Bruce Lee’s death in 1973 caused a void in the Hong Kong film industry that left local filmmakers scrambling to find an heir apparent. Unfortunately, this led to “Bruceploitation,” a phenomenon in which an array of lookalike actors began starring in low-rent quickie sequels, spin-offs and “original” films capitalizing on Lee’s name.
In some ways, even 1979’s The Game of Death could be considered a part of this infamous tradition. Although it is considered an “official” Lee film due to its incorporation of significant footage featuring the actor, director Robert Clouse relied on body double Kim Tai-Chung and insert shots from previous Lee films to pad the movie’s running time. Considering the actor’s untimely demise, one might assume that Game of Death would mark Lee’s cinematic swansong. However, Golden Harvest producer Raymond Chow had other ideas. The result of Chow’s “Eureka!” moment was Game of Death II, a sequel that utilizes even more footage of Bruce Lee to create an all-new, largely incoherent narrative.
The film, alternatively known as Tower of Death, brings back Billy Lo, once again portrayed by a pairing of returning actor Kim Tai-Chung and old footage of Bruce Lee. With little connective tissue to the previous film, Game of Death II focuses initially on the friendship between Billy and martial arts master Chin Ku (Hwang Jang-Lee). During a meandering first act meant purely to integrate scenes of the real Bruce Lee, Chin Ku succumbs to a sudden illness, a turn of events that Billy regards with suspicion. When a helicopter shows up at the funeral to steal the deceased martial artist’s casket, Billy tries to intervene, but ends up getting killed in the process.
With Billy dead, it’s time for Bobby Lo, the rebellious and previously unseen younger sibling, to make his first appearance – and he’s played by Kim Tai-Chung as well! After tracking down Chin Ku’s sister in a plot thread that goes absolutely nowhere, Bobby deduces that his brother’s pal was getting friendly with a scruffy-looking Westerner named Lewis (Roy Horan) who hangs out in the ominously named “Castle of Death.”
Thinking that Lewis may be responsible for the deaths of both Chin Ku and his elder brother, Bobby pays the man a visit. As it turns out, Lewis is a complete lunatic, prone to carrying around a capuchin monkey, bragging about his mastery over peacocks, and getting a little too close for comfort with a pride of pet lions. Oh, and Lewis also loves to eat raw venison and sip deer’s blood that looks suspiciously like red Gatorade. If Lewis wasn’t weird enough, the man also retains a one-armed, scar-faced valet (To Wai-Woo), who becomes strangely threatened by Bobby’s presence. In a laugh-out loud sequence, Lewis takes an obvious shine to Bobby, and the film cuts to the valet’s glowering, teary-eyed expression. I guess even for a villain and a henchman, the nights can get awfully lonely in the Castle of Death.
Conveniently, Bobby heads over to the nearby but apparently unaffiliated “Tower of Death,” a Japanese-style pagoda built straight down into the earth. It’s a neat concept, but the execution leaves something to be desired. In The Game of Death, Bruce Lee’s character fought a slew of increasingly stronger villains all the way to the top of the tower, so one might expect a similar series of battles in the sequel. Ng See-Yuen had other ideas, as Bobby unceremoniously takes an elevator down to the bottom floor.
After infiltrating what appears to be a poor man’s version of Blofeld’s lair from You Only Live Twice, Bobby dispatches an armada of henchmen dressed in silver spaceman suits straight out of a 1950s sci-fi flick. Once the cannon fodder is out of the way, he’s confronted by a leopard print-wearing “Wildman” (Yang Cheng-Chu), a Shaolin monk (the great Lee Hoi-San), and finally, the film’s mysterious villain in a climactic battle that in no way rivals Lee’s tussle with 7-foot 2-inch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the first film.
To this point, my review has relied heavily on plot synopsis rather than critique, but in some ways, the summary is the critique, as what passes for a story in Game of Death is almost too ridiculous to describe. The film is so inept that it’s charming. Consider the sepia-toned flashback montage, which retraces events that occurred only five minutes earlier. Or the man-eating lion attack that is so obviously a stuntman dressed in an unconvincing costume. And don’t get me started on the film’s seduction scene, in which a naked blonde temptress (Miranda Austin) uses her feminine wiles on a strangely horny Bobby Lo. What passes for erotic here is actually grotesque beyond words.
As with its predecessor, Game of Death II utilizes footage from The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), Way of the Dragon (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973). However, the integration of these scenes often demonstrates little regard for continuity, with film stocks, hairstyles, costumes and background imagery seldom matching. For example, while the film smartly employs actor Roy Chiao to match footage culled from Enter the Dragon, even the most obtuse viewer will notice that Chiao’s shoddy beard and costume in the newly shot footage don’t quite match up with the better-looking scene from Enter the Dragon.
A more egregious moment occurs when the film flashes back to Billy’s youth. This device allows the filmmakers to make use of redubbed black-and-white footage of The Kid (1950) and Lei Yu (1957), which both feature Lee as a youth. And while these scenes are nice to see, did they really need onscreen captions that identify “Billy” as Bruce Lee? So much for verisimilitude!
Really, you don’t have to look too carefully to see the stitching in this Frankenstein’s Monster of a film. The whole Billy/Bobby plot hand-off seems to have been contrived midway through production, as the mise en scene, costuming and framing of a number of sequences suggest that the entire film was meant to focus on Billy from the start. At various moments after Billy’s demise, you can see where pre-existing footage of Bruce Lee was initially meant to be intercut. There’s a “mission briefing” sequence involving Bobby that looks identical to a scene in Enter the Dragon, while late in the film the catsuit-wearing Bobby ends up in an area of the Tower of Death that looks suspiciously like Han’s dungeon lair in the same film. And while Kim Tai-Chung’s face can be clearly seen, the actor is often filmed in shadow or in profile, as if to hide his features.
While the film’s ineptitude might win fans amongst those who’d rank it in the “so bad, it’s good” category, there’s no question that it pales in comparison to any of Lee’s previous films. While solid filmmakers like Yuen Woo-Ping, Corey Yuen Kwai and Sammo Hung lent their hands to the action sequences in Game of Death II, the film is an unmitigated disaster and an embarrassing “tribute” to an already legendary icon, less than ten years removed from his death. (Calvin McMillin, 2011)