Game of Death II [1981)

And now we ostensibly enter the schlock of true B-movie Brucespoitation.  Eight years after his death, producer Raymond Chow and distributor Golden Harvest were still trying to milk money from the cutting-floor scraps of their cash cow.  But someone kept things fairly interesting:  director See-Yuen Ng.

Though there is little to no continuity between Game of Death and Game of Death II, both films share a watchable quality which teeters on the edge of this viewer’s incredulous ennui.  Put simply, this film is better than it has any right to be.  Which is not to say this is a great (or even good) film.

The most hilarious midnight movie aspects are the contrasts between film fidelity and definition circa 1973 (the actual footage of Lee) and 1981 (the footage of everyone else).  I almost feel sorry for director Ng for the sleight-of-hand editing and shooting necessary to even attempt this picture.  Back to the film stocks not matching…much of that is also evident in the lack of deft color correction.  Occasionally a background matches and we must hand it to the technicians who found just the right shade of puke green to provide a shred of matching in the shot-reverse-shots.

Fortunately for all involved, Lee’s character meets his demise about halfway through the film.  It’s smooth sailing from there regarding the different eras of film stock.

This film is not without messages.  Some, apparently, have not been interpreted the same by all viewers.  Whereas I distinctly heard the Ginza district of Tokyo mentioned as Lee’s (and his on-screen brother’s) destination, English Wikipedia tells us that the action moves to Korea.  Of course, the astute spectator who added this bit of plot synopsis to the aforementioned site seems to have been oblivious that another contributor has Lee active before the end of the paragraph (the initial contributor giving away Lee’s character’s death along with the Korea location).  So to clarify, Lee does not resurrect during the course of the film.

Roy Horan plays a significant role as a raw-venison-eating, deer’s-blood-drinking, bearded kung fu nut.  As the name implies, Horan’s character is of white European lineage (not Chinese).  There is a subtle undercurrent which implies that Lee’s friend (and consequently his own character as well) died for teaching kung fu to non-Chinese.  This, of course, has some parallels in Lee’s actual life story.

For all of the professional attributes in this film, the “lion” attack (obviously a human in a lion costume) does not pass muster.  It is, again, the stuff of midnight movies.  Perhaps they were over budget by that point…

Tong Lung is actually pretty darn good as Lee’s brother (the hero of the film) Bobby Lo.

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that a multinational organization turns out to be the ultimate culprit of the two film murders in question.  There are all sorts of strange strings waiting to be pulled here…fake deaths, the aforementioned cartel (this particular multinational is illegal in nature), etc.

The most interesting takeaway (take out?) was the revelation (somehow…perhaps due to the less than enthralling screen drama) that one political entity would have stood to gain from the actual Lee’s real life death.  That entity would be China.  Made before Hong Kong rejoined the PRC, Bruce Lee’s films and fame might have posed a significant threat to China in that (had he lived) he might well have been a unifying figure which could have fired the flames of revolution for those residents of HK not particularly excited about joining a country with such a totalitarian approach to dissent.  But then again, any country which blocks the Internet (not counting Hong Kong and Macau) has far less to worry about.  No information dissemination, no 21st-century speed of dissent.  And it would just happen that today was July 4th…

-PD

Game of Death [1978)

Panopticon.

Self-censorship.

Can’t leave well-enough alone.

Yes.  In America we have our heroes of the Revolution.  George Washington.  Paul Revere.

But here…we have a sad goodbye to a great hero for Hong Kong.

Thus begins the Bruce Lee apochrypha.

It starts very bad.  Some of the editing seems straight out of the Tim and Eric Awesome Show.

But it gets better.  Way better!  No, this is not a great film.  It’s not even really a good film.  But for fans of Bruce Lee it is worth watching for several reasons.

I must admit:  Bruce Lee brought about a change in my innermost being.  I know that sounds naïve.  I owe some credit to Shaquille O’Neal.  I just happened to catch an interview between Shaq and Yao Ming in which O’Neal admitted that his passion for basketball stemmed from being inspired by Bruce Lee.

Having recently seen Lee’s canonic oeuvre when I came across this interview, it made total sense to me what Shaq was saying.

And that brings us to one of the highlights of Game of Death:  Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Yes, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer indeed plays a fairly significant role in this film.  What is more, this gives me the opportunity to reach out and wish Kareem a speedy recovery as he has just recently undergone coronary bypass surgery.

It actually is amazing that director Robert Clouse put together a semi-watchable film from what little he had to go on.

Hugh O’Brian is pretty good in this.  It’s just a shame that his acting talents go to waste in dialogues with body doubles.

If I haven’t made it abundantly clear, let me clarify:  Bruce Lee was no longer alive when this film was being put together.  Though Lee filmed portions of it, his absence presented a particularly insurmountable problem.

