Friday, December 31, 2021

Way of the Coffin Flop: GAME OF DEATH II (1981)

Night #6 of the 12 Days of Ed Wood

Some deaths never last.

Acolytes of the Great Bruce Lee generally sneer at the legions of posthumous 'final' films. Some, like the first Game of Death which was at at least half finished, seem like real movies, but play just a tad empty. After that, well, it's like all the posthumous Hendrix albums out there, all built out of a single tape of after-hours jam sessions. It's a matter of how much you want to believe. Trouble is, its much easier to 'finish' a Hendrix song as one can easily add and and subtract tracks to any guitar jam or riff to make it seem 'finished,' but it's harder to make a movie out of Enter the Dragon outtakes and funeral footage. Very rarely does a film like that transcend its ghoulish aspirations to become something as wondrously bottom drawer as the original home movie / stand-in / off camera -posthumous trash masterpiece, Plan Nine from Outer Space. 

Well, sneer away, Lee acolytes, but GAME OF DEATH II (1981) --one of the first few posthumous mashups from Golden Harvest--the sequel to what was a posthumous rush job to begin with--is right in that drawer with the Plan, kicking its way out. Truly, a magnificent melange for the dissociative cine-nambulist, with some great fights and stunts for those who like that sort of thing, so prett queetending and wag on the jump train! It's called (loss of) control! 

Strangely joyous and soothing in a post-modern sort of way, Death 2 is such a uniquely cool hodgepodge homage it demands to be taken on its own terms, and as soon as it figures out what those terms are, you'll be the first to know... and indeed you will know everything, and beyond, until a Godardesque demonstration of the impossibility of a unified cinematic subject and your spectator POV are merged to the point of inextricability. As the great A. Schwarzenegger said in Total Recall. "You are not you --you're me!" 

Released a mere seven year after Lee's death, Golden Harvest gamely lets us know his ghost is still very much present in the machine, cohering and unifying a relentlessly shifting composite of doubles, dubbers, stunt-men, unused footage from other movies, dummies, backs of heads, and lookalike replacement 'little brothers.'  Half post-modern seance, half flashback 'clips' episode, half verité memorial, half inventive Enter the Dragon / James Bond-emulating spy flick science fiction kung fu movie, sure that doesn't add up but calculus has no place in Game of Death II. It's not even really a sequel. 

All you need to know is this: it... is... the what it does... and what it does... no one man can say. 

The only thing I don't love about is the title:: I wish it was called Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave. Alas, there already is an actual film Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave. It has no footage of Bruce Lee whatsoever. Can you imagine how cool it would be to have the below left poster and title belong to Game of Death 2, or to have a poster with Bruce leaping from a coffin hoisted 600 feet in the air lifted by helicopter?

What a missed opportunity, it's such an indelible moment in the film--one of those WTF moments bad film lovers stuff under their mattresses like tittering misers-- and yet the poster art for Game of Death II is woefully short of trumpeting its grandeur.  In order to make the poster match the film of Bruce Lee Fights Back from His Grave, the producers shot a quick scene of a man jumping out of a grave, then stapled it in front. of some random Korean karate/spy bore bearing no affiliation at all. The spirit of Jerry Warren transcends natoins!

I mention all this because death and graves and coffin imagery are a huge part of Game of Death II.

The key image --the real money shot--is when "Bruce Lee" (playing a version of himself named Billy Lo), hangs onto a friend's coffin after it's lifted high into the sky by a mysterious claw-wielding helicopter during a big funeral, then loses his grip and plummets to his death.  Bruce tries to hold onto Death for dear life. But Death will not have him. 
The image of Bruce Lee holding on to a coffin by his fingers as it soars skyward is so cool and symbolic/poetic to the way the real Lee's death was mythologized (i.e. he faked it to avoid  to escape the Triads) that it should have been celebrated in a big poster ala Kong straddling the Twin Towers in the Di Laurentiis remake). Regardless, it comes around the halfway point, the perfect excuse to stop with the back of head shots, and low lighting battles and promote the Next Big Lee/Lo. 

