing a role of a lifetime in a popular TV cop drama, only to see it all go to hell thanks to some pretty terrible life choices by his pretty boy co-star (an hilarious James Franco).
Rounding out this motley crew of wannabe actors is Tarrick Tyler (McCaleb Burnett), an Asian activist who believes himself to be the perfect man to take Lee’s place, despite the glaring fact that he is of Caucasian descent. And if you think that’s bad, the rest of the candidates are even worse. Clearly, Bruce Lee - the man, the myth, the legend - is utterly irreplaceable.
Although all of the aforementioned actors portraying the would-be Bruce Lees are amusing, there are two performances worth singling out. For one, Roger Fan delivers an excellent performance as the egomaniacal Breeze Loo. Not only are his nonstop monologues of self-promotion quite funny, but the inclusion of “vintage footage” of one of his films is one of the comedic highlights of the film. The other performance worth mentioning is Sung Kang, who takes a rather one-dimensional role as everyman Cole Kim and convincingly portrays the anger and frustration bubbling up from what seems like a perpetual goofy grin.
The cinematography by Tom Clancey (not Patriot Games author Tom Clancy) is worth praising as well, as it lends a wholly authentic 70s era, B-movie look to Finishing The Game,, most notably in the hilarious Breeze Loo chopsocky flicks. It also doesn’t hurt that composer Brian Tyler (Bubba Ho-Tep and 2008’s Rambo) contributes a similarly period soundtrack to the proceedings. In terms of its actors, its look, and its score, Finishing The Game is spot-on.
Unfortunately, it’s just not very funny as a whole. Truth be told, Finishing the Game boasts perhaps the funniest, most well-edited comedy trailer I’ve seen in a long time. As a result, my anticipation level was high for the film, but once I saw the film, I soon discovered that not only does the trailer show every funny gag in the entire movie, but that the comic timing present in that trailer is more or less absent in the final edit.
Of course, those who haven’t seen the trailer beforehand will perhaps find Finishing the Game a bit more humorous than I did, but ultimately, I felt it was only chuckleworthy at best, as most of the remaning jokes fall flat. The film has a number of comic targets – Bruceploitation films, white guys with a fetish for Asian culture, and the lack of quality roles for Asian actors - but a lot of the humor is muddled, particularly in the case of that last target since pretty much all of the Asian men auditioning to be Bruce Lee’s role aren’t very good actors to begin with. Clearly, none of them are “The New Bruce Lee.”
More likely to elicit an occasional wry smile than any actual belly laughs, Finishing the Game amounts to little more than a sporadically amusing, but mostly disappointing misfire from the otherwise promising Asian American director, Justin Lin. Better luck next time. (Calvin McMillin, 2008)