Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Game of Death in Stunning Low Definition

Bruce Lee himself remains a fascinating cultural icon, if absolutely nothing else. He started life as a child star, literally appearing in his first film at the age of one, and made numerous minor roles as a youth through the fourties and fifties. Born an American but raised in Hong Kong, he returned to his motherland at the age of 18 with nothing but a hundred bucks in his pocket and likely enough charm to talk a nun out of her virginity while asking for directions to the bus station. His emergence as a superstar introduced the world at large to the often guilty pleasures of martial arts mayhem, and he's inspired literally countless imitations - both sincere and snide - from virtually every corner of the world. He was one of those men that simply defined badass, and having been snuffed out literally the moment he had the world by the balls, all we can do as purveyors of pop culture is sit back, and wonder what may have been.

He spent several years being a nobody in the Dream Factory's eyes until he landed a gig in the 60s as the Asian Sidekick(TM) Kato to TVs The Green Hornet, and made a number of minor appearances on American television for the next few years... it wasn't until he auditioned for the  Kung Fu TV series and lost to Bill himself, David Carradine, that he finally said "fuck all y'all" and returned to Hong Kong where his remaining Hollywood credits and appearances performing a home-grown martial arts style landed him a gig with Golden Harvest. He produced three complete films with the company (the naming conventions of which confuse people to this very day), and was midway through a fourth when Hollywood finally came to him, specifically in the form of Warner Brothers begging for him to headline the first ever American kung-fu epic, Enter the Dragon, affording Lee the budget, professionalism and mass-market appeal that the fast 'n' dirty world of post-dubbed Hong Kong cinema simply couldn't afford to give him. Lee knew he couldn't pass up that chance, and put his fourth Hong Kong film on hold to complete his first Hollywood movie... only to die less than a year after it opened in his prime, denying the world both the best years he had in store, and the inevitable cinematic humiliations that have slowly but surely faced his contemporaries like Jackie Chan, Sonny Chiba and Chuck Norris.

 Bruce Lee was so awesome, it'd be gay if you DIDN'T get a boner from this picture.

Robert Clouse, director of Enter the Dragon and by that point a close friend of Lee's, felt that Lee's final testament - his unfinished Hong Kong picture, featuring an epic battle between 5'7 Lee in a yellow track suit and a 7'2 Karim Abdul Jabaar as his towering opponent - would perhaps inevitably become one of the most iconic fight scenes in cinematic history. The film was planned to be Lee's own personal triumph, a film showcasing his own unique brand of martial arts, Jeet Kune Do, and he was already planning to finish production once Enter the Dragon was finished... something Lee's untimely death simply didn't allow. Despite 100 minutes of raw footage having been shot, that only amounted to perhaps two reels of usable footage, and all of it was out of context. As a way to honor Lee's spirit - or just cash in on his passing, depending on how cynical you view the whole - Clouse resorted to a combination of look alikes, stock footage, and even some boggling scenes where Bruce's face is literally pasted over his stand in during post-production, just to convince the audience that the generally Chinese looking stand in is really the one and only Bruce Lee! Only the climactic battle tower scenes were really done, so Clouse essentially created an entirely new feature film as an excuse to use Lee's fifteen minutes or so of footage... for what it's worth, the documentary Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey - included on the WB Special Edition release of Enter the Dragon - features every worthwhile scrap of Game of Death in its original context, and while obviously not perfect, remains as close as we'll ever get to seeing what Lee was trying to give the world.

Anyway, Robert Clouse's train-wreck of a tribute was released as Game of Death worldwide starting in 1978. It's certainly open to debate wither or not films like The Big Boss and Way of the Dragon were particularly good films to start with - they were fluffy, insubstantial films that mostly captivate by way of Lee's natural charisma and his (particularly for the time) energetic and wholly unorthodox fight choreography. Lee is in both of these films really the diamond in the rough... but if that's true, in Game of Death the restored footage of Lee is more like the tasty peanut lodged in a stinking turd. The movie is as retarded as it is bizarre, but never quite crosses into that point where it's so pitifully terrible that the whole thing just becomes hilarious. No, it's just bad. But just like a number of bad movies, there's something oddly magical about watching it. Like a train that crashes, explodes, sprouts wings and then crashes itself headlong into a school for children with learning disabilities... it's just so unbelievably awful that it's difficult to turn away. It's also a must see for anyone with even a passing interest in Lee, just to see where his career may well have gone had he survived much longer. It's a bad movie with a capital "Jesus Christ!", but it's also one that contains fleeting moments of brilliance buried under all the painful dreck... and yeah, it's also got real footage of fans grieving at Lee's very public memorial service. I rarely make it a point to say that a director has made a decision in poor taste - I tend to like that sort of thing, after all - but Clouse's inclusion of real fans and possibly friends and family members weeping over his grave is just... ghoulish. It's almost in worse taste than putting Lee's final footage in such a ridiculously silly picture. But hey, that's showbiz.

It's worth noting that "Game of Death II", a direct sequel to the film we're talking about today released in 1981, is sometimes considered Lee's really final movie. The truth of the matter is someone found outtakes from Enter the Dragon, slapped them in a totally unrelated movie and viola - they have the absolute flimsiest leg to stand on in calling it a 'new' and 'never before seen' Bruce Lee movie. It's an interesting historical footnote, but little else, at least in the context of Lee's career.

