I had the chance to interview Joe Kenney (author of the Best-Selling “The American Sound”) at a recent book convention in Dallas, Texas. He was there promoting his soon-to-be-released Bruce Lee book, “Game Over.” The book revolves around Bruce Lee’s unfinished film, “Game of Death,” offering new insight about the myths, rumors & facts surrounding the movie.
I was happy to have brought a tape recorder with me, because this guy had a lot of things to say about his book. For fans of Bruce Lee and “Game of Death,” this book is a dream come true.
Joe Kenney was even nice enough to give me a free signed copy of the book and he even gave me permission to reproduce four full chapters (located at the end of this interview). This is a special exclusive for visitors of cityonfire.com… Enjoy!
~ Mike Wilson 3/2007
Mike Wilson: Congratulations on your new book.
Joe Kenney: Thank you.
Mike Wilson: Can you tell us a little about the subject matter in the book?
Joe Kenney: Having kept up with most of the Game of Death rumors and theories over the past 20 years, I just think it was time to settle the score. First, the book will take a look at the various rumors that have surrounded this project. Then it’ll have a recap of what Bruce’s story originally was to have been. Next we’ll compare the Japanese Artport presentation “Bruce Lee in G.O.D.” with the John Little-produced “Warrior’s Journey.” Finally we’ll top it all off with a healthy dose of Bruceploitation!
Mike Wilson: Do you believe more unseen footage exists?
Joe Kenney: Raymond Chow has long been pegged as a hoarder of mysterious footage, but wasn’t all of it sold to Media Asia along with the rest of Golden Harvests’ vaults? Another myth/rumor is that Chow’s keeping this footage under wraps, until the day it’s “worth more.” As any businessman will tell you, you have to sell your product when it’s hot. Bruce Lee material was the hottest in the 1970s, and if Chow didn’t take advantage of the footage then, well, he’s never going to. How old is Chow, anyway? Probably too desiccated to even enjoy anymore cold cash.
Mike Wilson: What about some of these private collectors who claim to have the complete movie?
Joe Kenney: This one’s bizarre. How would these guys have gotten hold of the film? I’ve read the assertion that Raymond Chow sold unknown Bruce footage to private collectors. Again, this is moronic. Chow is a businessman. Why would he sell priceless footage to a ONE-TIME BUYER, when he could make heaps more by releasing the footage to the public, thereby making not only royalties, but sales across the world? Linda Lee might make this mistake (as when she sold her rights to “Enter the Dragon” to Chow), but money-hungry business shark Raymond Chow? Never.
Mike Wilson: Just a general question, are there any floors after Kareem?
Joe Kenney: Unbelievable. These “Marvel Comics” tales of Bruce fighting guardian after guardian, from ninjas to samurais to little green men, even resting for the night in the temple before proceeding upstairs to more challenges, is an insult to both Bruce and his gift for story. Only a few months before commencing GOD, Bruce had completed “Way of the Dragon,” a very simple story that resonated with Chinese audiences. We’re supposed to believe that he was going to follow that up with an over-indulgent, over-long (4 hours! Give me a break!) film that had one fight after another? Sure, Bruce intended GOD to be a film that could be shown outside of Asia, but still, even that doesn’t justify such pretension. Bruce, as a good storyteller, knew that simple stories work the best; he didn’t want to make an art film, he wanted to make, and I quote, “the most fuckingest action motion picture ever.”
Mike Wilson: Okay, but do you think there was more footage than what we seen in Warrior’s Journey/Artport?
Joe Kenney: I believe this myth, as long as what you’re talking about is the outdoor footage Bruce filmed of the pagoda guardians, or outtakes with Dan, Ji Han Jae, and Kareem. I just don’t buy it that the most popular actor in Hong Kong could “secretly” shoot a movie and keep it hidden from not only the public but from the media. Bruce allowed anyone with a camera on his set, as can be witnessed by the amount of behind-the-scenes shots from all of his films. So why haven’t any photos materialized after all of these decades of Bruce on some new pagoda floor, fighting a previously-unknown opponent? Maybe because they don’t exist. But, just to play Devil’s Advocate, it IS very possible that more footage lurks forgotten in Golden Harvest’s vaults. One can’t say that GH sold Media Asia all of its Game of Death footage, because we know the footage Media Asia received was missing both the log sequence and the outdoor fight scenes. So if those two crucial pieces of footage were missing, who’s to say MORE unseen footage doesn’t exist? Again, one can argue that no photos of these missing floors exist, but look at it this way: we only have a few photos of the outdoor scenes, even though 18 minutes of fighting was filmed.
Mike Wilson: What about these photographs of Bruce Lee in the car parking lot?
Joe Kenney: This is a great wish-it-had-happened rumor, but unfortunately no such fight was filmed. The oft-shown images of Bruce, in funky 1970s garb, kicking down a few opponents in a Hong Kong parking lot were taken for a magazine shoot, not for a film. This doesn’t stop GOD rumor-mongers from telling you that these images are really part of an extensive punch-up Bruce filmed; they’ll even tell you the fight was supposed to take place when Bruce’s character arrived in Korea, before heading to the infamous pagoda. It’s just more bullshit. And besides, notice how you’ll only see the same few photos from this parking lot shoot, and you’ve never seen any actual film of it. It’s because only these few photos were taken.
Mike Wilson: Was Game of Death supposed to be a sequel to Way of the Dragon?