After the first funeral NOW we get Lo/Lee's subsequent funeral, and it's mostly real life  Lee funeral footage interspersed with footage from Lee's earlier, non-kung fu, acting roles: as a child actor and young romantic lead. At this point we're so confused over the funerals, doubles, real life Lee substituting for fake Lee for the funeral, and vice vera, the melange of dummies, stand-ins, dubbers, projections, outtakes and doubles, we don't even know who the real Lee was or is or was supposed to be. Was he just a composite all this time?. What even is death? Can we live forever if we hire someone to dress like us and walk around our old neighborhood? Does the weird seductress in the poster at left really have a bat tied up in her hair, like if Medusa's snakes got tangled with a bat homunculus? Were the triads trying to extort Lee into signing a long contract and he felt there was no way out other than faking death? Or Did the triads whack him for not signing with them, and they successfully made it look like natural--if suspiciously unusual--causes? 

Nothing is answered in Game of Death II and that's how we want it. It's a film that starts off at an off-footing, and we never catch our balance. In his last fully alive film, Enter the Dragon, we heard Lee's real voice when he spoke--a careful, measured, sinuous purr. When Bruce speaks in Death II, his real voice is replaced by a strident, square-jawed, no nonsense hero-style voice actor, one making no attempt to sound like Lee or even remotely Asian. He sounds like he wandered over from a Dragnet audition. The effect is immediately disorienting, plunging us into an uncanny sense of disconnect. The Lee we're expecting has gone fluttering into a thousand different directions, like Dracula turning into an army of bats when cornered. 

But if we don't fight it, if we let the uncanny affect create a post-structural frisson, the payoff- is a post-modern kick to the back of the head (we'll see a lot of the back of Lee's head, i.e. a double with a very wide head that looks nothing like Bruce's). Everything evokes something else, making it all like the Golden Harvest version of a shaman embodying Lee in a mimetic trance while dancing around a tribal fire in a ceremonial mask. You can refuse to participate, to comment the mask looks fake, but if you accept it as a post-modern deconstructions, it's uplifting, it frees you from the trance of narrative hypnosis rather than the reverse. Yet you find yourself getting swept up anyway. 

To use Hendrix album comparison, if the first Game of Death was Cry of LoveGame of Death II seems more a projected hologram of Hendrix in concert backed by a boozy cover band in some Vegas dinner theater. Since it has much less Bruce footage to work with than the first Game, Part II is forced to think way outside the box. It does that. It gets so far outside by the time it stops we can't even see the box, As such, I love it like a mother loves the bottom rung of her secret drug stash, or the writers at Bleeding Skull! love Doris Wishman's A Night to Dismember. In other words, I love it wholeheartedly, like a play staged by my own five year-old child. 


The story begins with Lee walking the garden of his kung fu school's massive temple (in this case the real Lee via Enter the Dragon outtakes) talking to someone offscreen, not the orange-robed older monk he was talking to in Dragon, but a fellow badass named Chin Lu (Hwang Jang-lee, whose long black facial hair and ponytail decorated many a Golden Harvest kung fu villain). Chin--in a flowing gold robe--pauses their talk to use his 'peerless sword technique' on an Anglo challenger (apparently when you're a master, would-be students show up at your house to challenge you on a regular basus) while Lee watches and drinks tea. Afterwards, they compare notes and realize they both have been receiving an unusual amount of challenges lately ("Someone may want us dead"). Lee tells of a recent challenger he had: so we flashback to a midnight (i.e. so it can be too dark to see faces clearly) greenhouse rendezvous he had with a young upstart some weeks earlier. 

Here's where we get our first composite restructured Lee: most of the time it's a fight double (lots of back of the head shots and the greenhouse is dark, as I've said) plus what looks like an image of Lee from Game of Death I projected onto one of the plastic sheeted walls. The double keeps his mouth hanging open throughout so that dialogue can be attributed to him at any time. "That's what we call control!" he shouts in the anglo voice at his whiny challenger after delivering a pointed beatdown, "something you wouldn't understand!"

We can't imagine the real Lee ever getting so smarmy after beating an opponent in a fair challenge, but it's not Lee's voice, and it's not him fighting, and its someone else's back of the head, so there you go. The fight still has lots of stillness and lightning quick moves and there's a great bit of Dolby foley work with a breaking clay pot mixed in there --on my 2004 Dragon Dynasty disc it sounded like it was coming from my kitchen! 

