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The premise of Finishing the Game is irresistable for a certain type of film geek: a comedy fictionalization of the search for "the next Bruce Lee." The mockumentary doesn't quite live up to the potential of this premise, but it has enough hilarious moments to distract you from its inconsistencies.
The movie is based on a real-life event: When Bruce Lee died in 1973, he left a significant amount of footage for the film Game of Death -- enough footage that producers wanted to complete the film and promote it heavily as Lee's last movie. But they needed a stand-in who resembled Lee, to finish production on Game of Death. Finishing the Game is an imagining of how the search for Lee's replacement might have gone, filmed in documentary format. The movie focuses on several contenders for Lee's stand-in, most of whom don't look a thing like Lee: a bearded medical doctor named Raja (Mousa Kraish), small-town Alabama actor Cole Kim (Sung Kang), the extremely white Tarrick Tyler (McCaleb Burnett) and my favorite, Z-movie actor Breeze Loo (Roger Fan), star of Fists of Fuehrer, who claims Lee has had no effect on his career. Novice director Ronny Kirschenbaum (Jake Sandvig) and his jaded casting director Eloise Gazdag (Meredith Scott Lynn) have to pick among these and other Lee wanna-bes.
The movie borrows a great deal from the style of mockumentary popularized by Christopher Guest, although I don't know if this production relied as heavily on improv dialogue as Guest's films do. It seemed more rigidly scripted to me. However, the humor here is more fitful -- some predictable setups, some hackneyed jokes. A few celebrity cameos add to the fun: James Franco as a actor who skyrockets to brief fame on a TV cop show with an Asian sidekick, M.C. Hammer as an agent who specializes in minorities and Ron Jeremy essentially as himself. Jeremy's brief appearance is one of the few bright spots in Cole's subplot, which tends to drag near the end of the film. A subplot about failed character actor Troy Poon (Dustin Nguyen) almost seems superfluous to the film and is never satisfactorily resolved -- I wondered if it wasn't part of some longer sequence or subplot that was cut. It's too bad, because Nguyen is one of the better actors in the film.
The high points of the film are sidesplitting, however, like Breeze Loo's aforementioned Fists of Fuehrer film, Eloise's repeated insistence that one of the contenders could be "the Asian Gene Hackman," the shtick where Tarrick claims he's half-Chinese, and some pitiful attempts at kung fu. When this movie is funny, it really delivers, but I wished for more moments like these during the film's nearly 90-minute running time. The movie also needs a slightly stronger ending with more of a comic punch (or backfist).
Finishing the Game was directed by Justin Lin, who is better known for action and drama than comedy, like Annapolis and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. The script, by Lin and Josh Diamond, relies on the examination of Asian stereotypes in Hollywood and turning them on their side -- or flipping them on their back with a Bruce Lee yell. The film should be just as charming on TV or DVD (IFC is giving it a day-and-date release) as it would be in a theater. The only difference is that at Fantastic Fest, Alamo Drafthouse showed the hilarious Game of Death trailer beforehand, which made the movie even funnier -- it's too bad it can't play before every screening of the film.