Bruce's brief stint as a major film star has had a very mixed quality of HD releases. Fortune Star restored his three Hong Kong pictures and released them on English-subtitled Blu-ray via Hong Kong media mainstay Kam and Ronson. His first proper film, 1971's The Big Boss, is by far the best of the bunch and boasts an absolute reference transfer that you'd swear were shot yesterday, proving that the age of a film has absolutely nothing to do with quality. His two Hong Kong follow-ups, Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, look substantially less impressive with weak color timing, overzealous grain removal, and generally just look...  kind of like shit. They're not upscales, as a number of later Fortune Star/Kam and Ronson BD releases would be, they're just very unimpressive and over processed HD masters that looked passable on DVD and didn't age as well as The Big Boss, for whatever reason. Also, all of the Bruce Lee films discussed here have also been subjected to extensive, and frankly embarrassing 5.1 remixes, but that's really a discussion unto itself - if ever given this option, just watch the films in Mandarin mono and be done with it. (The Big Boss actually has an alternate rockin' soundtrack for the Cantonese dub which I'm partial to - but again, that's another story.)

His one and only "real" Hollywood feature, Enter the Dragon, was released on Blu-ray and the now-defunct HD DVD format by Warner in 2007. It was an earlier transfer sourced from a 1080i master made only God knows when. They properly performed an Inverse Telecine process to convert it to 1080p, but the final result lacks vertical resolution and has some pretty nasty aliasing from start to finish. Still, it's overall a decent looking transfer that, heinous aliasing aside, still puts the new scan from Hong Kong to shame. Also, that HK release is dubbed in Chinese only; despite the genre's broad preference for shooting silent and then dubbing into Mandarin first, Enter the Dragon was an all-English production shot with sync sound. It might be simpler to think of them as alternate versions of the film totally, since the Hong Kong cut does include alterante titles and a few brief scene extensions, even when compared to the "Restored" Warner Bros. edition we have now.

Mein gott!

Up until recent weeks, Lee's "final" picture has been absent on Blu-ray, apart from as an overpriced bonus disc (more on that in a minute). German label Universum Films have finally corrected it by releasing Game of Death under its' Deutsch title, MEIN LETZTER KAMPF - or "My Last Fight" for those of you not quite familiar enough with Hitler's autobiography to guess the English meaning of the title - on a Region "B" Blu-ray as either a single disc or part of a box set including his other three Hong Kong features. The title has been released uncut with an FSK16 rating, and includes its original English audio, albeit in a 5.1 remix. German 2.0 mono and subtitles are also included, and all the ridiculously gaudy English title sequences are as American fans will remember them. No relevant extras are included, but so long as the transfer looks great, hey, who cares!

 ...should I even be surprised?

I sadly can only give these Universum Film guys the benefit of the doubt, since they sourced the other three Lee films on their label from the same HD masters Fortune Star released on BD in Hong Kong. There was that "Bruce Lee: The Legendary Collection" box set by Fortune Star released less than one year ago (roughly $85 USD), and it contained Game of Death as an 'exclusive' after the rest of Lee's martial arts films were released as single discs... and now I think we all know why it wasn't given a stand alone edition. The film is an eye-rolling hodge podge of stock footage and optical effects where they literally paste in Bruce Lee's face over that of his stand-in(!!), so to some degree the film is never going to look "great" - but there's really no reason for it to be sourced from an NTSC fotmatted Digibeta, damn it!

For what damning praise this is, it's still worlds better than earlier cringe-inducing Fortune Star/Kam and Ronson upscales like Police Story and Bullet in the Head, which not only look like DVD, but like bad DVD. Paramount Japan is going to release this in November, and I can only imagine they're going to be stuck with the same shoddy upscaled master, too. To be totally fair, it still beats the prior Fortune Star/Warner Brothers R1 box set DVD release by a country mile. That thing was drowning in DVNR and scratch repair oddities, while this release goes the total opposite route and presents each and every scar and scrape on the print humanly possible. You can immediately tell when they're falling back on stock footage from his three Hong Kong films because of the coarser grain structure, and having been distracted by the heinous smearing on the five-disc R1 Fortune Star set, I can't say this isn't still a pretty notable improvement. But even so, it's got no more resolution than NTSC DVD is theoretically capable of, and has no reason being sold as a "1080p" release of any sort - much less be held as some sort of super special bonus disc or anything worth going out of your way to import.

Still, if you've got Kung Fu Fever and absolutely nothing but the post-mortum patchwork insanity of Game of Death on Blu-ray will satisfy you... shit son, you've got some issues. This pile of crap can be had for the laughable price of 15 Euros, and I won't link to where you can buy it, since I'd feel bad if you actually paid money for this worthless waste of space. Just pay attention to private download sites, grab a 720p rip of somekind and call it a day. If you want all of the Fortune Star BDs the box set is no more expensive than getting them as single discs, and you'll get some exclusive bonus material in the process, too. If you do already own the singles for the films you want, do yourself a favor and tell Fortune Star to eat a dick.

Much like masturbating with a fist full of Bengay, Game of Death is a uniquely masochistic treat I'd recommend only once. The German Blu-ray release, however, can be safely avoided at all costs.