It pains me to say this, but it really is the ensemble cast which keeps this film afloat when it should lag and sag from Lee’s missing contribution.  Dean Jagger is a disgusting psychopath who reminds me of what I imagine Donald Rumsfeld to be like behind closed doors.

The biggest saving grace is Colleen Camp.  She looks so beautiful in this film!

As for there being a conspiracy involved in the demise of Bruce Lee, I don’t doubt that for a second.  Unfortunately, it is not a subject on which I have any pertinent knowledge.

We fans can continue to gain inspiration from the anti-fascist characters Lee embodied.  His short life brought such joy and exhilaration into the world.

-PD

Enter the Dragon [1973)

Hollywood fail.  Yes.  Bruce Lee’s first three films are each better than this hunk of bejeweled shit.  Most notably, it shows how talented Lee was as a director (Way of the Dragon) compared to Robert Clouse.  But then we get the message that Lee was an “uncredited” director on this film.  Is it a reference to the fight scenes and their staging?  It seems, rather, that Lee merely directed the opening sequence of the film under consideration.

Back to Clouse then.  Perhaps his other films were better, but this one really misses the mark.  All of the special details which made The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon such wonderful films are generally missing here.

Don’t get me wrong:  there are great moments within.  When dealing with a talent like Lee, there is always something salvageable.  Yet still, it is mind-boggling to me that the addition of major studio backing (Warner Bros.) only served to dilute the power of what Lee had been steadily building through his filmography.

But of course that would all end on July 20, 1973 when Lee died (just six days before Enter the Dragon premiered in Hong Kong).  Lee was in Hong Kong to dine with Lazenby.  George Lazenby.  The two intended to work together.  Lee met Raymond Chow at 2 p.m. to discuss his next film Game of Death.

Cerebral edema, they say.  Had occurred as recently as two months prior.  Seizures and headaches.  Mannitol.

A headache on the day of his death led to Equagesic (aspirin and meprobamate).  Analgesic/tranquilizer.

Swelling of the brain…  Was his death really an allergic reaction to the tranquilizer component of Equagesic?

A sad day.  Eleven days later his pallbearers included Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Chuck Norris, and George Lazenby.

Yes, there seems to be some dispute between the doctor in charge of autopsy (Donald Teare) and Lee’s doctor in Hong Kong.  It doesn’t really add confidence to the conclusion of the former to note that he (Teare) was recommended by Scotland Yard.  This was, of course, during the 156 years which Britain ruled Hong Kong as a colony (ending in 1997).

Had Lee eaten cannabis or hashish?  Was this the true cause of his death?  Some have claimed that Lee did this regularly to relieve the stress of fame.

Dr. Peter Wu, who had treated Lee two months prior to his death, called Dr. Teare “an expert on cannabis.”  Hmmm…

Teare’s conclusion was that the Equagesic had killed Lee.

I do find it suspicious that Lee died just six days prior to the Hong Kong release of this film.  The $850,000 film would go on to rake in $200 million by 1992.  Less than three weeks after his funeral in Seattle, the film premiered in the U.S.

Clouse would go on to cobble together footage of Lee and a couple of stand-ins for the 1978 release Game of Death.  It is interesting to note that the plot of Game of Death involves an international martial arts film star struggling against a racketeering syndicate.  What is more, this particular plot element seems to have not existed when shooting was done prior to Lee’s demise.  Perhaps Clouse redeemed himself in code???

-PD

Way of the Dragon [1972)

1770.  Beethoven.  Dragon.  If my math is correct.  I was born in the year of the dragon.  Hour of the dog.  For dragon, I will own eccentric.  For dog, sense of justice and lazy.  Bruce Lee was born in the year and hour of the dragon.

Strong.  Intestinal fortitude is usually used figuratively.  Early in this film we might be disoriented by the clumsy, blurred  mise-en-scène.  Indeed, this was Lee’s first and last completed directorial effort.  The beginning doesn’t bode well.  Just like his character, who accidentally orders five bowls of soup, Lee seems in over his head as an auteur.  As his character Tang Lung deals with a seeming case of the shits, the film moves (on the contrary) very slowly.  Not only do we wonder about the technical proficiency of the cinematographer, we experience a claustrophobic hyper-sensitivity to the passing of time.  Mercifully, this is offset by a cinematic tone which echoes Tati’s Playtime.

But the strength builds up.  The film, literally, comes into focus (albeit slowly).  Lee once again plays a similar character to those he delineated in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury.

You must put your hip into it, he says.  Yes.  This is the secret to power.  Leverage.  Chinese boxing.

We are made aware of Lee’s strength on several occasions when he flexes his taut physique.  Suffice it to say that there is nothing slight about the diminutive Lee.  One senses that every square inch of this man is power.  Strength.

