There’s a long history in Hollywood of shelved projects, abandoned franchise dreams, stalled careers, and entire genres that lost favor or profitability. 9 times out 10 these problems and failures are the result of a myriad of complex issues and contributing factors. Sometimes though… Sometimes you can pretty much pin everything on one film that fucked it up for everyone. Whether it’s a movie that killed a rival project, destroyed a filmmaker’s career, squashed some brilliant idea, or took the shine off of an entire genre, this CHUD List will catalog the films that were just total, unapologetic Cockblocks.
Day 5 (Game of Death)
THE COCK: Bruce Lee’s Game of Death was going to be the ultimate showcase for the rising star’s skill, as well as the perfect demonstration of his martial art Jeet Kune Do’s adaptivity to other styles. Written, directed, and choreographed by the man, it featured a simple story of a retired marital artist who is hired by a gang to retrieve some sort of macguffin from the top of a pagoda in South Korea. Guns are not allowed there and the place is closely guarded by numerous martial arts masters. To get to the top Lee would have had to fight through a pack of 50 fighters and then face five levels of kung fu masters, with each successive floor featuring a tougher foe. That was pretty much the film, fight after fight after fight, showing Lee feel out each foe and use his own weakness against him.
But it was not to be…
THE BLOCK: Enter The Dragon (1973)
Everyone knows it. It’s the film you associate with Bruce Lee, his biggest and most famous film.
How it Went Down:
Bruce Lee was in the middle of filming Game of Death in 1972 when Warner Brothers came a knockin’ with the offer for him to star in Enter The Dragon. The Chinese-American co-production (the first one, ever) boasted a budget of $850,000, a sum never before seen in the genre. It was too tempting for the actor, who put Game of Death on hold to work on the film.
He never made it back. Soon after Dragon finished shooting Lee died of cerebral edema, basically water on the brain, most likely caused by aspirin. That’s right- one of the toughest men to ever exist, a man who stuntman were afraid to work with, who moved too fast for film to properly catch- was ultimately felled by aspirin at the age of 32.
Enter the Dragon went on to earn millions of dollars worldwide and turn Lee into a massive star… just a bit too late. But there was another film to come!
Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse was hired to save Game of Death, which only had filmed three complete fights of the five levels of the Pagoda- “Palace of the Tiger,” where Lee faced Filipino martial arts master Dan Inosanto, the “Palace of the Dragon” which housed hapkido master Ji Han Jae, and the climatic final battle where he fought basketball star (and student!) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Clouse filmed additional footage using stand-ins and stunt doubles, hoping in vain that people wouldn’t realize that it wasn’t actually Lee.
Game of Death was released in 1978 but it bore little resemblance to the film that it was supposed to be. It featured a completely new plot about a martial arts movie star who’s been fingered for execution by a gang. An attempt on his life fails but Lee’s character takes a bullet in the face, requiring plastic surgery and plenty of inventive disguises that do a terrible job of covering up the fact that Lee isn’t present.
The new Game of Death only used 11 minutes of footage from the original and it’s quite easy to see which is which, because the stuff that Clouse shot is noticeably higher quality that the older film. Besides that they also reused footage from old Bruce Lee movies to give him more screen time. Chuck Norris almost sued Golden Harvest after they used footage from Way of the Dragon in the film and credited him as an actor on the poster.
Bullet Dodged, or Greatness Robbed:
Debatable. Enter the Dragon is certainly a kung fu classic but if Game of Death had lived up to its potential it could have been something amazing.
But considering what film he went out on, let’s consider him robbed.
Verdict: Greatness Robbed.
The Alternate Universe:
Bruce Lee creates one of the greatest marital arts movies ever made. The lack of stress from carrying a massive production on his back doesn’t give him a headache and so he stays away from the aspirin. We are blessed with another ten to twenty years of amazing films from the man before he starts to slow down and appear in shitty American comedies, finally returning to China in his old age to try and reclaim some of his legacy.
We’re left with a film that threatened to tarnish Lee’s name, one that makes very little sense and even manages to be quite offensive. The tactics they use to mask the various performers pretending to be Lee range from the silly- sunglasses and hats- to the absurd, like a moment where new lead actor Kim Tai Chung sits in front of a mirror which has a blatant cardboard cutout of Bruce Lee’s face pasted on it.
Worst of all? The new Game of Death includes a scene where Lee’s character fakes his own death, and the filmmakers used actual footage from Lee’s real-life funeral for this moment.
Still, even with its many flaws the film managed to seep into the public consciousness. The fight between the 7’2″ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lee is such a spectacle that it couldn’t go without notice, and Lee’s famous yellow and black tracksuit is still being copied and parodied, appearing in dozens of films and videogames.
One good thing to come out of this was a documentary called Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, an amazing feature-length doc on the man which included a good chunk of never-before-seen footage from Game of Death.
Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, which can be found on the double-disc dvd of Enter The Dragon.
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