Tower of Death | aka Game of Death 2 (1981) Review

"Tower of Death" Korean Theatrical Poster

“Tower of Death” Korean Theatrical Poster

AKA: Game of Death II
Director: Corey Yuen, Sammo Hung
Cast: Tai Chung Kim, Hwang Jang-lee, Roy Horan, Casanova Wong, Lee Chun Hwa, Lee Hoi San, Tiger Yeung Cheng Wu, Roy Chiao Hung, To Wai Wo, Bruce Lee (stock footage)
Running Time: 90 min.

By Joseph Kuby

Game of Death 2 (or Tower of Death as it is otherwise known) is not only one of the most unique martial arts/Hong Kong films made from this period but one of the most unique films ever made period.

The film manages to combine a period, contemporary and futuristic setting into a truly dazzling melding pot of a spectacle that promises and delivers high-camp/high-tech/high-kick fun! This film also features some of the best work ever to come from Hwang Jang Lee and Yuen Woo Ping.

Heck, Yuen Biao does more action in this as a stunt double + small role player than he does playing a lead character in Yuen Woo Ping’s Dreadnaught (which should tell you about the scope of the action in this film). The highlight is no doubt the finale. The idea of having an electrical panel covering the bottom of two opposing walls which threatens to electrocute any trespasser is imaginative.

Put it this way – this film is probably the only chance you get to see Yuen Woo Ping, Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen Kwai choreograph fight scenes within the context of one film (with Drunken Master being an exception – according to HK film critic Stephen Teo), so it’s certainly a rare treat.

Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen Kwai were uncredited co-directors for Game of Death 2 a.k.a. Tower of Death. Corey was also the co-director of Dragons Forever. What’s interesting is that both finales of said films involve a villain (a moustached villain might I add) landing into a crimson-tinted narcotics pool.

The only thing wrong with this film is that the film’s plot leaves a few holes and that there’s some cases (not all) where the archive footage doesn’t gel well with the new footage (though it’s certainly more successful than the prequel’s attempts at this).

Beyond that, there’s the obvious use of stunt doubling as well as the flawed production values (whilst the film’s budget looks huge for its time, one can see a shaky wall as Kim Tai Chung kicks two silver-dressed henchmen on the staircase during the finale – highly reminiscent of the critically panned UK soap drama Crossroads).

If you still feel bad about the Bruce Lee connection, then order the Korean version (which omits the Bruce Lee footage) on the Rare Kung Fu Movies site.

The ultimate guilty pleasure flick, need I say more?

It was during the post-production of Game of Death that the inevitability of a sequel was already kicked into the spotlight, as Raymond Chow planned a follow-up to Bruce Lee’s original idea of the ascending pagoda and the use of his remaining footage that he shot before his death.

Perhaps it is a symbolic indication of things not going to plan or things spiralling downward into cinematic oblivion, that the idea of a descending pagoda came into fruition.

Finding a title was also a task: the title Tower of Death would only be used if the film didn’t succeed in it’s expected levels. Raymond hired Seasonal Film director/producer Ng See Yuen to be the visionary behind the project seeing as how his “midas touch” or “sixth sense” in locating talent had turned Jackie into Hong Kong’s hottest property. Chow had hoped that Ng would be willing to work in unison with Golden Harvest’s script, envisioning that he would work his magic into this production – which was supposed to have begun as soon as the first installment was out of theaters but it didn’t, for reasons that Ng couldn’t use the useful Lee scenes which were in 8 & 1/2 blocks of footage but the many outtakes, behind the scenes footage and different camera perspectives (for some reported outdoor scenes) made them impossible to coherently arrange.

This conflicted with the script and a rewrite was ordered delaying the project for a year. Ng gave his technical thoughts for his rewrite with GH concerning a descending tower with a science fiction twist. Bruce was to appear in the first half before then being replaced by a double which would be Kim Tai Chung and Chen Yao Pao. But neither of them could be found until Hwang Jang Lee brought Kim over from Korea, although Jackie Chan was considered as an early replacement for Kim once he finished production on Fearless Hyena (so that GH could quickly secure a place for him within the studio via contractual agreements), but Ng wasn’t particularly too fond or so crazy about the concept of using him for what was essentially the type of exploitation piece that Chan yearned to escape from – to follow in the footsteps of Bruce Lee.

Chow also wasn’t very crazy about Ng’s work on the film cancelling any involvement with GH production units though officially Chow was still involved (if briefly) as not only did he initialize the project but he owned the copyrights too. It was at that particular moment when Seasonal Films took over the film’s production unit (Chow’s connection not withstanding) and the rest is history.

