As you might recall, I didn’t much care for Robert Clouse’s GAME OF DEATH. Its exploitation of the life, death and films of Bruce Lee was incredibly distasteful, and the final product was a complete and utter mess. A travesty, and an embarrassing molestation of Lee’s vision. But, of course, it was a massive worldwide success upon release, spurred by audiences’ enthusiasm for more Bruce Lee after his death. Japan, perhaps surprisingly, was particularly enamored with the film despite its shortcomings, and that fascination has continued to this day. Something about GAME OF DEATH struck a chord in Japan, which even went as far as to piece together a recreation of the scenes and circumstances around Lee’s original vision and release it as BRUCE LEE IN G.O.D. back in 2000.
So, since it was a success, there simply HAD to be a sequel. But Raymond Chow, the head of Golden Harvest, had a bit of a quandary. They had exhausted Lee’s GAME OF DEATH footage for the previous film, and he didn’t have the resources to make another film geared toward the American market. While the doubling and intercut footage in the previous footage was shoddy, audiences accepted it since it eventually led to the climactic fights – which is the only thing people remember about the film, anyway. So, some creativity would be necessary to create something that could still – however fraudulently – be considered a “Bruce Lee” film. Recognizing that the Japanese market was ravenous for the first film, the sequel would be at least partially filmed in Japan, and given elements that would appeal to that market.
He hired Ng See-yuen, producer and writer of Jackie Chan’s SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and DRUNKEN MASTER, to helm this new production, and the two clashed early and often about the film’s direction. Discovering that the remaining Bruce Lee footage from GAME OF DEATH couldn’t be coherently incorporated into this new film, scenes from a variety of Lee productions – most notably ENTER THE DRAGON – were used, and while this time the editing is slightly better than in Clouse’s earlier film, it’s still entirely noticeable.
Thankfully, this distracting charade is eventually abandoned, making for an entirely more satisfying – though equally odd – film.
The strangest thing about GAME OF DEATH II (also known as TOWER OF DEATH) is that it’s actually a very entertaining and well-shot kung-fu movie. While including many of the same features which made the first film so offensive, it eventually sheds most of them to instead focus on a weird mash-up of James Bond, ENTER THE DRAGON and Japanese science fiction films. While it’s difficult to emotionally remove yourself from this being a Bruceploitation movie at heart, the final half hour has a near constant string of entertaining, unique fights in a variety of styles. It’s actually a much better film in almost every way from GAME OF DEATH, though has very little of the notoriety. Which is perhaps for the best.
It also exists in a variety of versions, with some removing the Bruce Lee element entirely. Returning from GAME OF DEATH is Tong Lung as the primary Bruce Lee double, as well as taking over the lead as Bobby Lo once Lee’s Billy Lo character tragically perishes. Also returning is Yuen Biao as the primary fight double, and the acrobatic genius behind some of the film’s most memorable moments. He even gets a brief appearance as a pole fighter this time. But Ng See-yuen’s genius move was in getting the help of three of the most talented choreographers in martial arts movie history. The lead choreographer was the amazing Yuen Woo-Ping (who had helmed See-yuen’s earlier Jackie Chan successes), with major assistance from Corey Yuen (one of the Seven Little Fortunes Peking opera troupe, and later a notable director in his own right), and a returning Sammo Hung. While Sammo received co-directing credit for his work on the first GAME OF DEATH, here he did some minor work – though the American version includes the Sammo-directed fight between Billy Lo and Casanova Wong edited out of the US version of the first GAME OF DEATH.
He also assembled an incredible collection of martial arts talent to ably assist Tong Lung in the lead. The great Korean fighter Hwang Jang Lee (aka Thunderleg, most well known for his part in DRUNKEN MASTER) is the lead villain, though that isn’t revealed until near the end. Sorry. US born Roy Horan, the Russian Priest from SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW, gets his most prominent part as the eccentric compound owner Lewis. Lee Hoi San, who played the baddie in THE MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER and had a notable part in THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN, appears late in the film as a villainous bald monk. Other recognizable faces (like Yuen Biao) pop up in small parts, while the late Roy Chiao (who played Billy Lo’s uncle in GAME OF DEATH) appears briefly to tie in an excised clip from ENTER THE DRAGON – which has since been inserted back into most releases.
The two continue to discuss the recent string of challengers, with us being treated to a flashback of the greenhouse fight with Casanova Wong that was edited out of the US version of the original GAME OF DEATH. In this case Wong is simply called a “Korean martial arts expert”, and there’s plenty of dialogue between the two. Thankfully, the fight itself is really strong, with broken glass and vases distracting from the occasional badly incorporated footage of Bruce Lee.
