After a disappointing detour into studio hackery with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and the even more stillborn Annapolis, Justin Lin has returned to his indie roots, albeit not in the way that fans of his breakthrough Better Luck Tomorrow may have hoped.
An odd, intermittently amusing faux documentary about the search for an actor to replace Bruce Lee in the unfinished Game of Death, of which only 12 minutes had been shot at the time of the star’s1973 death, Finishing the Game could be deemed a kind of companion piece to Better Luck Tomorrow insofar as both films share a common purpose to reinvent Asian-American identity by deconstructing longstanding stereotypes. But what Better Luck Tomorrow did with a sledgehammer, Finishing the Game does with a pie in the face—a pie that unfortunately happens to be more crust than filling.
For reasons that defy logic, the field of potential Lee replacements is whittled down to five—three actual Asians (Roger Fan, Sung Kang, Dustin Nguyen), a slightly disturbed white guy (McCaleb Burnett) and an East Indian (Mousa Kraish) with a yearning to be a ninja. Each is subsequently dealt with Seven-Up style as the documentary crew follows them in and out of their most candid and embarrassing moments, capturing the ups and downs of the competition meat grinder almost as candidly as any given season of American Idol.
There are some undeniably clever and funny bits here, but none of them ever rise above the level of bits, making the whole thing feel more like a Kentucky Fried Movie collection of loosely connected vignettes or sketches than something as taut, smart and focused as Best in Show.
For his part, Lin has insisted that Finishing the Game is not a “mockumentary” but something actually more kindred to a quasi-documentary, a silly assertion aimed at deflecting criticism that the film is neither funny nor clever enough to measure up. But the real problem is that Lin is simply trying to stretch a modest idea too far. Attempts at poignancy are underdeveloped and unoriginal while most of the easy jokes—vintage ’70s hairstyles, polyester clothes and campy jabs at Hong Kong kung fu films of the era—are too familiar and tired to have any punch. It’s as if the brief mockumentary sequence from Boogie Nights were swollen to feature-length minus any sense of irony or style.
If Lin is trying to stake out territory somewhere between Wayne Wang and Margaret Cho, he’s shooting for a wasteland that may leave him without any discernible audience. If not, then he’s guilty of woefully miscalculating the public’s interest in a subject that no longer excites even die-hard Bruce Lee aficionados.
Distributor: IFC First Take
Cast: Roger Fan, Sung Kang, Meredith Scott Lynn, Monica Gabriela Curnen, Mousa Kraish, McCaleb Burnett and Dustin Nguyen
Director: Justin Lin
Screenwriters: Josh Diamond and Justin Lin
Producers: Julia Asato, Salvador Gatdula and Justin Lin
Running time: 88 min.
Release date: October 5, 2007 NY, October 19 SF, October 26 LA