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Tuesday, September 2, 2008
  DVD Review: Finishing the Game

Finishing the Game is a mockumentary about the efforts to find what was essentially a body double for Bruce Lee in order to complete his final film, Game of Death. It’s a brilliant premise for a spoof documentary, because aside from the fact that everything that happens in the film is fake (events, characters, etc.), the actual story it’s kinda-sorta unofficially based on is actually 100% true.

Bruce Lee died in 1973 at the age of 32. The exact circumstances surrounding his death remain mysterious to this day, and I won’t bore you with the details of the various conspiracy theories; if you’re interested, just Google “Bruce Lee Death” and I’m sure you’ll get dozens of dozens of theories (thanks, Internet!). The point is, he died, and when he passed he left 12 minutes or so of footage he’d completed for what was to be his masterpiece, The Game of Death. (For some reason the version Lee was crafting has a “The” in front of the title, but the version that was eventually released does not. Go figure.) Now, I’m a Bruce Lee fan – if you look closely at the photo of me to the right, you can see that I’m wearing a t-shirt bearing his image – and I find Game of Death fascinating, because it’s easily one of the absolute worst movies I have ever seen.

There’s a really excellent mini-documentary about Lee and his plans for The Game of Death on Warner’s great two-disc Enter the Dragon DVD from a few years back that actually includes information taken from Lee’s personal notebooks and even has all the finished film that he shot before he died. The film, which Lee was directing himself, was to be his masterpiece, a showcase for not only his incredible physical talents but also his personal philosophies on the martial arts and life in general. He shot the footage in question, less than 15 minutes of which were usable (martial arts movies have lots and lots of outtakes, as you’d imagine), before halting production when he got the call to make Enter the Dragon, his first big American film. Lee intended to return to Game when Enter finished production, but in between wrapping shooting and its release, Lee died, which helped make Enter the Dragon a worldwide hit, and cemented Lee as a true international superstar, if posthumously.

After Lee’s death, someone secured the rights to the Game of Death footage, which is still some of the most iconic of his career (think yellow jumpsuit and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), picked a stand-in who looked nothing like Lee who also couldn’t act or fight, and unleashed what is now Game of Death. The result is pretty much unwatchable, 80-plus minutes of the stand-in running through a crappy (even by the low standards of the time) kung fu movie, climaxing in What You All Paid To See: some actual Bruce Lee footage. Game of Death is pretty fun to watch, however, if only to marvel at how the filmmakers find increasingly ridiculous ways to conceal the double’s face (the character wears disguises several times, and at one point even has plastic surgery so he gets to spend a few scenes running around in bandages), only to turn around a scene later and clearly show the guy’s face (he doesn’t even look a bit like Bruce Lee; he’s just Asian).

This brings us to Finishing the Game, a film that’s clearly a labour of love for director Justin Lin, who shot it on a budget of pretty much nil using several cast and crew from his previous films. Lin debuted in 2002 with Better Luck Tomorrow, a smart and stylish little movie about Asian-American overachievers in a suburban California high school whose combination of boredom and system-beating smarts leads them into drugs and crime. He also made The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the third (and, for my money, the best) entry in one of my favourite guilty-pleasure franchises. Lin’s a skilled filmmaker, and I respect his attempts to break stereotypes of Asian-Americans, particularly in Better Luck Tomorrow.

Finishing the Game is comedic change of pace for Lin, and he handles the fake-documentary subgenre quite well, never once “cheating” the format to show footage that no real documentary crew would ever get (the cardinal sin of any mockumentary). The premise is a film crew is following the casting process to find Lee’s replacement for the fictional B-movie studio that has the rights to his Game of Death footage. The main guys the crew follows include Breeze Loo, a cocky personification of the scores of Bruce Lee clones that sprang up after his death (Bruce Li, Bruce Le, etc.), who makes low-rent kung fu movies and assumes he’s got the part locked down; Cole Kim, a dull but good-natured lunk raised with heartland values; Tarrick Tyler, an Asian-American activist whose Aryan looks belie his half-Asian heritage; and Troy Poon (Dustin Nguyen of 21 Jump Street fame), a once-popular actor trying to reclaim his glory days as a sidekick on a short-lived cop show.

I was surprised at how engaged I was with the characters in Finishing the Game, particularly Troy and Cole; outside of mockumentary master Christopher Guest, few entries in the genre bother with creating well-rounded characters. Make no mistake, Finishing the Game isn’t as good as Guest’s movies, but Lin never makes easy jokes at the characters’ expense (except maybe Breeze). Sung Kang is one of my favourite things in both Better Luck Tomorrow and Tokyo Drift, and in both films he plays cool, brooding characters, but here he does a complete 180 as a starry-eyed Midwestern rube just excited about maybe being in a movie, but his relationship with his manager/girlfriend (Monique Curnen) grounds the character and gives his arc an emotional centre. Nguyen also deserves credit for giving Poon a quiet dignity, even as he sells vacuum cleaners door to door to make ends meet, waving to fans who recognize him from his TV past. I can only assume Nguyen drew heavily on his own experiences post-21 Jump Street, where he went from being a co-star on one of the hottest shows on TV to small roles on shows like JAG and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. Lin also uses Poon’s storyline to make a few points about racism in Hollywood; take away the polyester suits, goofy wigs and ridiculous mustache/sideburns combos, and some of the cringe-inducing conversations between the film’s clueless movie execs likely still go on in studio boardrooms today.

My main issue with Finishing the Game was that for a comedy, I didn’t really laugh all that hard. Much of the film is funny, but it’s more to do with the overall silliness of the situation, which has to be based at least somewhat in fact – surely when they cast Lee’s actual replacement/stand-in for Game of Death, there was a similarly absurd casting process (the funniest character and performance in the whole movie belongs to Meredith Scott Lynn, who is brilliant as, appropriately enough, the woefully misguided casting director). The film, as I mentioned, is a passion project for Lin, his cast and his crew, and it really comes through the screen, giving Finishing the Game a sense of fun and heart that many big-budget comedies lack. While I may not have belly-laughed a ton of times the way, say, Pineapple Express or Tropic Thunder made me, I had a big grin on my face for most of its running time. I appreciated it more just as a movie than as a comedy, which keeps me from giving it a higher grade, but fans of mockumentaries, Bruce Lee, or Hollywood satires will find lots to enjoy in Finishing the Game.


The Finishing the Game DVD doesn’t have a lot on it, but it’s thankfully pretty free of filler. There’s a commentary track with Lin, co-writer Josh Diamond and music composer Bryan Tyler. The three are good friends that have been working together for a while, giving the track and nice and relaxed vibe as they share stories and insights into the filmmaking process. Also, they marvel at one point that people like me actually review commentary tracks. Guys, if you’re reading this, you did a good job.

There’s also a collection of deleted scenes with optional commentary from Lin, many of which are actually quite funny. Two entire subplots were cut, one of which was the story of a guy who would have been the perfect Bruce Lee replacement – only he gets sidetracked in Mexico with two other celebrity impersonators, and never makes it into the States. Also included is a music video from the soundtrack, and a brief behind-the-scenes featurette that shows the cast and crew goofing around while shooting.
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