Joe Kenney: You’d have to be out of your mind to think that the humble, naive, country-bumpkin Tang Lung of WOTD is the same character as the hip, cool, world-weary character shown in Game of Death. Tang Lung doesn’t speak English. Bruce’s character in GOD speaks it as if it’s his native language. Tang Lung kills only as a last resort, and with much remorse. The GOD character teases Dan Inosanto, and then breaks his neck without a thought. The rumor that Bruce was portraying Tang Lung in Game of Death comes from a book published in 1974 by Verina Glaessner, titled “Cinema of Vengeance.” This same book didn’t even seem to know that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was Bruce’s opponent in GOD; instead, it referred to a tall, black basketball player, not even offering a name. Hardly a good source for reliable information. Yet the rumor-mongers cling to this theory, which to me is probably one of the most bizarre of all of the Game of Death myths. Whoever thinks Bruce is playing the same character in both Way of the Dragon and Game of Death is a very poor judge of (a fictional) character.
Mike Wilson: Would Game of Death feature actors from Bruce’s previous films, reprising their roles?
Joe Kenney: One of my favorite behind-the-scenes photos from GOD is of Bruce and Nora Miao hanging out on the set. But then again, I like just about any photo with Nora Miao in it.
Mike Wilson: That makes both of us!
Joe Kenney: I hear you. Anyway, Nora signed on for GOD shortly before Bruce stopped filming. No one knows what part she would’ve played, but certainly it would not have been the same character she played in Way of the Dragon. Most likely she would’ve played Bruce’s sister, as Bruce’s script outline, shown in Little’s “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey” book, states that Bruce was to play Hai Tien, a retired martial arts champion who travels to Korea with his sister and little brother. Another rampant rumor is that Whang Ing-Sik, seen in the outdoor footage of the pagoda guardians, was reprising his character from Way of the Dragon. This rumor’s highly unlikely, though, because Whang’s character, you know, fucking DIED in Way of the Dragon.
Mike Wilson: There’s a strange “Game of Death” overtone, about how Raymond Chow had something to do with Bruce Lee’s death?
Joe Kenney: This one doesn’t have so much to do with Game of Death itself, as far as I’m concerned, but for many it does. The theory is that Bruce actually filmed most of the movie, and completed the script, but both have been hidden from the public. Why? Because Chow had Bruce murdered, and used the “Bruce was meeting Betty Ting Pei to work on the screenplay” excuse to cover himself. Hence, if Bruce was meeting Betty to work on the script, then the script couldn’t be finished, so Chow hid it away to further cover his murder. I’ve never believed that Chow had anything to do with Bruce’s death. The general notion is that Chow was worried Bruce would leave him. But look at it this way. Bruce already had a chance to leave Chow, after completing Fist of Fury. But Bruce chose to go back into business with Chow, co-owning Concord with him. This even when he’d received more lucrative offers from others. Bruce had a level of gratitude for Chow; this is not only apparent, but obvious. Chow might have been worried that Bruce would take off to Hollywood, but that squirrelly little man would’ve tried to keep himself in Bruce’s affairs, not have him killed. Murdering Bruce would not have made much sense for Chow, on a personal OR a business level.
Mike Wilson: I’m being a little off topic, but you seem to have a good opinion on things like this. Do you see Bruce as the ‘kung-fu Jesus’?
Joe Kenney: Sure, it’s a bit off-topic, but I’ll address it. The Warrior’s Journey documentary and the Lee Estate want you to believe that Bruce Lee was a living god, incapable of error, and remained faithful to Linda until his dying day. The other side wants you to believe that Bruce was a hash brownie-eating, pimped-out mac daddy who stole his philosophical quips from ancient Chinese authors, and who slept with any desirable woman he met. To tell the truth, I like the latter version better. So I say if Bruce got to fuck the insanely-attractive Nora Miao while also carrying on an affair with Betty Ting Pei, then more power to him! Shit, I’d shake his hand just for that. And notice I’m not even getting into the steroid debate. Though you can’t help but wonder how Bruce, in the late 1960s, so quickly went from a scrawny punk to the muscle-bound athlete seen in his films. Especially when you realize that steroids were legal in Los Angeles when Bruce lived there. (So what we have, then, is a leading man who dresses like a pimp, sleeps around, wolfs down space-cakes, pumps himself up with steroids, spouts New Age nonsense, and has arrogance to spare. I can’t think of a more refreshing hero, especially in these sterile, ultra-conservative, dogmatically Christian days of GW Bush and his ilk.)
Mike Wilson: In your book, you mention something about Bruce’s 28-minute edit, can you tell us a little more.
Joe Kenney: BUY THE BOOK! Just kidding… According to George Lazenby, who claimed to have been given a screening by Bruce himself, Bruce made a 28-minute edit of the film’s ending: Dan, Ji, and Kareem’s floors. So if Bruce’s version was that long, how does it compare to the Warrior’s Journey/Artport edits, which run several minutes longer? Sounds like, if it really did exist, Bruce’s version was a bit tighter than the versions we have today. What did he cut out? And, most importantly, what happened to his edit? And did anyone besides Lazenby see it? And wasn’t Lazenby a total fucking idiot for walking away from the James Bond franchise?
Mike Wilson: What about the log footage?
Joe Kenney: As far as the log footage, I’ve read that someone actually has this (Dan Inosanto, apparently), but if not, the fate of this footage seems pretty clear. Hong Kong filmmakers routinely tossed out film that wasn’t needed, after editing. Some of this footage was of course used in the Robert Clouse-directed Game of Death. Sad to consider, but it was probably thrown into the garbage after being used. However, researcher David Tadman has hinted very strongly that Inosanto does in fact have the missing log footage. But since he’s on the outs with the Lee Estate, who knows when/if it will be released? And also, if Inosanto does have this footage, then why didn’t he give it to Artport for their Bruce Lee in G.O.D. project? After all, Inosanto helped out Artport, even dubbing himself in the footage, whereas he took no part in the Lee Estate-backed Warrior’s Journey. So wouldn’t it have been even more of a slap to the Lee Estate if Inosanto had provided Artport with footage John Little wasn’t privy to? One would think Inosanto would want to slap the Lee Estate as much as possible. Though it’s possible he wasn’t even aware Artport lacked the log footage; he might’ve just assumed it was part of the package they got from Media Asia, and didn’t know until after the fact that it wasn’t included.
