Finishing the Game

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This review was written for the festival screening of "Finishing the Game." 

PARK CITY -- "Better Luck Tomorrow" writer-director Justin Lin returns to independent filmmaking following back-to-back studio movies ("Annapolis," "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift") with "Finishing the Game," a raucous '70s period comedy.

Given Lin's reputation and affection for the material, sure stylistic command and engaging performances by a strong ensemble cast, ongoing festival play is assured, while well-targeted marketing by a savvy distributor will capture hip urban audiences and could help the film cross over to broader appeal.

In 1973, cerebral edema unexpectedly felled Asian-American martial arts superstar Bruce Lee. His death was a significant loss not only to fans worldwide, but also for the studio that was producing Lee's unfinished personal project, "Game of Death." Without enough footage to complete the movie, the executives foolishly cast a substitute for Lee and shot around the star's brief original footage. The finished film was released in 1978, but quickly fell into disrepute when fans rejected the manipulation of Lee's role.

Lin and co-writer Josh Diamond re-envision this misguided moviemaking process in "Finishing the Game," using a fictional documentary about the casting of "Game of Death" to send-up the many pitfalls of studio filmmaking and the foibles of the various professionals involved. At the same time, they good-naturedly confront issues of racism and the stereotyping of Asian-American actors to question whether the bad old days are really so far in the past.

Martey Kurtainbaum (Sam Bottoms) is the studio executive pushing the project, assigning his inexperienced son Ronney (Jake Sandvig) to direct. Relying on clueless casting director Eloise Gazdag (Meredith Scott Lynn), who declares she's seeking a "hip Genghis Khan" for the Bruce Lee role, the production team announces auditions for Lee's replacement.

Sequences of the casting preparations are intercut with interviews featuring the principal prospective stars, including arrogant B-movie martial artist Breeze Loo (Roger Fan), Southern bit-player Cole Kim (Sung Kang), the very Caucasian-looking, mixed-race Tarrick Tyler (McCaleb Burnett) and washed-up former TV star Troy Poon (Dustin Nguyen).

With three rounds of auditions, Ronney and Eloise face an overwhelming response to the initial cattle call. They whittle the candidates down to a manageable number before production is suspended when bad publicity about an alleged Asian-American serial killer threatens to sour public opinion against the project.

Meanwhile, Cole squabbles with his girlfriend-manager (Monique Gabriela Curnen), Breeze fires his fawning agents when he's forced to actually audition for the Lee role and Troy quits the process in disgust, dumping his self-serving manager (M.C. Hammer). Few of the contenders, much less the filmmakers, have Troy's integrity and resolutely maintain an attitude of desperate denial once casting resumes.

Lin, an experienced documentary-maker, expertly duplicates the narrative and stylistic characteristics of the form even as he gently ridicules them, from the earnest interviews and shaky handheld camerawork to the "balanced" reporting technique. The re-creations of '70s sitcoms, cop shows and chopsocky martial arts movies are spot-on, down to the specific tropes of each genre, even though Lin insists the film isn't really a mockumentary.

Few aspects of Hollywood moviemaking escape a friendly skewering. Lin even pokes fun at the solemn sincerity of Asian-American community activism. The ensemble cast members play well off one another, particularly Fan as the self-absorbed Bruce Lee wannabe and Lynn in the role of the monumentally ignorant casting director.

Candi Guterres' production design and Annie Yun's costumes piquantly evoke the period setting, while Brian Tyler's funky score pays tribute to the overall '70s vibe.

FINISHING THE GAME
Trailing Johnson Productions in association with Cherry Sky Films.
A film by Justin Lin.
Credits:
Director: Justin Lin
Writers: Josh Diamond, Justin Lin
Producers: Julie Asato, Salvador Gatdula, Justin Lin
Executive Producers: Joan Huang, Jeff Gou
Director of photography: Tom Clancey
Production designer: Candi Guterres
Music: Brian Tyler
Costume Designer: Annie Yun
Editor: Greg Louie.
Cast:
Interviewer: Josh Diamond
Martey Kurtainbaum: Sam Bottoms
Ronney Kurtainbaum: Jake Sandvig
Breeze Loo: Roger Fan
Cole Kim: Sung Kang
Eloise Gazdag: Meredith Scott Lynn
Tarrick Tyler: McCaleb Burnett
Troy Poon: Dustin Nguyen
Saraghina Rivas: Monique Gabriela Curnen
Roy Thunder: M.C. Hammer
Running time -- 88 minutes
No MPAA rating

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