As a project to place Bruce Lee’s final, unfinished 1973 film, “The Game of Death,” in its proper context, “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey” is up to the task. And as a docu explaining for the young end of the AMC aud what Lee and his revolutionary approach to the martial arts was all about, it has much to value. But as a cinematic chronicler, writer-producer-director John Little –a longtime keeper of Lee’s flame — applies some unfair kicks to the groin of Asian action movies. Unfortunate result overrates Lee’s films at the expense of the far lesser known, but more visually brilliant, Mandarin and Cantonese films in the early and mid-’70s.
Primary raison d’etre is to present in proper narrative framework the intact 33½-minute section of “Game,” comprising three fight sequences of roughly equal length that make up much of pic’s intended last half.
Lee died of a brain edema during filming, and in a fairly desperate attempt to tap into the star’s massive, worldwide cult, Columbia patched together just 12 minutes of the finished sequences into an ersatz Lee actioner by the same title, in 1978.
Little is right to point out that Lee’s legacy was hardly helped; typical of pic was its awkward use of doubles, and a ludicrous use of cardboard cut-outs of Lee’s face for stand-in purposes in certain shots.
Notably, plot of the ’78 version bears no resemblance to Lee’s original story, which was unaccountably obscure until its discovery among other papers in the mid-’90s. Unlike the Americanized version, the Lee edition takes place in Korean locales (and Yank interiors), involving his martial arts character in a heist of treasure hidden at the top of a five-level pagoda.
Lee and his accomplices (Chieh Yuan, James Tien) must battle their way upstairs, knocking off five fighters with radically different fighting styles along the way (including Dan Inosanto, Grandmaster Ji Han Jae and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). The scenario was intended to illustrate Lee’s grand concept, which was that the key to the most effective is being able to adapt to your opponent’s style, to “be like water.”
With a Korean crew, Little lensed brief footage illustrating the pre-fight storyline, but some of the doubling here is no better than the Columbia cut. More critically, new footage shot to TV aspect ratio doesn’t match up with Lee’s preferred widescreen filming. Intact footage shows some color fading, and while the fighting and the wild trademark sound effects remain spectacular, it also shows that Lee’s creative energy went into his moves, not his moviemaking.
This is worth considering in light of some terrible missteps in docu’s first hour, which reviews Lee’s life from boyhood (born in S.F. but raised in Hong Kong) on. There’s no mention of the several H.K. pics Lee was in as a child and teen, but there are wonderful clips of a 1965 screen test, from an expansive 1971 TV interview with Pierre Berton, and Lee’s own U.S. TV and film work in bit parts. Unable to break through in Hollywood, he turned to the H.K. industry to make a series of blockbuster chopsocky pics in the early ’70s, and this remains the savviest career move ever by an American minority thesp.
But instead of simply praising Lee’s hits, like “The Big Boss,” on their own merits, Little dismisses as “unbelievable and hokey” Lee’s competition — the very different fantasy-laden H.K. adventures being made at the same time by such maestros as King Hu. By stressing only Lee’s serious concern for filming authentic fighting, docu ignores the fabulous contribution of Hu and others to gravity-defying cinema that has stood the test of time, as pure movies, better than Lee’s visually stodgy pics.
Narration is informative but almost somnolent, and contains doozies that have no place on a film-oriented channel like AMC, such as the uninformed comment that, on “Game of Death,” Lee did “the cinematography and the lighting.”