Mike Wilson: What about the outdoor footage? (from the documentary, “Bruce Lee The Legend”)
Joe Kenney: How much was shot? Was it part of the movie? Outside of a few documentaries, not much of this has been seen. Who owns the footage? Media Asia? One rumor is that Chow sold the outdoor footage to some Bruce Lee collectors. Again this doesn’t make much sense; why sell to just a few collectors when you can instead sell to thousands? Some claim the outdoor footage was just test film Bruce shot before beginning the movie, but I say it’s probably what it’s always been considered: footage of the pagoda guardians that was intended to be shown to Bruce’s character as part of his “mission briefing.” Perplexingly, Whang Ing-Sik (last seen in Way of the Dragon) appears in this footage, a fact which has lead to uncountable rumors among GOD freaks. According to John Little’s research, Whang was slated to appear as the first-floor guardian in the pagoda, a sequence which was never filmed.
Mike Wilson: The deal with Kareem’s mysterious character?
Joe Kenney: I’ve only seen a few interviews with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar concerning his role in Game of Death, and not a damn one of them has asked a very simple question: What the hell was the deal with Kareem’s demonic-red/lizard-like eyes in the movie? As viewers of Warrior’s Journey know, Bruce gave Kareem’s character fully-red eyes, which were revealed after Bruce kicked off Kareem’s shades. And as viewers of Artport’s Bruce Lee in G.O.D. production and Hong Kong Legends’ Game of Death Platinum DVD release know, Bruce also gave Kareem the slitted eyes of a lizard in an alternate take of this scene. So what’s the story? We get it that Kareem’s Achilles heel was his aversion to sunlight, but why did Bruce have to visualize this by giving Kareem an inhuman touch? Was Kareem a monster of some sort? A genetic experiment gone awry? I’m sure Kareem knows the answer to this; it couldn’t have just been a regular day of shooting for Bruce to have said, “Okay, Kareem, for this next shot you’re gonna need to wear these lizard eye contacts.” Bruce HAD to have given Kareem some explanation for this, and all one needs to do is just ask Kareem what it was. And here’s another thing: Bruce’s notes for GOD (as shown in the Warrior’s Journey book) mention a “Mantis” twice. First in a scene in which Bruce’s character is warned by his sister of someone called “Mantis,” and later, during the fight with Kareem’s character, Bruce wrote a voiceover for himself that begins: “The advantage of Mantis is that he doesn’t fear death.” To avoid confusion, Little removed this reference to “Mantis” in the voiceover he recorded for Warrior’s Journey. But, taken into context with the previous mention in the notes, it would seem that Bruce’s voiceover infers that Kareem’s character was supposed to be named Mantis. Surely, since even the sister of Bruce’s character had heard of him, Mantis had some sort of horrible backstory, but unfortunately what it was we’ll likely never know. But it must be said that Kareem’s inhuman eyes give the GOD project a novel touch. The world’s first kung-fu/horror/sci-fi movie?
Mike Wilson: Why is Bruce Lee’s story for Game of Death so known, even back in the 1970′s?
Joe Kenney: In 1975, before Clouse’s Game of Death or any of the Bruceploitation GOD movies came out, a book titled “Game of Death” was published in Japan. It told the story of a former martial arts champion whose sister and brother were kidnapped, and who was blackmailed into raiding a martial artist-filled pagoda to retrieve a priceless artifact. This book claimed to be based on Bruce’s original story, and John Little’s discovery of Bruce’s outline, twenty years later, pretty much confirms this. So how did the Japanese publishers know Bruce’s story? They even got minor details correct, like Kareem having lizard eyes. Bruce used a Japanese cameraman, Nashinoto Tadashi, for the Game of Death footage. Could he have had anything to do with the leaking of Bruce’s story to the book’s publishers? One must also take into consideration the Bruce Le nightmare Enter the Game of Death, which began filming in the mid 1970s, before halting after legal action was threatened by Linda Lee. The movie was re-shot and finally released in 1980; it features a telling scene in which one of the pagoda guardians turns on a red light, warning Le that “the red light means death.” The guardian’s entire dialog is very similar to the lines Bruce wrote for Ji Han Jae. Another Bruceploitation GOD rip-off, True Game of Death, filmed in 1978, also features “red light” dialog from one of the guardians. So the question is, if Little didn’t discover Bruce’s script notes until the mid 1990s, HOW were these Bruceploitation producers aware of this dialog?
Bruce was changing the story every day. Multiple people on the set of ETD claim that Bruce would spend downtime working on the story for Game of Death. Word is he was constantly toying with it, adding and changing ideas. According to researcher David Tadman, Dan Inosanto has most of Bruce’s notes on GOD, notes which Bruce continued to write until the day he died. Tadman claims that Inosanto’s notes show GOD moving in a totally different direction than the outline shown in Warrior’s Journey, and that parts were written for Lazenby, Bob Wall, etc. George Lazenby’s character, for example, would apparently have been a “spiritual guru” involved in some sort of war, who would “save” Bruce’s character at the end. This is a far cry from the character everyone assumed Lazenby would play: that of the Caucasian fighter who enters the pagoda with Bruce’s character.
The script? This one I can’t decide on. On the one hand, I can see how Bruce would be all right with just shooting from a bare-bones outline; he had experience in directing a movie, and knew what he was doing. But on the other hand, we all know how picky Bruce was about scripts; he even turned down several of Lo Wei’s projects because there were no scripts for them! So it would seem a little hypocritical of Bruce to shoot a movie of his own without a script. I do believe Bruce spent downtime during the filming of Enter the Dragon to work on the script. But did he finish it? Did he in fact change the plot from what is presented in Warrior’s Journey to something completely different? And, if the script was in fact completed, what happened to it?
