Tower of Death (1981)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Police Story

Blood of the Dragon

Drunken Master 2

Fist of Legend

Tower of Death

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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

"Wow... you really are Bruce Lee!"
Bruce Lee made a pitifully small number of films before his tragic death, and it is unfortunate that his name is now associated with a bunch of crappy movies made long after his passing. Perhaps the saddest of these are the two "official" Bruce Lee movies that Golden Harvest, the last studio Lee worked with, released after he died. The first was Game of Death, which was put together from the footage Lee was shooting shortly before his death. The second one, Tower of Death, includes only a small amount of Bruce Lee footage.

Tower of Death's greatest irony, other than claiming to star Bruce Lee even though he didn't shoot one frame for it, is that it shows how little influence Bruce Lee had on the martial arts film scene. Bruce Lee tried to bring a certain fluid realism to his fight scenes, and he made his last few films with contemporary settings. In short, his films took place in a world that approximated ours, as opposed to the historical/fantasy settings of most Hong Kong action films of the period. But even though the martial art legend's movies were popular, realistic martial arts films remained the exception until Jackie Chan brought the form back with Police Story.

If you must fight, fight dirty!

Tower of Death is set in the present day, but it eschews Bruce Lee-style action scenes for the more mannered fights familiar to anyone who has seen Shaw Brothers films. The rest of the film is even less realistic, with the plot often heading off on bizarre tangents that will leave you scratching your head.

That's not say the movie is bad. Well, okay – it is. But it is also endearingly goofy, and there are fight scenes every few minutes so we never got bored. This film features early choreography from Yuen Woo Ping, lately of the Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His philosophy of filming fight scenes may be 180 degrees from Bruce Lee's style, but it's still exciting on its own terms.

Bruce Lee (sorta) plays Li Chen-Chiang, a philosophically inclined martial arts teacher. One of his best students, Chin Ku (Hwang Jang Lee, the villain in the original Drunken Master) dies unexpectedly, and Chen-Chiang travels to Japan to see Ku's daughter May. May, who has just finished the worst job of lip-syncing we've ever seen, gives our Bruce Lee decoy some rolls of movie film that her recently deceased father left behind. Chen-Chiang then goes to Ku's funeral in Japan, which is extremely well attended by shady-looking non-Asians. Just as the body is to go into the ground, however, the coffin is snatched away by a helicopter! Chen-Chiang grabs on to the cage that holds the coffin and is lifted high in the air, but a blow dart to the neck knocks him from his perch and he falls to his death. Thus ends Bruce Lee's posthumous film career at Golden Harvest.

"Jackie Chan wrote an autobiography?"

To create this part of the story, clips of Bruce Lee from several films were used. The longest passage is an outtake from Enter the Dragon, in which Bruce Lee speaks to Ray Chiao. This passage has been restored to the film in recent years, so we know what the dialogue should be. For some bizarre reason the scene, as played in Tower of Death, is a repetitive conversation about Chen-Chiang's brother. There are also shots we recognized from Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, mostly close-ups to give the illusion that Bruce is interacting with footage shot years after his death. There are also a couple of shots we didn't recognize, especially one where Bruce picks up a book with a picture of himself in full 1970s fashion plate mode on the back. It almost looks like a commercial. Chen-Chiang's other scenes are performed by a Bruce Lee double who spends all of his time in shadow, even going so far as to kick out light bulbs so that the fight scenes are conveniently swathed in darkness.

The rest of the film charts the progress of Chen-Chiang's pornography-obsessed brother, Chen-Kuo (Kim Tai Chung Kim, Bruce Lee's double in Game of Death and this film), who takes over the investigation where Chen-Chiang left off – except that now there are two murders to investigate. Using the rolls of film, Chen-Kuo determines that his next move is to visit Lewis, the evil kung-fu overlord. Lewis is the sort of character in kung-fu movies who sets off evil alarm bells – he's Caucasian, fabulously wealthy, overly hairy, and he brutally murders those who challenge his kung-fu skills. Apart from that, he seems like a nice guy. Of course, he does have a one-armed butler. Even without jokes about The Fugitive, is there anything more suspicious than a one-armed butler?

