Cashing in on Bruce Lee

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday October 16, 2007
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The gutsy Justin Lin provided an unflinching look at pampered Asian-American teens running amok, Better Luck Tomorrow, then stumbled badly with a numbingly blank melodrama set within a Naval Academy boxing team, a film that benefited only from a pumped-up James Franco, Annapolis. Now Lin returns with Finishing the Game, an uneven but at-times amusing fictional imagining of the chaos that overtook a small studio upon the sudden death of martial arts star Bruce Lee.

It's the summer of 1973, and aspiring director Ronney Kurtainbaum (Jake Sandvig) is attempting to discover a B-movie actor who can impersonate Lee and allow his dad, the studio's penny-pinching mogul, Marty Kurtainbaum (Sam Bottoms), to cash out his ownership of the last precious bit of film featuring Lee, 12 minutes that legend has it was the beginning of Lee's dream project, The Game of Death.

God only knows where this premise could have gone with a smarter script: an Asian-American Ed Wood? But unfortunately, Lin and company are working in the same vineyards as the Saturday Night Live crew when that show is having one of its frequent off-years. Much of Finishing the Game feels like undernourished skit comedy, where a bold or zany premise isn't developed. We see the same riffs repeated until the skit simply ends, or collapses without having progressed. Thus we are treated to the spectacle of would-be Asian TV star Troy Poon (Dustin Nguyen) disrespected by his cop show's white lead, Dean Silo (James Franco) until Poon comes up with a demeaning catch phrase: "I won't do your laundry." Whereupon the show is a hit, until Poon quits due to a sudden bout of professional and ethnic shame.

Other heavy-handed spoofing involves an African American talent agent (M.C. Hammer) shamelessly looking for a pool of minority actors to exploit: "The last time I looked, yellow was a color."

Failing to find a fresh angle from which to view Bruce Lee, Lin employs his huge cast of wildly differing levels of proficiency to parody the film world's treatment of Asian actors. Sung Kang has some moments as an overly earnest and none-too-bright action performer who discovers that a man who was once his idol is merely a low-budget hambone who can't even do his own film-fight stunts. Lin mostly abandons the soapbox and gives us a carnival funhouse spoof of Hollywood in the 70s, complete with the horrific hairdos.

For a film that frequently stoops to conquer, Finishing the Game is surprisingly at its best with a smutty-minded duo: Meredith Scott Lynn as the film's tough-as-nails and male-hungry casting director Eloise Gazdag, who bumps verbal pussies with Sandvig's languidly fey gay-boy director.