Mike Wilson: Would Bruce have finished the movie if he had lived?
Joe Kenney: Bruce had his chance to resume filming Game of Death after completing Enter the Dragon. But as most of us know, he had other problems at the time. The last few months of his life, sadly, were not some of the happiest for Bruce. But, had he lived, part of me believes he might have dropped GOD, once he saw the success of ETD. Bruce wanted worldwide fame, and you get that by making blockbusters in Hollywood, not low-budget kung-fu thrillers in Hong Kong. He probably would’ve recycled the philosophical ideas of GOD into something else. Besides, had Bruce completed GOD, there would have been a year-long gap between filming. Keep in mind how drastically Bruce’s body changed during this time. It looked weird enough in ETD, where Bruce was rail-thin in the opening (the last part of the movie to be filmed), and then several pounds heavier throughout the rest of the movie. This would’ve looked even more jarring in a film shot over two years. But on the other hand, if Bruce hadn’t died in July of 1973, it’s possible he might have resumed filming GOD that very month. Once ETD opened to huge success, Bruce might’ve had enough of GOD in the can that it would only have made sense to finish filming it; and also it would be something he could quickly release to capitalize on the success of ETD. In fact it could have been his “farewell” film to Hong Kong; an approach Chow Yun-Fat took decades later, when he made “Peace Hotel” his farewell to Hong Kong filmmaking and then moved on to Hollywood, to star in such artistic blockbusters as “The Corrupter” and “The Replacement Killers.”
Mike Wilson: Why do you think Game of Death holds so much appeal?
Joe Kenney: This one’s simple. It’s all we have left from Bruce. To let it go, to realize that WJ and the Artport production feature all he’s shot, that means we must accept that Bruce is really gone, that there will be no more footage released. A lot of people need something to hang on to. These guys over the years who snidely claim to have seen unknown footage, who throw insults at John Little for marring Bruce’s “real story,” these guys are either children or liars. Not a damn one of them has put forth, after all of this time, one piece of evidence to back their claims. Instead, they hold on to each and every rumor they come across, and then blindly stick to their imaginations, even when people who were part of the production disprove their claims. So, in a desperate effort to link their names in any way possible with Bruce, they claim to own “rare footage” that they’ve somehow acquired. Footage that they won’t show to anyone, of course, because it doesn’t exist. But thing I do share with them is a strange obsession with this movie. I would even say GOD is my favorite of all of Bruce’s films, and it’s for two reasons: 1.) Bruce just looks like one cool motherfucker in that sleek black-and-yellow tracksuit, like a comic book superhero come to life. And 2.) Bruce’s idea for the story is a perfect combination of funky 1970s bell bottom fury (for example, James Tien’s seventies-tastic clothes) and classic kung-fu filmmaking (the pagoda design, Inosanto and Ji’s traditional garb, etc).
Mike Wilson: Would any of us have such an attachment to this movie if Bruce had actually lived to complete it?
Joe Kenney: I doubt it. Because, in its imperfect, unfinished state, it gives us (some moreso than others) something to cling to.
Mike Wilson: One last question. On your book cover, why did you choose a photo of the fake Bruce Lee from the 1978 Game of Death film?
Joe Kenney: Good question. First of all, the Bruce Lee estate is very strict when it comes to using any real photos of Bruce. If there’s two groups of people you don’t want on your tail, those two groups are the Bruce Lee estate and anybody associated with Raymond Chow. The photo I picked actually works well with my book’s general context. If you think about it, the image of that imposter in the jump suit that’s beating the guy up is very symbolic. It’s as if I’m saying “There’s no new Bruce Lee Game of Death footage you fucking fan boys!”
Mike Wilson is a writer for cityonfire.com. Game Over! author, Joe Kenney, can be reached at email@example.com
Chapter 1: Bruce Lee’s Story for Game of Death
You can read Bruce’s outline/notes for Game of Death in the book “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey,” written by John Little and published by McGraw-Hill in 2002. But to get to Bruce’s outline, you first must wade through Little’s typically-hyperbolic and hero-worshiping prose (i.e., “Bruce Lee could do a push-up with one finger! Truly he was a god among men!”). I thought I’d save everyone the grief and just give a recap here.
The movie would open with a shot of a reed bending in the wind; this from many statements Bruce made at the time. Then on to a plane just landing in Korea. Bruce is aboard, as Hai Tien, a retired martial arts champion, known as the “Yellow-Faced Tiger” in the West. With Hai Tien are his sister and very young brother. A co-traveler recognizes Hai and asks him about his tournament days. Here we get a promising mention from Bruce of Hai Tien’s “blank face” as he remembers his days as a martial arts champion, fighting in a crazed manner in the ring.
The family heads into the airport, waiting out their stopover. Bruce seems unsure in his outline if the kid wants a cold drink or if Hai Tien wants to look around, but regardless, the family splits up momentarily while in the airport. Soon thereafter Hai is paged on the intercom. He heads to a payphone, and is told that his sister and brother have been taken captive. Instructed to head outside, Hai is escorted by some toughs in a limo. Staying cool throughout, Hai makes light of the situation, just an all-around cocky guy.