Although Ng took full credit in direction, Ng hired Corey Yuen Kwai to direct and choreograph the alley fight scene and the fight scene that preceded it. Sammo directed miscellaneous material – various things here and there – such as the opening duel between Hwang Jang Lee and the Caucasian Kung Fu practictioner, the duel between Roy and the two brothers and the first duel between Tang Lung (or Kim) and the masked valet. Billy Chan Wui Ngai, in particular, helped out Sammo in the co-ordination of these scenes – with Biao dropping by to give a few pointers. The second and final duel between Tang and the valet was designed by Yuen Da and Tsiu Siu Ming (who directed Jet Li’s Born To Defence after Jet suffered a nasty back injury during production). Yuen Woo Ping directed the underground scenes with Kwai (basically, they choreographed everything after the final fight between Tang and the valet). Yuen Cheung Yan assisted Ping for these scenes too, whilst the former had helped Biao for the abbot/temple scenes in terms of martial arts direction. It could be argued that the fight scenes are the first to combine Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do with Hong Kong style choreography (or at least the most successful).

The completion of the acting scenes were extremely difficult since Tang spoke very little Cantonese aside from his Korean. Prompting him to receive a great deal of translation fron Hwang. It even leaves gaps in the movie since Tang speaks little and looks like as if he is really concentrating on his lines.

The film was very successful (more successful than the first film in terms of Asian reception which speaks volumes about this film’s success) but Chow was still disappointed.

He had one of the best years of GH with the box office profits of JC and SH (during the three years it took to get the film made and released, Jackie had made a record-breaking HK$ 10 million {US$ 1,289,939} with The Young Master and Sammo made a ground-breaking and critically well-received hit with Close Encounters of The Spooky Kind with a total gross of HK$ 5,675,626 {US$ 732,121} within the space of a week) but this movie was his project and he wanted the best for the movie.

He determined that Tower would be released as Game of Death 2 in the states. He also edited in the greenhouse fight from the Chinese version of the first film because the film didn’t capitalize enough with the Bruce Lee scenes and intended to add even more than what’s seen in the finished product, until Ng See Yuen refused any more footage to be added – leaving his name to be dropped and in some versions, Corey is the only listed director.

Many results happened as carriers flourished and halted as there was no more communication between the two aforementioned studios.

However, Ping and Kwai (who were contractually obligated to Ng’s Seasonal Films) caught Chow’s eye and money was given to them by Chow for productions over the oncoming years i.e. Righting Wrongs and Blonde Fury for Kwai and the GH/D&B co-productions of the Tiger Cage films, In the Line of Duty 4 and Once Upon a Time in China 2 for Ping. On the other side of the coin, Yuen Biao and Tsiu Siu Ming were already contracted with GH.

On further note, Hwang Jang Lee’s character’s name is Moshikawa (as was spoken on the set) as opposed to Jim Koo/Chin Ku/Jin Ku.

In regards to the swastika on the coffin (click here)

There have been several various edits of Tower of Death (in some cases, I may refer to Billy Lo’s {or Bobby’s} character as Lee since he is a different character in the Asian prints):

* Japanese version – A totally different movie. The beginning has Lee teaching a Jeet Kune Do class while he is challenged by Hwang Jang Lee from phone. After numerous attempts at Lee, he flies to Korea and enters the pagoda. Reportedly, this has numerous outdoor scenes – whether this is the missing footage of the ‘real’ Bruce Lee or the footage he shot of the others remains unclear.

* South Eastern Asian Version – This premiered in certain parts of the Philippines and Korea. It has the same description as the Japanese version, only there is claimed to be more fight scenes in, and actual Lee footage with the actors in the same frame.

* Korean version – This version of the movie removes the Bruceploitation factor (i.e. the clips of Bruce Lee) and just plays it as a straight-up independent Kung Fu flick. There is a much more longer demonstration of Hwang Jang Lee practising his martial arts skills in the beginning. There is a new scene involving Lee reading a newspaper concerning Hwang’s death (this isn’t meant to be the same scene which used Enter the Dragon in the regular version). In the finale, as Tang Lung is about to find the elevator, he steals and uses a pair of nunchaku against a guard.

* Hong Kong version – This might not apply to all Hong Kong prints. This version, which may be relegated to a few prints, is almost the same as the UK VHS release except the night club scene where Lee talks to Hwang’s illegitimate daughter is extended, using outtakes (possibly more) from Enter the Dragon of Lee talking to the dart lady in Han’s guestroom. The flashbacks at the end of Lee practising his Jeet Kune Do are longer and so is the Tang Lung vs. Hwang Jang Lee brawl, with more acrobatics from Yuen Biao and, even, Yuen Wah. The theme music plays throughout the entire final fight. Halfway through the film, there are alternate versions of the fights. Plus, there’s more footage of Lee looking in different rooms and his garden, more abbot footage as well as more scenes featuring Hwang Jang Lee’s daughter (i.e. the actual woman who played her rather than just the ETD footage).