Proud.  Nothing is like back home.  Hong Kong.  Rome doesn’t impress Lee.  On one occasion he seems to see things through the eyes of Respighi for a moment, but then makes a flippant comment about a grand fountain.  Tang Lung (Lee) would build over it.  Make money.

But this façade is at odds with the loyalty he shows to his newfound friends in Rome (themselves likewise expats from Hong Kong).

Direct.  Lee begins to direct.  There is a panache in all of his movements…like a lethal Chaplin.

Eccentric.  Can I buy a gun around here?  Yes?  Good.  I’ll whittle some bamboo darts instead.

He moves in squawking orbits.  Distractions.  Diversions.  Like Muhammad Ali with Tourette’s.

Show off.  More like a selective extrovert.  Beware of the quiet ones.  The humble ones.  When they reach their breaking points, God forbid they be the most genius asskickers on the planet.

Lee refrains until his adversaries ask for it.  Backed into a corner, he turns the tables…every time.

Arrogant.  Sometimes…  It takes a Chuck Norris to remind us that there are other masters in the world.  And if we beat them, we salute them.  But he who seeks not money shall have a superior core to the mercenary.  To protect is more powerful than to attack.

Violent.  Damn right!  You want violence?  You’re about to be dealt the quickest administrations of pain you’ve ever seen.  Calling Dr. Lee.  This is where shock and awe comes from.  And machinery/technology will never ascend to the glorious depths of human creativity.  Endurance is in the mind.

Brash.  Occasionally.  The big boss needs to learn.  The big boss hires his murders–his terrorism–his intimidation.  The big boss runs and hides when the fast bullets fly.  But once in awhile the masters of war find themselves in very uncomfortable circumstances.  The teacher does not love war.  The teacher masters war.  The teacher masters the passions of revenge.  Bruce Lee never distributes a disproportionate riposte.

Controlling.  Control.  First, control yourself.  Seek to master yourself.  Listen to your body.  Control what you can control…knowing that the world is chaos…an indeterminate harmony.  Then you will be ready to think on your feet.  You will be ready to invent and improvise like Thelonious Monk.

This is the way of the dragon.

-PD

Fist of Fury [1972)

For most of the world, life is an endless battle.  There are precious few who enjoy existence in a comfortable parentheses.  Indeed, we here in the West can look to the beginning of our literature:  The Iliad.  Rage.  Yes, it is the most intense disgust possible.  Perhaps there are few who take the rage to heart.

It often stems from lies.  Honor.  Respect.  Sympathy.  We do not like it when our fellow humans are sacrificed.  It gives birth to divine disgust when we see innocent people murdered.

Yes, some remember.  Some take it to heart.  And some search for the answers.  They know the story is a lie.  It does not honor the dead for them to be buried in lies.

From the start of this film we see Bruce Lee clawing through the lies just as he claws through the dirt which covers the casket of his dead teacher.  Perhaps few can understand this sort of devotion.

There are very strong emotions which cause such lasting connections.  The emotions are imprinted in our memory.  We become bound to others.  It is our duty to honor them in life and death.

Let’s face it:  the Japanese chose poorly.  How on earth did they ever (with a good conscience) ally themselves with the country which nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Likewise, F.D.R. let those men die in Hawaii.  His policies might have been in the best interest of the people, but he was a cynical bastard.  The blood of Pearl Harbor will forever be on his hands.

And so, we have an ethnic, nationalistic slant to this film.  It is China vs. Japan.  And to a lesser extent it is China vs. Russia.

The setting is Shanghai. A man returns in a white suit to marry his fiancée.  But when he returns, he returns to disaster.

In some respects this film has a rather fumbling plot compared to The Big Boss, but overall it is quite an artful film.  Lo Wei’s direction is generally very good.

Paul Wei perfectly plays the sniveling traitor Wu.  Wu is a translator…basically the opposite of Sibel Edmonds.  Though Bruce Lee initially maintains his composure when taunted by Wu, Lee soon enough returns the gift.

We must remember than Gift is German for poison.  Just as Mist is German for shit.  Dick, by the way, means fat.

Yes, the bearers of gifts turn out to be intimately acquainted with poison.  Perhaps we can find hints of their Nazi leanings in Lo Wei’s direction.  The Japanese seem to have an unfair hold on procedural law in Shanghai at this time.

There is another fleeting bit of cultural symbolism when Chen (Bruce Lee) is refused admittance to a park.  He seems to simply want a thoroughfare to return to his school (after schooling the Japanese dipshits).  Yet now he must answer to a Sikh guard enforcing a “no dogs and no Chinese” policy for the commons.  And so we have a short bit of China vs. India.