They arrive at the palatial estate of the villain behind the plot, an elderly crime lord who wants Bruce to raid a nearby pagoda with a few other martial artists, in order to get the prize at the top. Here I should mention that nowhere in his notes does Bruce say WHAT this prize is. In fact, it seems even Bruce was unsure. Andre Morgan, a Golden Harvest executive at the time, claims that Bruce was elated to stop filming GOD to take up Enter the Dragon, because he could put off trying to figure out what was at the top of the pagoda. Regardless, something of value is up there, and the boss has gathered together a few martial artists to battle through the pagoda levels to attain it for him. Hai Tien is his top fighter, but the boss has assembled these other fighters, who fight for him under their own will:
James Tien: An arrogant street fighter who is the current martial arts champion. He and Hai Tien have an instant rivalry; no doubt worsened when James Tien reveals that it was he who called Hai in the airport, informing him that his brother and sister were abducted. Throughout Bruce’s outline, these two bicker constantly, though it must be admitted some of the dialog Bruce drafted for this is hokey. For example, James Tien at one point tells Bruce’s character: “And by the way, I do not like former martial arts champions.” Well, who does? But still, you could say it in less clunky dialog.
Chieh Yuah: A simple-minded martial artist who rushes into the fray with little thought of the consequences. The destructive member of the team; note it is he who inadvertently causes all of the property damage on Ji Han Jae’s floor. Bruce initially planned to offer this role to Sammo Hung, but gave it to Yuah instead. Yuah died in a car wreck in 1975.
An American Fighter: This part most likely would have been offered to either George Lazenby or Bob Wall. Bruce describes the character only as “practical,” which probably means he takes part in the pagoda raid solely for the money. For years many assumed this would’ve been George Lazenby’s role, but recent research (and interviews with Lazenby) imply that Bruce had something less physical in mind for him. However it’s known that Bruce had a part written for Bob Wall, Bruce’s favorite on-screen punching bag. It’s not a leap of logic to deduct that this part, then, would have been offered to Wall.
A locksmith: This part was for comedic actor Lee Kun. His mission was simply to unlock the pagoda so the others could get inside, and then wait outside for them. Though it’s not stated in the notes, it’s very obvious when you take this into consideration that it’s the locksmith Bruce is likely yelling down to, after defeating Kareem.
A final fighter: Lastly there is a nondescript fighter who apparently takes part in the pagoda raid just because his mother needs surgery, and he plans to pay for it with the cash he’ll get from the crime lord. Not much is said about this character; he’s canon fodder.
After introductions, Hai ensures that his brother and sister are safe. The sister knows what’s going on, but the kid seems to think they’re visiting relatives. Hai plays along by calling the crime boss “Uncle,” and makes sure his sister watches over the kid. Later the crime boss shows the assembled fighters a film of the pagoda, with a rundown of each floor and each guardian. He relates that only one person survived the last raid, and that person is now in a sanitarium. It turns out this survivor was a former student of Hai Tien’s; it was the kicking method Hai Tien taught him that allowed him to survive.
Hai Tien borrows a car from the crime boss and goes to see the survivor; that the boss so easily loans Hai a car irritates James Tien to no end. Bruce writes little of this visit to the insane ward, other than that the survivor would only say “Such strength and agility!” after escaping the fifth floor of the pagoda. Returning to the boss’s place, Bruce again warns the crime lord that his family had better not be injured.
The next day the fighters practice in the yard. Hai Tien’s sister comes out and tearfully warns him about someone called Mantis, most likely referring to Kareem’s character. Hai tells her to watch out for the kid, should anything happen to him. Then Hai tells the kid to be careful, requesting that the kid remember his face. “Why should I?” asks the kid. “I see you every day.” That night after a group dinner, the American fighter takes Hai Tien aside and tells him about “The Game of Death.” Bruce leaves this part vague, unfortunately.
The next morning the fighters gather onto a touring bus, ready to go to the pagoda. Finally Hai Tien arrives, casually strolling onto the bus: “Morning, fellas.” They arrive at the pagoda, and here Bruce finishes his outline by merely writing: “The big fight. An arrest is made. The airport. The end.” The big fight obviously refers to the pagoda raid. I’m assuming the crime lord gets arrested, though Bruce doesn’t detail how this comes about.
However more information about the pagoda raid itself can be found, outside of Bruce’s outline. Bruce illustrated the pagoda, describing who was on each floor. The ground floor was to be guarded by a group of kung-fu fighters, probably 20 or so men. I’m going to guess that one of Hai Tien’s co-fighters was to be killed on this floor, whittling the pagoda-raiders down to 4 (not including the locksmith, who remained outside, per Bruce’s outline).
First floor was to be guarded by Whang Ing-Sik, who would represent a kicking style. A funny thing is that Whang is seen getting his ass kicked in the outdoor footage Bruce shot for GOD; Inosanto and Ji Han Jae mop the dirt with him. This has lead to many rumors and questions. Was Whang being punished for letting a previous pagoda-raider escape? Was he a turncoat? Were they fighting to see who would get which floor, and since Whang lost, he got the bottom? No one knows. And another unsolved mystery is if another of Bruce’s co-fighters was to die on this floor.
Second floor was to be guarded by Taky Kimura, who would represent a wing chun/preying mantis style. This would have been a great level, but unfortunately it was never filmed. What IS known is that, if he didn’t die on the previous floor, the last of Hai Tien’s unknown accomplices was to die on this floor, as only Hai Tien, Chieh Yuah, and James Tien survived to reach the third floor.
We all know the rest, as floors three to five were the only floors Bruce filmed. It’s curious, though. Hai Tien requests Kareem’s character to stand down and let Hai pass up to the final floor. But once Hai kills Kareem, he instead stumbles back downstairs. Did Hai realize there was no point getting the treasure? Was he just exhausted? Did the locksmith instead run upstairs to find it? No one knows.
Lee Kun told Hong Kong reporters a funny anecdote Bruce had apparently shared with him about the end of the pagoda raid: after stumbling down to the bottom floor, the exhausted Hai Tien was to be confronted by a lone, young martial artist. Drawing himself together, Hai was to fix the punk with a menacing glare. The kid was then to stumble back in fear and run away. To this Hai would roll his eyes, and then leave the pagoda. Of course there’s no way to verify if this is something Bruce really intended to do, but it totally sounds like a “Bruce Lee moment,” so I buy it.