Billy goes to visit a local temple where the Abbot is an old friend and advisor. We meet him in that wonderful kung-fu way where he’s having two students put on an exhibition for him. One of these students is Yuen Biao, and the demonstration of pole fighting is INCREDIBLE. The Abbot (Roy Chiao) jumps into the fray briefly, before Billy arrives and the two walk out of frame.. and immediately into the outtake from ENTER THE DRAGON. Its been dubbed (terribly, as is everything in the film) so that the two discuss Billy’s troublesome, rebellious brother Bobby who is studying under the Abbot. Billy is reminded that he was a bit of a wild-card in his youth, which is displayed using footage of a variety of films Bruce Lee made as a child star in the 1950s and 60s. This method of introducing Bruce Lee footage is particularly egregious, as the clips are pretty ridiculous and don’t really fit the plot in any reasonable way.
Billy goes to visit his brother, but discovers a room full of birds and pornography instead. Yeah, in a moment of extreme pandering, we see Billy flip through a book of illustrated porn before tossing a pile of magazines in the garbage. Yes, magazines. Our first real indication that the film is supposed to take place in modern day. Billy leaves a copy of his Jeet Kune Do manual, as well as a letter suggesting that his brother pour his efforts into practicing.
Sometime later, we’re shown Billy reading a newspaper announcing the mysterious and sudden death of Chin Ku. His father enters the room to check on him, asking if perhaps Chin Ku overtrained(?), but Billy suspects there was foul play involved. Discovering that Chin Ku had a daughter, Billy travels to Japan to visit the club in which she sings. These scenes are nearly entirely Tong Lung, though there’s some awkward Bruce Lee footage when he confronts her backstage, upset that she’s singing so soon after her estranged father’s death. She reveals that her father left her some film, which she passes over to Billy before he’s attacked by two masked hit-men. He makes short work of them before escaping out onto the street – which allows us to see some really neat footage of early 80s Japan – and finding himself trapped in an alley and surrounded by baddies wearing yellow jackets. We get a GREAT fight as Billy Lo takes on eight guys by himself, and we immediately see that Tong Lung was really holding back in his fight scenes in GAME OF DEATH. Not only is he an impressive martial artist, but he also has legitimate screen presence. A shame that his minor resemblance to Lee was his claim to fame.
It should be noted that almost all of the footage up to this point is irrelevant, though at least we got a couple of neat fights out of it. Billy goes to Chin Ku’s funeral (along with his friend Sherman Lam, who is decked out in his Canadian tuxedo), but his attempts to see Ku’s coffin are squelched by a collection of guards, one of whom is that guy who looks like Bolo Yeung that pops up in some old school Golden Harvest films. How strange. Even weirder is that during the burial, a helicopter pops out of nowhere, lowering a claw down to steal the coffin! Billy (or, at least a dummy that sort of looks like him) hangs from the coffin in an attempt to stop the theft, but eventually gets stabbed in the neck and falls to his death. Death by misadventure, indeed.
This leads – once again – to footage of Bruce Lee’s actual funeral, which is overlaid with pictures from Lee’s life. It’s a disgusting example of exploitation, but mercifully is the end of the Bruce Lee element of the film. Bobby receives a letter from his father revealing Bobby’s fate, and it suggests that Bobby seek revenge for his brother’s death so his soul can rest in peace. Now, there’s no real suggestion that Bobby has cleaned up his act since reading his brother’s letter all of those months (weeks? days?) before, but we can guess that he’s a changed man since he’ll be kicking a TON of ass from this point until the end of the film.
Bobby (Tong Lung aka Kim Tai Chung) heads off to Japan to meet with Billy’s denim buddy Sherman Lam, who passes along the film that Bobby had received from Chin Ku’s daughter. The footage reveals Chin Ku meeting with his friend and student Lewis (Roy Horan), who runs a compound known as THE PALACE OF DEATH while being ably assisted by his one-armed valet (Roy Chiao). Bobby goes to visit Lewis at his Palace (where he likes having his men stand around while he performs kung-fu exhibitions), and is given a tour which includes Lewis’ pet monkey, a collection of trained peacocks(!) and a pack of lions (“Fierce like a lion and swift like a peacock”). It’s impressive, but awfully weird.
As they complete the tour, Lewis is challenged by “the Yen brothers”. They have a fight next to a collection of gravestones belonging to previous challengers, and while Lewis makes short work of the first, the second pulls a knife before Bobby leaps in to save the day. Impressed, Lewis invites Bobby to stay at his compound. During the night, Bobby starts sneaking around the grounds in search of clues regarding Chin Ku’s death, but instead runs into a masked attacker who he quickly fends off. A suspicious Lewis checks on him, but suggests he gets back to bed and that they’ll talk in the morning.
