50 Guys, All Trying to Look Like Bruce Lee

October 1, 2006

Misha Erwitt for The New York Times

A room thick with Bruce Lee look-alikes at the casting call for Justin Lin’s new movie, “Finishing the Game.” More Photos >

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Published: August 5, 2006

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 4 — The casting call for an extra was specific yet succinct. The applicant had to be male. He had to be Asian. He couldn’t be a member of the Screen Actors Guild. And one other thing: he had to look like Bruce Lee.

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Finding Bruce Lee

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Bruce Lee in “Game of Death.” More Photos »

Finding one man who looks just like that legendary martial arts master would have been a challenge, even in this actor-rich, Asian-rich city.

But the creative minds behind “Finishing the Game,” the latest film by the director Justin Lin, weren’t looking for just one. They wanted 100.

Last month casting directors made calls, posted e-mail messages and talked to friends, and friends of friends. This week the look-alikes who made the cut were told to gather at the David Henry Hwang Theater in the Little Tokyo district here for the first shoot, preferably in 1970’s-era clothes.

“It doesn’t have to be jumpsuits,” the e-mail announcement read.

The result was a satiny sea of young Asian men in leisure suits and too-tight polyester slacks. Shirts with enormous collars were unbuttoned to reveal chunky gold chains. A few hardy souls feathered their hair; others replicated Lee’s signature do with wigs provided by the makeup department. There were fat belts and tortoise-shell shades.

The filmmakers fell short of their goal of 100 Lees, but a decent crop, more than 50 actors and hopefuls of all sizes and shapes, had shown up for the final casting call on Wednesday.

The thing is, none of them really looked like Bruce Lee.

A few had the right height and weight, like Nicholas C. Endres, a 23-year-old Korean-American actor with a black belt in Tae Soo Do. “People have told me I look like Bruce Lee,” he said, “but I grew up in the Midwest, so I’ve had people tell me I look like Sandra Oh and Margaret Cho, too.”

But most of the aspirants bore little resemblance to the martial arts star. Which was precisely the point, according to Mr. Lin, whose previous credits include “Better Luck Tomorrow” and “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.”

“This is very much a comedy about denial,” he said. “It’s about putting regular people in ridiculous situations, and seeing how they float.”

“Finishing the Game” is a comedic take on the 1978 film “Game of Death,” one of the most infamous in the martial arts canon. Soon after Lee’s untimely death in 1973, producers wondered what to do with 40 minutes of usable film he had shot before “Enter the Dragon” made him an international star.

It was great stuff: the leftover film had a brutal nunchaku battle, and a David-and-Goliath rumble between Lee and the N.B.A. great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — but 40 minutes of unedited film does not a feature make. So the problem became, how do you make a Bruce Lee movie without Bruce Lee?

The solution: hire body doubles, hide their faces behind sunglasses and fake beards, then fatten the whole thing with clips snatched from previous films, even clips from Lee’s own Hong Kong funeral. The finished product, which includes about 12 minutes of Lee’s original fight scenes, was grotesque.

Mr. Lin’s fictionalized account, shot in documentary style, follows the would-be Lees as they compete for the coveted lead in “Game of Death.” The 100 — well, 50 — Lees were needed for cattle-call sequences and audition scenes in which their numbers are whittled down in the most ignominious of ways.

Among those playing the finalists in “Finishing the Game” are the “Better Luck Tomorrow” stars Sung Kang, whose character, Colgate Kim, is a veteran of a Ron Jeremy pornographic film, and Roger Fan, who plays Breeze Loo, a martial artist whose credits are said to include “Fists of Furor” and “Exit the Serpent.” The wild card finalist is the actor McCaleb Burnett; wild card because Mr. Burnett, besides looking nothing like Bruce Lee, is white.

None of the Lees are here for the money because, to be honest, there is not much of it. The film is operating under an actors’ guild modified low-budget agreement, which applies to films with budgets under $500,000. Mr. Lin will not say how much under $500,000, but he figures that he could pay for all of “Finishing the Game” with the money he spent on a single day of “Tokyo Drift.” He is able to shoot on film only because Kodak gave him a cut rate; Universal Studios, which released “Tokyo Drift,” is helping with the wardrobe rentals. The lead actors, who include much of the cast from Mr. Lin’s last three films, are getting at or near the guild minimum. “I’m getting paid in turquoise,” says Mr. Fan, flashing his 70’s-style rings.

Blake Kushi, a Japanese-American actor from Hawaii, has had lead roles in the Borderlands Theater in Tucson and the El Portal’s Forum Theater in North Hollywood. He’s done “Hamlet” and “Waiting for Godot.”

At the Wednesday audition, however, Mr. Kushi was just another face in the crowd, one Bruce Lee out of 50.

“If it weren’t for Justin Lin, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I wanted the chance just to work with him and observe.” He paused, then got up to go to the next cattle-call scene. “That, and they said there was a possibility that we might get one line.”

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