As you can see, the majority of the movie was to be fighting. It seems to me that it would’ve been around 90 minutes or so (pretty much standard length for Hong Kong movies at the time), with the first half hour containing the set-up for the pagoda raid, and all of the plot and dialog. I’d say the pagoda raid itself would be a full hour of continuous fighting. I wonder how this would’ve gone over. Bruce’s previous films had featured a lot of fighting, but not an hour of it back-to-back. But what with the amount of planning Bruce put into each of these pagoda levels, I think he really would have let the action speak for itself. So the film would resemble Way of the Dragon in a way: a lot of set-up and dialog in the first half, and nothing but action in the second half.
Chapter 6: A comparison of the Artport/Hong Kong Legends and Warrior’s Journey GOD footage
1. Picture Quality: The picture quality is phenomenal in the Artport/Hong Kong Legends release (hereafter AP/HKL; AP did the original cut of the GOD footage, and HKL purchased it from them to use on their Platinum Game of Death DVD release). AP obviously put some money into cleaning up the film, money that was not at John Little’s disposal when he put together Warrior’s Journey (hereafter referred to as WJ). However, not all is perfect in paradise.
Two things hamper the AP/HKL cut of Game of Death:
1.) In their enthusiasm to show everything Bruce shot for GOD, the folks at AP sometimes forgot important details like cinematic timing and other considerations. For example, reaction shots are held far too long. These were obviously cues for Bruce to use when he later edited the film; cues John Little wisely followed when he edited WJ. Because, even though the picture quality might be cleaned up in the AP/HKL release, WJ is edited more like a “real” movie, more like what Bruce would have released, had he lived; and really, that’s all that matters. Besides, the slightly faded print of WJ gives the production more of a “genuine” feel, like an old kung-fu movie that’s gotten scratchy after years of neglect.
And 2.) AP/HKL is presented in PAL, which I hate. Say what you will about the superior picture quality when compared to NTSC, but PAL runs at 24 frames per second, faster than NTSC. This means actors move too fast. It might not sound like much, but it’s annoying, and makes you feel like you’re watching the Benny Hill Show at times. I’m not sure how people in PAL countries can stand it. In fact, PAL doesn’t just mess up the video, it makes the audio run faster, as well: people who’ve watched nothing but PAL broadcasts of US television shows are usually surprised to hear what the actors’ voices really sound like, when they see the show in its original NTSC format.
2. Dialog: Little had Bruce’s dialog notes for WJ; AP did not. So automatically WJ features the preferable dialog track, however Little dropped the ball on two things:
A.) Since he didn’t have dialog notes for one of Bruce’s lines, Little chose to leave the audio portion silent, with a “dialog missing” legend appearing on-screen. Dumb move. A good lip-reader would’ve easily seen that what Bruce seems to say is, “Do you understand? This sword becomes a whip,” which is what the AP producers have him say.
B.) Little used Jabbar and Ji Han Jae to dub their own voices. I can see why Little did this for the sake of legitimacy, but in reality Bruce would have had local talent dub their voices, with Bruce probably dubbing Jabbar’s voice himself, just as he had dubbed the black gang member’s voice in Way of the Dragon. And on top of this, Jabbar and Jae have little voice-acting talent. Dan Inosanto, however, does a fine job dubbing his own voice in AP/HKL. Bruce is voiced by John Little in WJ and Bey Logan in AP/HKL; both do admirable jobs. But long story short: WJ features the dialog Bruce actually wrote for the movie; for that reason alone it’s preferable to the AP/HKL dub. That being said, it’s interesting to consider the AP/HKL production as an old-school English dub. Remember all those old, dubbed kung-fu films that were incorrectly translated? That’s how the AP/HKL version seems, especially when you factor in how everyone speaks English, whereas WJ features both English and Cantonese. This makes WJ feel like the Hong Kong version of GOD, and AP/HKL like the English-dubbed Western release.
3. Soundtrack: AP/HKL features a sometimes-minimal soundtrack, composed by Tomohiro Endo, that’s made up of electronic drums, tympanis, and synthesizer. Most of the time you don’t even notice it, except for the climactic battle with Kareem, during which we are treated to a hard-rocking version of the theme song from the 1978 Game of Death. For WJ, John Little tried to give the soundtrack more of a traditional feel. Figuring Bruce would’ve retained the services of Joseph Koo, who’d scored Way of the Dragon, Little hired composer Wayne Hawkins to create a Koo-like score. Hawkins’ soundtrack is similar to AP’s at times, especially in its use of drums which complement the action, however Hawkins uses real drums, not a freaking Casio keyboard. Hawkins employs organic, Asian instrumentation throughout, and though his score doesn’t have the impact of AP’s heavy metal remake of the 1978 theme song, it stands out as the more “legitimate” of the two soundtracks. But on a sidenote, I might have liked it even better if either AP/HKL or WJ had gone down a Big Boss route, giving us a soundtrack of swanky lounge and fuzzed-out acid rock.
4. Little Differences: In many instances, AP/HKL and WJ use different takes. This is because Bruce filmed alternate takes for many scenes, though it must be stressed that both productions feature mostly the same material. However, when comparing the two productions, it becomes obvious that the takes Little chose for WJ are inferior across the board. When editing WJ, Little removed many of the little nuances Bruce had inserted into the film, including most of the humor. The AP/HKL production comes off more like an old-school kung-fu movie, then, filled with sometimes-goofy humor and the occasional “weird” moment. Some notable examples:
A.) On the fourth floor, once Chieh Yuah’s gotten his ass handed to him by Ji Han Jae, the camera cuts to Bruce and James Tien, who observe from the sidelines. In WJ, Bruce pretends like he’s about to challenge Ji, but then steps back, hops up on a rail, gestures for Tien to join the fray, and then rolls his eyes when Tien walks away. In the superior AP/HKL take, Bruce does the same, but instead of rolling his eyes, he gives us the patented “Bruce Lee smile,” which not only makes his character all the more arrogant, but is laugh out loud funny to boot.