Ah, but we risk so much by playing the hero.  The true heroes often lose everything.  That’s what they don’t show you in the Hollywood version.  At least in Hong Kong, they seemed to know that life is a constant battle.  There is such a thing as honorable defeat.  Defeat rarely enters into the Hollywood lexicon when describing the protagonists.

But then arrives on Earth the phenomenon of the fist of fury.  It is strength.  It is passion.  It is torque.  It is velocity.

When Chen discovers the truth, he kills the murderers.  But that is not enough.  It’s time now to track down the enablers and the grand conspirators.  Lee does just this.  Talk about cleaning house!

Listen to “Peace Frog” by The Doors.  Sure, it’s great rhythm guitar from Robbie Krieger, but the lyrics might be Jim Morrison’s best.  Blood in the streets.  Up to my knees.  Up to my thigh.  I’m not sure if Morrison ever read Gérard de Nerval, but it wouldn’t surprise me.  It’s hard not to think of Nerval and Vlad Țepeș when seeing Lee gradually string up body after body from that lamppost. 

But let’s talk about more pleasant things, shall we?  Like Nora Miao, for instance.  She is so beautiful in this film.  And what a cute name!  I can’t help conjuring a cat to mind…Chairman Miao perhaps.

On the humorous side we have Inspector Lo and his two assistants…sartorially identical to Bogart from the neck up.  The disconnect comes when seeing their fedoras juxtaposed with traditional Chinese garb.  It is truly surreal!  Marlowe as Mar Lo.

The Russian connection comes from a visiting martial artist named Petrov.  We must remember that Putin joined the KGB in 1975.  Likewise, before Vladimir became a sixth degree black belt (or red and white if you want to get closer to Russian colors) in judo he trained in the Russian art of sambo (beginning around 1966).  So perhaps the Petrov character is a lucky match to current world leaders.

The villain of the film, Suzuki, propagates a massacre of Chen’s school (which bears a striking resemblance to the thuggery from The Big Boss).  What’s new is the Inspector Clouseau aspect of Lee’s persona.  We see him in disguise as an elderly newspaper salesman, a telephone repairman (!), and a rickshaw driver.  There is even a Chaplinesque visual humor to the telephone company employee portrayal–almost like an invocation of Jerry Lewis.

What is more, director Lo Wei eventually adds a further mystical dimension to Lee’s fighting prowess when his hands move with psychedelic tracers trailing in blurred wonder.  But for every true hero a firing squad awaits.  In the end, perhaps it’s better to run towards the bullets.

-PD

The Big Boss [1971)

I taste my own blood and I spit.  The New World Order kills even little children.  Revenge is a dish best served with chopsticks.

I promised my mother I would stay out of trouble.  Hong Kong.

Thailand.  I recognized the script.  It’s been so long since my beloved professor wrote in Thai.  Emails.  A QWERTY keyboard rigged to write Thai.  Little stickers on the keys.

But let me back up to poverty.  Humility.  We see the uncle with his humble green suitcase.  The ferry.  Stay out of trouble.

Trouble is my middle name.

Those young boys.  So innocent.  They refuse the bribe because they hadn’t earned it in their work.  The ice factory.

Crime takes no chances.  And in taking no chances it takes repeated chances.  You will know them by the trail of dead.

They wouldn’t have squealed, those two young men.  You don’t work in an ice factory to make trouble.  When you get home and have your humble bowl of rice on the little coffee table…gathered around brothers and cousins…  And you sleep on the floor beneath a mosquito net.  You are not looking for trouble.  You are merely subsisting.  And then a fellow like Gandhi steps in.  A giant like Martin Luther King, Jr. shows up on the scene.

Yes, Bruce Lee was the baddest motherfucker one could ever dream of.  Gandhi, MLK, Bruce Lee…human wrenches who threw themselves into the works.

The important detail is that Bruce Lee was an actor.  But he was an actor so convincing that his legacy is worldwide and unwaning.

Why do we believe?  Because Bruce gets wasted on Hennessy.  Bruce gets the titties.  Bruce becomes a “sellout” to his extended family.  It takes Lee awhile to see how crooked the world is.  He’s not in his rural home anymore.

You’re going to have to fight your way through this mountain.  Long odds.  Shoe (we will call him) was two against 13 earlier in the film.  Those are the odds Lee faces.  Let’s call it one vs. 17.

But he will eventually dig his fingers in.  A knife is not enough for what you have done.

Name:  Cheng Chao-an

Occupation:  ice factory employee

Distinguishing features:  bandage on right index finger

Born in the hour and year of the dragon.  Return again.  And again.  And again.  And again.

Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix.  Seattle.

Two-finger push-ups.  One inch punch.

Practicality.  Flexibility.  Speed.  Efficiency.

You are in the midst of this.  Right now. The style of no style.

Disgusting revenge delicious.

-PD