"Must... soil... Bruce Lee's... legacy!"

Lewis welcomes Chen-Kuo as a fellow kung-fu aficionado, and seemingly accepts Chen-Kuo's cover story without comment. Still, there is a good time to be had at Lewis' enormous palace, named the Castle of Death. Lewis has a large menagerie of animals including lions and peacocks. Lewis claims he can control the peacocks, which we suppose is true, so long as controlling them only encompasses getting the birds to fly towards him to be fed. Lewis also enjoys a breakfast of raw deer meat, washed down with a glass of deer blood.

Chen-Kuo ingratiates himself to Lewis when two escapees from a Shaw Brothers' historical epic who call themselves the Yen Brothers challenge Lewis' martial arts supremacy. Lewis practically feeds them their own feet for the insult, but when one of them pulls a knife, Chen-Kuo disarms the man and Lewis kills him. Chen-Kuo is then (nearly) seduced by a naked call girl named Angel who tries to poison him, and when that doesn't work, he is attacked by a lion! Chen-Kuo uses hi kung-fu skills to fight off the giant cat.

Few things are as scary as
a man in a leopard-print bathmat.

OK, let's back that up a little bit. We say that Chen-Kuo is attacked by a lion, and for the purposes of the story, he is attacked by a lion. But the lion in question is quite obviously a guy in a ten-dollar lion suit. Then again, the lion stays in shadow the whole time, so maybe it's supposed to be Bruce Lee in a lion costume. Nah – that would just be silly, right? We should add that any film that manages to shoehorn a naked woman and a guy kung-fu fighting a lion into one scene deserves much praise.

That same night Lewis is brutally murdered, freeing Chen-Kuo to leave the Castle of Death, but only after we revisit the previous ten minutes worth of footage – including the lion attack – in some red-tinted flashbacks. Chen-Kuo follows the Walkway of Death to the nearby Tower of Death, which, as explained by Lewis in a previous scene, is under a nearby temple. Yes, the Tower of Death is actually underground. It's really more of a Sub-basement of Death, but the name explains why no one has been able to find it.

Chen-Kuo takes some time out to kill the butler (who really did do it in this case), and then raids the Tower through the Elevator of Death. The Tower is actually a high-tech drug factory full of guys in silver jumpsuits. There must have been a surplus of silver jumpsuits in the Hong Kong film industry, because they show up all the time, even in films that logically have no reason to feature them. The set for the factory is where the budget for the film went – for every dollar they didn't spend on the lion suit, they must have spent a thousand or more on this elaborate plant, which highly resembles the vision of the future presented in the Buck Rogers TV series. Predictably, there are vats of bubbling, acidic goo with nothing to prevent the workers from falling into them. Perfect for a kung fu fight!

Last in line for henchman costumes.

Chen-Kuo dispatches with all the goons, then a guy dressed like Tarzan, and then a pissed-off monk. Finally he faces the evil mastermind behind it all. And that mastermind is . . . Unlike the DVD case, we won't say who it is, but we will say it is a character apparently back from the dead. And that's where the filmmakers missed a chance for greatness, because it isn't Bruce Lee's character. What we wouldn't have given to witness the spectacle of this film trying to double Bruce Lee while he was fighting the foremost Bruce Lee double!

Putting aside the legions of Bruce Lee imitators leeching the man's popularity, Tower of Death is actually a pretty interesting case study in constructing a movie around a few snippets of footage. Ray Chiao's costume was fairly accurately reproduced long after the original had surely been lost, although differences in the color of the film stock and mismatched makeup give away the newly inserted scenes. (How long are his eyebrows again?) Lee's standard black-pajama uniform couldn't have been hard to duplicate for his double, but minor props like tea cups become the bridges between old footage and new as the filmmakers try to fool us into believing that Bruce Lee is actually the star of Tower of Death. Like a moving game of Where's Waldo, a screening of the first half of this movie can easily become an exercise in spotting the details, watching for the seams. Some are obvious, others quite clever. None of it is art, but to some it is at least entertainment.

Review date: 08/07/2002

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