We've barely begun and already doubling, flashbacks and mistakes commingle with the alleged forward momentum of the narrative, if trying to confuse even the most astute of viewers as to whether the guy they're watching is supposed to be the actual Bruce Lee in flashback, or his character Billy Lo (who alternates between old Lee clips and his back-of-the-head double), or his college student pornography-owning, flaking-out-on-his-training brother Bobby. Whatever the truth, I don't care. The laconic nature of the first half, its laid-back clip show flashback reminiscences, imbues the film with a mellow glow that carries through to the rest of the remaining hour as young Bobby Lo ("Don't worry father, I won't let it bother me"), Billy's (aka Bruce's) kid brother, decides to go full-on super spy to investigate Billy's death. Soon he's engaging in a fun, perhaps unintentionally goofy, spin on Enter the Dragon's midnight black suit secret agent basement drug production lair skulking, i.e. the best part of that film. 

But first! Billy learns his friend Chin Lu (the guy with the peerless sword technique) has been killed! He decides he must be the one to go to tell Lu's sister, a performer in Japan, the bad news. Rather than just call he goes to find her, allowing for a b-roll plunge into the nighttime world of 'the Ginza.' We hear a very Japanese rock/pop singer song of the moment (sounds like, but I'm sure it's not, Meiko Kaji) as Lee/Lo threads his way through the stock footage streets to find the nightclub where she sings as underdressed waitresses lope around in bunny ears and customers watch glumly from their tables, as if it's the 100th take of the night. Even with all that torpor, a fight erupts in her dressing room between Lee/Lo and a horde of assassins. Someone helpfully kicks out the lightbulb so a double can be used for most of the shots. Then our hero goes running through the streets which resemble a kind of sad indoor mall. Where are we anyway? Is this a real place in the Ginza, or a big soundstage recreation? Are supposed to be outside in the night, just a bad set, or is it some kind of actual indoor vendor hall? Never will we know!

Next up, Lee/Lo goes to visit Bobby (Tae-jeong Kim) at college; but Bobby is wasting his time with pornography and non-martial arts studies. We see hands reading an erotic Chinese book then throwing it in the trash. They are Lo/Lee's!? Is he is at his kid brother Bobby's apartment or house or garage? Never will we know! He throws all his brother's dirty magazines into the trash basket, and then starts penning a letter 

"Dear Bobby - how are you? I was hoping to see you but you were out; sorry I missed you. I guess I don't have to tell you that to become an expert in kung fu requires more effort." 

Lo/Lee leaves him the family secret boxing manual, as if knowing he's about to die and it mustn't fall into enemy's hands. At any rate, he's off to a funeral! A very Ennio Morricone-ish surge of blazing brass and vocalizing heralds a visit to a fancy pagoda for Lu's wake, where marital arts trainees in black, like an army of Japanese Lee replacements waiting to go, stand motionless along all the sides of the walkway. That seems to be a thing. Lots of pagodas. Lots of standing still along pagoda steps by guys in matching karate clothes. 

The funeral is Shinto Buddhist. Astute viewers realize instantly Lu's not really dead when four muscly guys in white won't let Lo get close enough to view the body. Lo runs into a Japanese guy and we see the swastika (in the right direction) on the casket. Hey, Buddhism is so much more cosmic than Christianity. The art shows a much clearer understanding of universal energy flows, the circular breathing of the monks echoes eternity. 

And when a helicopter comes to steal the casket the circuit is complete. 

Lee/Lo is so adamant at getting a look at the body, he hitches a ride grabbing onto the claws the chopper uses to steal the casket, only to drop down and fall to his death from hundreds of feet in the air. Now, it's Billy Lo aka Lee who is dead! But also-- the real Bruce Lee is dead!! Now we get Lee's real funeral with dissolve overlays of his whole career, from child actor onwards, a whole photo album of Lee's life, overlaid with footage of his funeral ceremony. 

Well if you got to go, the best way is to do it while falling off of a coffin claw from three hundred feet.  "After you've read this letter, go to Japan," reads dad's letter to young Bobby, "and avenge your brother, Billy." 