* US Game of Death 2 version – The disclaimer is the same as the above (i.e. it might not apply to the DVD prints e.g. the 20th Century Fox release). Instead of the above, Lee’s face from Way of The Dragon is shown instead of the ETD scenes in the beginning. The abbot scene is condensed to only the stationary Roy Chiao scenes, with WOTD outtakes (only the ones that specifically reveal Bruce Lee’s face) and a redubbed version of a black and white movie featuring a young Bruce. The scenes featuring Lee searching his brother’s apartment and crying are deleted in turn of the greenhouse scuffle from the Hong Kong print of Game of Death. The meeting with Hwang’s daughter is condensed to the WOTD indoor facial shots of Lee and one scene not shown in the HK print of Tower of Death that has Lee sitting down on a couch. The drawback here is that Lee’s actual yells are not dubbed in, but the soundtrack is edited in the correct scenes, a problem the HK version has.

* Spanish version “Towel Del Muerte” – This version is much different than the previous two, since all the Lee dialogue scenes are censored, with the footage of the abbot, apartment search, crying scene and Casanova fight removed. Instead, the outdoor fight scenes from WOTD are edited in and the unreleased mirror scenes from ETD are used as flashbacks.

Joseph Kuby’s Rating: 8/10

By Joe909

One of the best Bruceploitation movies, Tower of Death holds up on its own as a classic chop-sockey. In some ways it’s more of a New Wave film than your normal old-school flick, with some energetic and impressive martial arts combat that looks advanced even by today’s standards. Kim Tai-Chung (aka “Tang Lung”) is legitimately fast in this, and he shows off a level of martial arts skill that wasn’t even hinted at in the 1978, Robert Clouse-directed Game of Death abortion. But for all I know it could just be Yuen Biao with the impressive moves; Biao acted as Kim’s stunt double in both films.

Of course, the Bruce Lee gimmickry employed throughout the first half of the film is disgraceful: like Game of Death, Tower of Death freely and jarringly inserts shots of Bruce Lee from his various movies into the film. So you’ll see Kim Tai-Chung walk into a room, then suddenly there will be a close-up of Bruce Lee, copped from Fist of Fury or something. And like Game of Death, these splices wouldn’t fool a ritalin-crazed third-grader. Luckily though, director Ng See Yuen was against the Bruce-splicing from the start, and so came up with the idea of murdering his character halfway into the movie, and pushing Kim up to the lead role for the remainder of the film, as Bruce’s brother.

The Bruce-splices in the first half were only left in at the behest of producer Raymond Chow, and one can see that Chow originally intended to insert Bruce clips into the remainder of the film. The reason I say this is because the astute viewer will notice that Kim Tai-Chung wears outfits throughout Tower of Death that are the same as those worn by Bruce Lee in his movies.

When Kim sneaks around the Tower, he wears a black nightsuit with a white rope hanging from his shoulders; perfect for inserting clips from Bruce Lee’s dungeon battle in Enter the Dragon. When Kim receives a film briefing on the Tower of Death, he sits in a projection room and wears a gray, three-piece suit; perfect for inserting clips from the projection room scene in Enter the Dragon. And so on. It’s just that Ng refused to insert anymore splices into the film, and for that he should be given credit.

There’s hardly a plot at all, but this is excusable when you take the quality of kung-fu into consideration. Yuen Woo-Ping handled the choreography, and gives us one wonderful battle after another. The end fight sequence is action-packed from beginning to end, with Kim first taking on a group of lackeys who (for some reason) wear silver, “futuristic” outfits, then a big guy in a leopard outfit, then a Shaolin monk, and finally the main villain, who (not so) surprisingly turns out to be Hwang Jang-Lee. Hwang and Kim go at each other in what has to be one of the longest fights of all time. It’s almost as long as that street fight Rowdy Roddy Piper gets into with his friend in They Live. Yuen Woo-Ping pays Bruce Lee tribute in this fight, having Kim Tai-Chung implement jeet kune do moves to counter Hwang’s wooden sword.

But regardless of the great fights, there’s a lot of lameness on display. The battle with the “lion” is unforgivable, as is the pointlessly-nude crack whore. At least, I assume she’s a crack whore. The fact that Roy Horan’s one-armed servant is a traitor is blindingly obvious, and Hwang’s underground empire is hard to swallow. But still, the movie is heads and shoulders above Game of Death. At least we don’t have to look at Bob Wall in this one.

Special mention should be made of Roy Horan’s character Lewis, easily the most interesting character in the film. As the English subtitles declare, he’s a “kung-fu nut” (I believe the English dub says he’s “crazy about kung-fu”), and he fights with wild abandon. Sure, he looks goofy with his white-guy afro, but he’s damn fast, and should’ve been in more movies. The bit with him eating raw deer meat and drinking blood just begs for more development, but instead he gets murdered in the night and we’re left wishing we could see more footage of him in combat.

The best version of this on the market is probably the Hong Kong Legends release, which includes both the English and the Cantonese dubs, with all of the footage. Those without the ability to play Region 2 DVDS should just get the Media Asia release; although it doesn’t feature an English dub, the Hong Kong version of Tower of Death is preferable in that it includes clips of Bruce Lee from Enter the Dragon that have otherwise never been released, even in Warner Brothers’ 25th anniversary Special Edition of Enter the Dragon. I’ve also read that the English version’s final fight isn’t as long as the Hong Kong version’s.

Joe909’s Rating: 8.5/10

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