“Game of Death” has long been regarded as the lost diamond of Bruce Lee’s all-too-brief career, a film he intended as the ultimate illustration of his martial arts philosophy before his untimely death. True, we did get A version of “Game of Death”, one laden with transparent reshoots and archive footage stitched in, and eleven minutes of the real deal at the very end. However, despite the unfinished state it was left in, there was far more to “Game of Death” than what we ultimately got, and Bruce Lee fans around the world can catch a glimpse of everything he managed to finish in 2000’s “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey”.
Part documentary, part post-production reconstruction, “A Warrior’s Journey” explores Bruce’s life in martial arts, his rise to fame, and the path he took to creating his unfinished film, before showcasing all the footage he lived to complete in all its glory. It’s still an unfinished film, but nevertheless a delight for true Bruce Lee fans, and the closest we’ll ever get to seeing “Game of Death” fully realized!
The cast is largely the same as those seen in the finale of 1978’s “Game of Death”. Bruce Lee assumes the role of the film’s daredevil protagonist, known as Hai Tien in his original script. Bruce’s own students, Dan Inosanto and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also appear in the roles of Eskrima master Dan and the towering Hakim, while Ji Han-Jae appears as a Hapkido master that our hero tangles with. Meanwhile, Bruce’s co-star from “The Big Boss”, James Tien, also appears alongside Chieh Yuan as two confidants of our hero, unseen in the 1978 version, tagging along in the battle to the top of the pagoda.
When Bruce Lee arrives in America, he’s sure he can make it to the top of the world in show business, but he soon discovers that anti-Asian prejudices have created a ceiling
on his career mobility.
After returning to his native Hong Kong and starring in string of highly successful martial arts films, Bruce begins work on his ultimate martial arts magnum opus, “Game of Death”. After filming a few fight sequences, Bruce suspends production after receiving the offer for his big break in Hollywood, 1973’s “Enter the Dragon”.
Though Bruce ultimately dies before the film’s release, its success cements his status as a global icon – and leads some producers to retool his unfinished film for what would become the version of “Game of Death” released in 1978. That remained the legacy of “Game of Death” for over two decades – that is, until all the footage Bruce managed to complete was finally restored in all its glory for this documentary.
If you’ve seen any Bruce Lee documentary worth its weight, the documentary portion of “A Warrior’s Journey” isn’t going to be anything new to you. We get the basic rundown of Bruce Lee’s beginnings in martial arts, his early days as a young man in the United States, the fight with Wong Jack-man and his well-known dissatisfaction with the outcome, and his subsequent development of Jeet Kune Do (JKD), now seen as the forerunner of the modern concept of MMA.
The film then leads into Bruce’s early attempts to break into the American film industry, and the many roadblocks he encountered as an Asian man. Despite his show-stealing appearance as Kato on “The Green Hornet”, Bruce’s stateside frustrations led him to try his hand in the Hong Kong film industry, with much greater success and far fewer obstacles, and he soon sought to have greater creative control of his work.
Following his directorial debut with “Way of the Dragon”, Bruce conceived of “Game of Death” as the ultimate expression of his martial arts philosophy, with his character ascending a pagoda to encounter a new opponent on each level, each with a different skill set that he must find a way to counter. Production on “Game of Death” was suspended when Bruce finally got the break in Hollywood he’d been waiting for with 1973’s “Enter the Dragon”. While the film would shoot Bruce into the big time globally, his death just weeks before its release ultimately made it a posthumous achievement, and left “Game of Death” forever unfinished.
When “A Warrior’s Journey” reaches its end, it presents the viewer with all the footage Bruce managed to wrap up, totaling about thirty-three minutes. What’s striking about it is just how much fully and richer an experience this version of “Game of Death” is in comparison to the version that was actually released in 1978. The authentic Bruce Lee footage used at the climax of “Game of Death” has long been seen by fans as the pot of gold awaiting them at the end of the film’s often laughable attempts to pass off body doubles and cardboard cutouts as the genuine article.
