Review: Justin Lin’s “Finishing the Game”

The famous final scene of Bruce Lee’s film Enter the Dragon features the martial-arts master battling his foe in a house of mirrors, as the shattering glass reveals his presence to be illusory each time. Obliquely recalling a similarly staged sequence in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, this is a potent metaphor for cinematic representation in general, and in particular the aims of Justin Lin’s irreverent Bruce Lee homage Finishing the Game. Lin’s film, which opened the 2007 New York Asian-American International Film Festival, is a faux documentary on the making of Game of Death, in which Bruce Lee’s death early in shooting necessitated a search for body doubles to replace him in order to complete the film. Lin and his co-screenwriter Josh Diamond offer a speculative re-imagining of this chaotic film shoot, using this scenario as a jumping off point to explore Bruce Lee’s iconic qualities as action hero and Asian-American male role model. The film also intends to connect this situation of the 70’s with the present, saying in effect that in terms of Asian male representation in cinema, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Also, it means to have fun with 70’s kitsch, fashion, and pop culture: badly dubbed kung-fu flicks, cop shows, extreme zoom shots, leisure suits, etc.

Lofty ambitions, yes? And yet this vehicle never arrives at its destination. It takes so many detours into cheesiness, joke casting (MC Hammer, Ron Jeremy), and all-around goofiness and silly behavior that satire, social commentary, and even true comedy, all but gets lost. Finishing the Game was hailed as a “return to roots” project for Lin after his forays into the big-budget studio films Annapolis and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, following his indie breakthrough Better Luck Tomorrow. This perception is also reinforced by the presence of Better Luck Tomorrow stars Roger Fan (as Bruce Lee imitator Breeze Loo) and Sung Kang (as aspiring actor and Breeze Loo fan Cole Kim). But I wonder if the audiences that have seen it (at Sundance and a slew of Asian-American film festivals) praised it effusively are celebrating the film that actually appears on screen, or its intentions and the fact of its existence. This to me is an interesting question, since a film such as this can often represent more than simply a film, but a hope for greater opportunities and more varied representation, in this case for Asian-American filmmakers and actors. It still remains difficult for such actors to secure interesting, non-stereotypical roles. And I would never be so churlish as to downplay the importance of diverse representations in American cinema, which all too often is sorely lacking. But to me, it is also important to judge a film on its intrinsic merits, and unfortunately Finishing the Game fails in many respects, including its ostensible intention to satirize Asian male cinematic stereotypes, which this film I believe gets undeserved credit for. It seems to be making sharp statements on this subject, but it actually pulls its punches constantly, always going for the easy gag and low-level goof instead of the fearless, balls-to-the-wall satire this film screams out for.

Case in point: the character of Breeze Loo, the faux Bruce Lee with an ego as big as the outdoors. Clips from his films, such as Fists of Fuhrer and Exit the Serpent, are played for cheap laughs, with the bad dubbing, obvious wirework, and an Afro’d Jim Kelly-type opponent. But this chopsocky stuff is a rather hackneyed source of humor at this point, and I think it cheapens Bruce Lee’s legacy while claiming to pay tribute to it. Bruce Lee became the icon he is not because of his kitsch value, but because he represented a model of strength and resolve that transcended borders and ethnicities, while at the same time providing a source of pride for Asian-Americans. That this model subsequently became a new stereotype is the irony and tragedy of Bruce Lee’s legacy. Unfortunately, there is precious little attempt to explore this in Lin’s film. It is content to merely pander to its intended audience, encouraging them to fill in what is missing onscreen.

In the midst all this silliness, the character of Troy Poon, as portrayed of Dustin Nguyen (of 21 Jump Street), seems to offer a slightly more serious portrait of the Asian-American actor trapped in stereotype hell. But again, it only goes so far, and falls back on repetitious gags, such as the montage of his endless array of delivery-boy roles. This also points to another big problem with the film: Lin’s tin ear for comedy. The film is simply not nearly as hilarious as it thinks it is. Gags are repeated a few times too often, beats are held slightly too long, making the film slackly paced, even at a mere 88 minutes. It all descends into a nearly desperate silliness, culminating in a gag reel that is no funnier than the film that precedes it.

Finishing the Game is a case study of the dangers in letting the meta-text overwhelm all. It may serve the purpose of opening a path for other Asian-American filmmakers, but this does not make up for its weak, and indeed, unfinished qualities. It solicits knowing awareness and heads nodded in recognition of the slowly improving, but still inadequate opportunities available to actors and filmmakers of Asian descent. However, it fails to create a work that is artistically defensible on its own terms.