A title card at the beginning of Finishing the Game sets up the film’s premise: in 1973 martial arts superstar Bruce Lee died unexpectedly while filming Game of Death. Lee had only shot 12 minutes of footage, hardly enough to complete the masterpiece he envisioned, but that did not stop unscrupulous producers from completing the film by using a series of ridiculous tricks to mask the fact that Lee was not in the movie. Finishing the Game is a fictionalized, mocumentary account of the search to find an actor to replace Bruce Lee. An interesting idea though it may be, Finishing the Game stops just short of being a complete failure, emerging instead as a disappointing comedy that produces few laughs and very little by way of entertainment.
After explaining exactly what is going on, and then introducing the director charged with completing Game of Death—Ronney Kurtainbaum (Jake Sandvig), son of producer Martey Kurtainbaum (Sam Bottoms)—the film then rolls out the motley assortment of Bruce Lee-wannabes. Among the contenders to replace Lee are Breeze Loo (Roger Fan), the star of a string of Bruce Lee rip-offs, Troy Poon (Dustin Ngyuen), an actor who was on a short-lived but popular television series, who has now slipped into the limbo of being a has-been, and Cole Kim (Sung Kang), an easy-going, happy-go-lucky guy who has never acted before. And those are just the guys that look Chinese who have a fighting chance of being passed off as Bruce Lee. For “laughs” we also get to meet Tarrick Tyler (McCaleb Burnett), who claims to be part Asian, but is a blonde-haired white guy, and Raja Moore (Mousa Kraish), a bearded doctor who longs to be an actor. These five characters, plus a few other incidentals hopefuls, including an effeminate Vietnamese refugee, are what makes up the body of an extended joke that feels like a SNL skit dragging on for just under ninety minutes. Of course, we get the obligatory audition sequence, which has probably never been done better than in Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. But now it has become so over-used in films that it is officially a cliché, and in Finishing the Game it shows all the tired signs of filmmakers whose idea of creativity is trolling through other films to see what gets laughs, and hoping to replicate them.
There is a bit of backstory for some of the characters to pad the film out, but it is as predictable as everything else in the film. The relationship between Cole Kim and his girlfriend/manager, Saraghina (Monique Curnen), is the most obvious example of how Finishing the Game tries to flesh out the one-dimensional story by giving it depth. Unfortunately, the film never gets deeper than a thimble full of water, which would be fine if it were as funny as it wants to be, but it just isn’t that funny. At its funniest, the film is lucky if it can evoke half a smile and a few chuckles, but audible laughter is only going to come from people that are easily amused or stoned.
Finishing the Game is disappointing on many levels, starting with the fact that it is a comedy that is marginally funny at best—Korean comedian Johnny Yune’s 1982 freefall into stupidity They Call Me Bruce is probably more amusing and entertaining. And for the record, there are few things less funny than a mocumentary that does not take itself seriously. By this I mean that the point of a mocumentary is to trick the audience into thinking that it is real, which is why films like The Hole Story and This is Spinal Tap work. But the creators of Finishing the Game seem more intent on making a spoof than an actual mocumentary, resulting in a film that never feels like it is set in 1973 so much as a joke about 1973. And the joke itself seems forced most of the time. The humor seldom seems organic or real, but instead feels like something a group of friends might laugh at, but much of the joke is lost on the rest of us. And it isn’t like the film doesn’t have something to work with—after all, the same material was funny in Hollywood Shuffle—but it never seems to come together.
Directed by Justin Lin and written by Lin and Josh Diamond, the film also fails because it tries to be more interesting than the truth. Even though the assumption is that most people know who Bruce Lee is, the film never gives any sort of context as to why he was so important, or the impact that he had. Instead, Bruce Lee is the setup to a poorly delivered joke with a punchline that leaves you asking, “Was I supposed to laugh at that?”
Most fans of Bruce Lee and martial arts movies in general are more than familiar with the flood of imitation Bruce Lees that came crashing into theaters following his death, and the ensuing “Bruceploitation” films that tried to capitalize on his fame. A film about such actors as Bruce Lai, Bruce Lei, Bruce Lie, Bruce Liang, Bruce Ly, Bruce Thai, Myron Bruce Lee, Bronson Lee, Dragon Lee and the legendary Ho Chung Tao, best known as Bruce Li, would have been far more interesting than this silly farce. Why not make a film about the real impact of Bruce Lee, and the entire B-movie genre his legacy inspired, instead of a goofball comedy that is lacking in any sort of memorable humor, and leaves you wishing for the occasional fart joke just to provide a laugh or two?