The next morning Bobby encounters Lewis eating a breakfast of raw venison and deer blood. How delightful. Bobby says that he suspects Lewis’ valet of being involved in the attack, and worries that Lewis’ life might be in danger. We learn that the valet used to be a monk at the nearby Fan Yu temple, which is said to have a TOWER OF DEATH that was actually built into the ground, upside down. I wonder if we’re going to get a look at this tower?
Now, things are about to get really silly. That evening, Bobby is exercising in his room on the compound when he’s interrupted by an arriving prostitute (named THE ANGEL) who strips down to give us some full-frontal nudity, before seducing Bobby (who flashes back to all of his old porno). Of course, she’s actually an assassin, and attempts to stab Bobby with a weapon hidden in her ring. While fighting her off, he also gets attacked by A VERY FAKE LION. It’s actually a person in a lion costume, and it’s unclear if we’re supposed to think it’s an actual animal, or if it’s supposed to be clear that it’s just a man in a costume. Either way, it’s really silly. Eventually he takes it down by smashing it with a chair, and in the ruckus The Angel ended up stabbing herself to death. What a way to go.
While Bobby is distracted by that ridiculousness, Lewis is attacked on bed by a masked attacker who slips a noose around his neck and then hangs him, before stabbing him in the stomach. The body is discovered the next day, and Bobby rightfully suspects the valet. He tracks him to the Fan Yu temple, where he actually fights him with one hand, before the valet reveals that he actually has two hands. Ha! What a joker! After some choice dialogue (“You can go to hell, because I’m not afraid of you”), Bobby beats him to death. He’s convinced that the secret lies within the TOWER OF DEATH, and starts beating up a few guards and stealing their clothes before discovering the secret entrance, which looks lot like Han’s hideout in ENTER THE DRAGON. Bobby hops in an elevator and away we go.
Everything from here on out is just amazing. Bizarre James Bond meets Kaiju production design, amazing fights, and great set pieces. First Bobby arrives in a room full of guards wearing shiny silver jumpsuits and wielding spears that look like harpoons. There’s lots of weird flashing lights, and a pool full of acid for some reason. Bobby takes out the whole collection, and it’s amazing to watch. A door slides open, revealing a strong-man wearing a leopard print wrestling singlet (Tiger Yang). This is another great confrontation, as Bobby fights using an iron pole before the baddie bends it across his neck. Eventually, Tiger Yang picks up a box and in an amazing moment Bobby does a flying kick THROUGH THE BOX and crushes Yang’s face with his foot. Bobby locks on a boston crab, and quickly breaks Yang’s spine. Inspired, to say the least.
The next obstacle is an electric floor which sets anything (or anyone) that touches it ablaze. Bobby ties a rope to two of the spears left by his victims and throws them through a couple of vents in the ceiling, eventually climbing his way across. There’s a great moment where one of the spears lets go, letting Bobby swing to safety before the rope immediately burns away.
The next room has a bald monk (Lee Hoi San) guarding what appears to be Chin Ku’s casket. He picks up a Crescent Moon Staff and the two have another great, physical fight which almost ends with the monk falling onto the electric floor, before Bobby pulls him back. A guillotine kick eventually puts the monk out of action, allowing Bobby to finally discover the TERRIBLE SECRET. Which I’ve already revealed. Oops.
Yeah, Chin Ku was actually still alive the entire time. He faked his death since he’s been involved in drug smuggling for years, and Interpol started breathing down his neck. Sitting in a chair on his spinning platform like a Bond villain, he reveals that Billy Lo’s death was a simple accident. This doesn’t calm Billy’s anger, and we get the film’s best fight, as Hwang Jang Lee shows off his amazing kicks while Tong Lung (and Yuen Biao) show off some incredibly physicality. Eventually Chin Ku pulls out his wooden sword, and Billy has to use the tenements of Jeet Kune Do in order to fight back. The wooden sword eventually breaks apart to reveal an actual sword, and the bald monk wakes up and joins the scuffle, ending with both the Monk and Chin Ku impaled on the sword. It’s terrific. Chin Ku gets kicked into his own coffin (how poetic) and, as per usual, it all ends immediately.
While not nearly the strangest of the Bruceploitation efforts – THE CLONES OF BRUCE LEE and THE DRAGON LIVES AGAIN handily trump it – GAME OF DEATH II makes for a unique and often conflicting viewing experience. The plot is completely idiotic, and the Bruce Lee element remains disgusting, but the all-star nature of the production and performers makes for a film that occasionally stacks up well against the best of the period. There are some amazing fights, and the sci-fi element adds a goofy sense of fun that is incredibly entertaining to watch. It was unsurprisingly a huge success, but thankfully ended the “official” Bruceploitation films relying on actual Bruce Lee footage. Perhaps in a few years we’ll see another assemblage of footage using a computer generated Lee, but until then we can mercifully put GAME OF DEATH to rest.
NEXT WEEK: THE MASTER (1980)
Long live the fist,
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