Despite being less than the running time of a feature length movie, the footage showcased in “A Warrior’s Journey” feels much more complete and finessed. The fights go on longer, as do the dialogue exchanges between Bruce and his opponents that feel like those missing pieces of a puzzle when compared to the abruptly edited footage showcased in “Game of Death”. Hai Tien and his opponents engage in philosophical banter about their respective strengths, and seeing these dialogue exchanges plugged in gives a much richer insight into what Bruce was attempting to do by using each pagoda battle as an analogy of his “be like water” concept.
It’s also clear that Bruce intended Hai Tien’s two accomplices to serve as audience surrogates, in this regard, as they frankly do little else besides take the initial beating from the enemy of the moment, before sitting on the sidelines as Hai Tien takes them and his given opponent through his intended battle strategy.
The fight work itself was already gorgeous, and was always the best thing about “Game of Death”, but it carries extra gravitas here as we get to see just how truncated it was previously, and how much more intricate the fight choreography, the story as well as the environmental aspects feeding into it, really are.
The final fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, especially, really benefits from having the footage restored in its entirety. It has a much greater feeling of build-up from the preceding fight with Ji Han-Jae, and sets Hakim up as a much deadlier adversary for our hero to overcome. There’s even a point where, once it’s clear he’s won the fight, Hai Tien offers to end his attack if his opponent will simply concede the fight, and Hakim’s response makes his ultimate demise a vastly more human and emotional conclusion to the film, one not unlike the conclusion of the Colosseum battle in “Way of the Dragon”.
The footage ultimately ends in such a way that it’s clear that the intended denoument is among the footage Bruce never got the chance to film. But the ending still feels enriched, layered, and full of that all-important “emotional content” in a way that the viewer gets a real sense that “Game of Death” might well have been Bruce Lee’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker had he gotten the chance to get it to the finish line.
For everyone, from die-hard Bruce Lee fans to anyone curious for a behind-the-scenes look at the process of filmmaking, “Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey” is an absolutely fascinating piece of work. The documentary portion is a wonderful trip down memory lane, complete with interviews with his family and friends who share their undying admiration for him.
Meanwhile, the “Game of Death” footage is an absolute blast to see in its entirety, and for being an unfinished film, nevertheless showcases some of Bruce Lee’s best fight sequences that are now enlivened with the philosophical and emotional impact he intended viewers to experience. It may be a sad truth that “A Warrior’s Journey” is the closest we’ll ever get to seeing what might’ve been Bruce’s best film, but it’s also a journey that no martial arts action aficionado or filmmaking student should permit themselves to miss!
- The documentary portion of the film features interviews with Bruce’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, along with his students, Taky Kimura and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
- The film was also included as a special feature on the 2004 DVD re-issue of “Enter the Dragon”.
- In Bruce’s concept for “Game of Death”, Hai Tien is forced to fight his way up the pagoda after his brother and sister are kidnapped by a Korean underworld gang, who want him to retrieve a hidden treasure at the top, which is not explicitly identified in any surviving material. Upon arriving at the pagoda, Hai Tien and his associates (intended by Bruce to be four) fight off ten karate black belts at the ground level. Following this, Bruce intended for the pagoda to be five stories, with Hwang Ing-shik slated to portray an exponent of a kicking-oriented fighting style on the first floor, and Taky Kimura to play a master of praying mantis kung fu on the second. Ultimately, however, only the action from the third floor up was filmed, and the footage seen in “A Warrior’s Journey” ends with Hai Tien descending the pagoda without retrieving the treasure at the top, with no surviving material existing to explain Bruce’s intended ending for the film.
- “I hope you don’t mind if we move our man, so that the two of us will have more room to groove.” – Hai Tien (after Dan has defeated one of his allies.)
- “You know baby, this bamboo is longer, more flexible, and very much alive. And when your flashy routine cannot keep up with the speed and elusiveness of this thing here, all I can say is that you will be in deep trouble.” – Hai Tien (comparing his bamboo rod to Dan’s Eskrima sticks.)
- “Why continue? Just let me pass.” – Hai Tien (to Hakim when his victory in the fight is assured.)
- “You have forgotten that I too am not afraid of death.” – Hakim (in reply.)
Film Rating: 8.5/10
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