Bobby visits a wealthy white guy named Sherman (he looks a little like Daniel Day Lewis - coincidence?) who eats raw meat and drinks a pink milk cocktail for breakfast. ("This is raw venison, and deer's blood!") Lewis gives Bobby a tour of the grounds, pausing briefly fight to the death three idiot martial artists who arrive at the gate to challenge him. It's funny that Lewis, the only white guy in the whole film, is the worst dubbed, with a voice all halting and unevenly accenting the wrong words, as he shows off his grounds ("I keep a lot of specially trained.... peacocks... over there. They obey my command. It takes a lot of training.") '

Then, in case it was all getting too familiar, Lewis (who Bobby calls Sherman for some reason, perhaps reading a different script) makes a signal and a whole flock of peacocks fly out of their aerie, across the vast lawn and right towards the camera! The sight of them all squawking and coming straight for us all at once out of the opposite end of the frame is scary and most of all, totally unique.  We also see lions just hanging out in the garden. ("They are really big lions!" observes Bobby, "I'm kind of frightened.") At one point they surround the jeep and we learn "their favorite dish is fresh human meat").   

Bobby sleeps over at Lewis's estate and is visited first by an under-clothed Anglo lady named Angel (Miranda Austin) who tries to first mate with, and then kill, him.  A guy in a reasonably convincing lion suit, acting like a lion (he may or may not be supposed to be an actual lion -we never quite know) comes flying through the window a little later in the night. Hey, we've seen less convincing lion suits that were supposed to be actual lions (i.e. Latitude Zero). 

But it turns out it's not Lewis sending these hit women and animals. Turns out there's also someone trying to kill Lewis and Bobby: someone wearing a crazy red mask--he's out there skulking in all black around the day-for-night grounds as well. Lewis still may be the guilty one who ordered Billy's death, but Bobby still fights the guy trying to kill him. By now everyone seems 'masked' and doubled so it's just pure joy. 

Clues finally lead to the "Tower of Death" but the secret is - the tower is in reverse!! That's not what a tower is called, man! It's called a pit. But there you go. An elevator takes Bobby down down to a very cool combination of James Bond super villain lair, a 1960s TV Batman cliffhanger death trap and Han's underground opium processing plant in Enter the Dragon. Rivers of red blood (or some kind of red liquid) flank a grey/silver industrial sci-fi room with ridged booby trap-laden hallways. Instead of Dragon's hall of mirrors we get the spinning throw room. An electrified grid of colored lasers 

Luckily before Bobby can be fried, the bad guy leaps from out of his coffin onto a pedestal where the off switch can be easily accessed. A bit of the theme song from Enter is shoved into the faux-Morricone grandeur, and the film ends on a freeze frame. Blammo! No coffin can hold Lu, I mean Lo!  I man LEE!

Deadpan before Death! 


I usually don't do the whole "step-by-step plot explain"-style blog posts as I think they're kind of lazy, even tacky, but in some case it's all just so weird you have to lay it out just to understand it yourself. Second hand descriptions only enhance Game and its deliberately confusing Lee compositing. With a star kind of Frankensteined together with other movie's outtakes, stunt doubles, stand-ins, dubbers, and playing fictional characters, the idea of narrative and of acting roles is exposed as the sham act it is, fuel for the hypnotist that is us. It takes many viewings to savvy all this, grasshopper, so let me help you skip the first dozen tries. It takes a lot of training! Now let those peacock's fly, "Sherman!"

See also the Other 11 Nights of Wood, and Wood-esquery:


  1. Some of the stills you showcased actually look really cool. Unfortunately I cannot digest Asian action movies. Anyway, do you know about the movie "Rainbow Bridge" from the early 70s? It's listed as a documentary but it really isn't. What movie had a guy at the Maui airport offering people "sunshine"? Half the cast is the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. You gotta check it out, man!

  2. Thanks Janko - yes, I know Rainbow Bridge - I am a huge Hendrix fan and my band used to play "Hey Baby (New Rising Son)" a lot. Great Hendrix trip-babble and a groovy vibe, love the smuggling drugs in the surfboard bit.

  3. (he looks a little like Daniel Day Lewis - coincidence?)
    This made me smile. Who knows what temporal paradoxes kung-fu exploitation films are capable of?


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