B.) In WJ, when James Tien first confronts Kareem on the fifth floor, Kareem kicks a sand bag which explodes, and then the camera closes in on Tien’s frightened eyes. The AP/HKL version is the same, however here the burst sand bag swings around and hits James Tien in the back several times. This is a nice touch which Little ignored in his edit; another example of the little nuances that make the AP/HKL version superior.
C.) In WJ, when Kareem is upstairs stomping on the floor after a rolling James Tien, a lot of dust falls on Bruce downstairs; Bruce shrugs it off and looks up in confusion. In the AP/HKL version, less dust falls on Bruce, and he steps back and swings his arm around in it, trying to figure out what it is and where it’s coming from.
D.) Kareem’s strangling of James Tien is much longer in the AP/HKL version. Also, we get to see the infamous “hop” when Kareem tosses Tien, as Tien bounces off the floor and then rolls away; most likely a result of his landing on a hidden trampoline.
E.) In another example of how AP/HKL is more like an old-school kung-fu movie, with little touches of dark humor, Bruce delivers Kareem a super wind-up punch, raising one leg, twirling his arm “Popeye” style, and slamming his fist into Kareem’s face, nearly losing his balance as his foot comes back down.
F.) One thing AP/HKL messes up is the “smashing of the windows” scene, when Bruce discovers Kareem’s weakness. Little edited this perfectly in WJ, with Bruce smashing the windows, then cutting to Kareem as he cowers before the ever-increasing light. AP/HKL first shows the light increasing on Kareem, and THEN Bruce goes over and breaks the windows, thereby ruining the impact of the scene. Instead, all we get is a quick close-up (with sound effect) of Kareem’s anguished face.
G.) When Bruce kicks off Kareem’s sunglasses, Kareem’s eyes are revealed to be completely red in WJ. In AP/HKL, we first see a glimpse of Kareem’s normal eyes; then we get a quick close-up and his eyes become like those of a lizard’s.
5. The Winner Is: Having been a WJ supporter and AP/HKL detractor for years, I recently rewatched both productions back-to-back and was shocked to discover that I enjoyed the AP/HKL version more. As I said, Little cut out many of the nuances in his WJ edit. True, some of the stuff in AP/HKL SHOULD have been edited out, but when this is all we have of the film, why bother? The more footage, the merrier. And the longer scenes in AP/HKL make the fights seem like they’re occurring in real time. For example, Bruce’s stranglehold on Kareem lasts longer in AP/HKL, making his victory more believable. Likewise, the Bruce versus Dan match features extra material, including a very long scene in which the two trade a devastating flurry of nunchaku moves.
WJ also lacks many of the fancy moves and poses Bruce strikes throughout the footage, however AP/HKL features each and every one of them. But most importantly, the quality of the film is fantastic in AP/HKL. Watching the two versions back-to-back really hammers this home. AP/HKL looks like it was filmed last week, whereas WJ looks like the footage has languished in a chicken shack for the past twenty years. I guess Little didn’t have the budget AP did to restore the footage, but still, if this footage was the main thrust of his documentary, wouldn’t it have made sense for Little to have ensured that it looked the best it possibly could? I guess he instead spent his money on scoring it, and hiring the original actors to provide their voices.
6. The “Ultimate” Version of Game of Death: Take the superior-quality AP/HKL production and somehow slow it down a bit to NTSC (if necessary; it might just be that my multiregional DVD player sucks). Overdub with the WJ dialog, save for that of Kareem and Ji Han Jae. For those characters, you and a friend can give your own readings of the WJ dialog. Just be sure to make your delivery over the top in that great, old-school way. Ignore both the WJ and AP/HKL scores and provide your own, using some select titles from musician Peter Thomas (the guy whose music was illegally featured throughout The Big Boss), AP/HKL’s hard rock version of the 1978 GOD theme song (it IS pretty cool, come to think of it), and Track 18 from the bootleg, black rock compilation “Chains & Black Exhaust”(perfect for the climax of the Bruce/Kareem fight). Next, buy an overpriced yellow tracksuit on EBay, import Nora Miao from Canada (where she apparently now lives), call up your old pals Dan Inosanto, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Whang Ing-Sik, Taky Kimura, George Lazenby, James Tien, Ji Han Jae, Lee Kun, and a lookalike for the now-deceased Chieh Yuah, and shoot the portions of the movie Bruce never got to film. Congratulations: you are now a Bruceploitation producer/director/fake Bruce! Don’t worry about any legal repercussions from the Lee Estate; they love it when people misappropriate Bruce’s name and image.
Chapter 7: ArtPort’s Bruce Lee in GOD 2003 Special Edition
In short, save your money.
The 5.1 sound remix: It sucks. You know how those Hong Kong Legends Bruce Lee releases, which are mostly perfect otherwise, feature the boosted-up 5.1 mix which sounds a bit, well, off? Well, the 2003 GOD Special Edition is even worse. When Bruce kicks someone, it sounds like a machine gun backfiring. Every sound is mixed to the max volume, giving the production a surreal tinge. But beyond that, EVERYTHING now has a sound effect. If James Tien scratches his nose in the background, you’ll hear “scritch scritch scritch” on the soundtrack. It’s ridiculous. Also, every time we have a close-up of someone’s face, ArtPort has added a “woosh” sound effect to the soundtrack. Again, ridiculous.
The soundtrack: It’s worse than the original 2000 ArtPort release. It’s still just keyboards and synthesizers, however this time the producers have resuscitated John Barry’s original theme from the 1978 GOD. This plays at the climax of each floor’s fight, but plays in full during the Bruce/Kareem match. This means that the hard rock version, well-known from the 2000 release, is gone. Instead, we get a middling remake of the Barry score, again done on keyboards, with a synthetic orchestra, electronic drums, etc. It not only lacks the rocking punch of the 2000 soundtrack, but it’s just outright terrible to boot.
The recut footage: It isn’t really recut at all. The main difference is, ArtPort has neutered the footage. As stated above, the 2000 ArtPort production had a lot of material not featured in Warrior’s Journey. Well, the Special Edition has lost all of it. It’s like ArtPort went edit crazy, cutting out all kinds of material. The Special Edition no longer features any of the little quirks so apparent in the 2000 release; it’s like the producers realized Warriors Journey was a bit more fluid, and so cut out all of the extraneous material in their own production to match. But the problem is, they did a poor job; the recut footage in the Special Edition comes off awkward and ill-paced. Also, ArtPort has tried to “spice” the footage up by employing slow-motion. It doesn’t work. For example, in the climax of the Bruce/Kareem fight, the jumping kick Bruce delivers to Kareem (which knocks off Kareem’s sunglasses) is here rendered in slow motion. It doesn’t look right. Also, they have now screwed up the first moments of Ji Han Jae’s floor. In this Special Edition, the quick close-up of Bruce and Ji’s eyes are shown BEFORE Bruce steps forward, after James and Chieh have fought, and raises his right hand in challenge to Ji. In the Special Edition, the “eyes” close-up between Bruce and Ji occurs as soon as Bruce, James, and Chieh come up the stairs. This effectively ruins what had been an otherwise perfectly-directed scene by Bruce; one of my favorite moments in the Game of Death footage. But one positive thing – at least in the Special Edition, ArtPort manages to edit the scene correctly in which Bruce breaks out the windows, and THEN we see Kareem cowering in pain. This was a glaring error in the 2000 version, which they have now thankfully fixed. But that’s the only thing; ArtPort got everything else wrong in the Special Edition.
Picture quality: Brace yourself for this. The picture quality is WORSE in the 2003 Special Edition. The film is grainy and spotty, whereas the 2000 ArtPort release looked like it was filmed last week. Why? Did ArtPort fail to properly store the film they’d so lovingly remastered three years before?
All told, the 2003 Special Edition release of Bruce Lee in GOD is a waste of your time and money.
Chapter 8: Exit the Dragon, Enter the True New Games of Death
Part of the joy of Game of Death is all of the GOD rip-offs that were churned out by the Bruceploitation filmmakers in the 1970s and early 1980s. Here is a ranking of the five Bruceploitation GOD rip-offs I know of (you can find a review for each here on City on Fire):
1. Tower of Death (1981): Just an all-around good, old-school kung fu flick, TOD carries on the GOD concept by having Kim Tai Chung infiltrate an underground tower, each level housing a different guardian. Fast-paced action and quality direction and choreography make this one of the best Bruceploitation flicks of all.
2. Game of Death (1978, Robert Clouse-directed version): Generally derided, and for good reason. However it’s saved by featuring the real Bruce Lee in real scenes from his real Game of Death, albeit in butchered form. The story’s lame and the Bruce stand-ins wouldn’t fool a blind bat (and the footage of Bruce’s actual funeral and the infamous cardboard cut-out of Bruce’s face are particularly unforgivable), but really, words can’t express the joy one feels when, after enduring over an hour of pointless storylines with bad actors and fake Bruces, THE REAL BRUCE LEE comes running up those stairs onto Dan Inosanto’s floor. And on a side note, here’s a sad fact: this movie actually fooled people when it was released. They actually thought they were seeing a legitimate Bruce Lee movie, starring Bruce Lee throughout! Just again proves my theory that people in the 1970s were so drug-fried, they didn’t know what the hell was going on. (By the way, Bruce’s tracksuit is orange-yellow in this movie because Clouse darkened the film print, thus resulting in a change in its color from bright yellow to orange. Clouse darkened the film because in his version of GOD, Bruce fights Kareem at night, whereas in Bruce’s version of the movie, the pagoda battle is during the day. That’s right: Clouse even manipulated Bruce’s actual film to fit his whims. And you wonder why Hollywood is so hated.)
3. Enter the Game of Death (1980): A wearying, over-the-top take on Bruce’s GOD concept that’s so action-packed it’s actually boring. I mean really, how many fights did the producers expect viewers to sit through? But one must respect the movie for its moxie. Plus, it takes the level-guardian concept to surreal extremes, having Bruce Le square off against snake-employing guardians and other oddities. And I have always enjoyed how, once Le gets to the top of the pagoda, the object he fought through it for is whisked away, seconds before he arrives, thereby rendering the entire pagoda raid POINTLESS. All he needed to do was wait outside for it!
4. New Game of Death (1975): The first flick to capitalize on GOD, New Game was originally released under the title “Goodbye Bruce Lee.” Back then it was organized like a documentary, even featuring an interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and some footage of the real Bruce. But then legal action was threatened, and the movie was recut into its present shape, as New Game of Death. Whatever happened to the missing documentary footage is anyone’s guess. However, the surviving movie itself is pretty damn lame; one of Bruce Li’s first movies, his kung fu skills are nonexistent, and the pagoda fights are boredom personified.
5. True Game of Death (1981): A movie so lame it actually rips off the 1978, Robert Clouse-directed Game of Death! Man, it must’ve been a slow week for the Bruceploitation producers when they came up with this one. Everything about this flick is bad, and it’s barely saved by some old-fashioned, wholesome nudity from an attractive lead actress. I do love the Dan Inosanto clone, though. The guy can’t stop smiling, even when the fake Bruce is kicking his ass!
GAME OVER! will be released to the general public in the summer of 2006. Please click here for information on how to obtain a copy.