Monday, August 9, 2010

Surviving the Game

Some actors bring a quality assurance to whatever film projects they choose to pursue.  They are the actors you know, the ones that entertain you and turn in good performances in good movies, time after time.  Ice-T does not have that credibility.  This rapper/actor's movie career highlights include Breakin', Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, Johnny Mnemonic, and Leprechaun in the Hood.  To say that Surviving the Game has a good chance of being craptacular is understating the obvious.

To be fair, though, this movie actually has a chance.  It is loosely based on a famous short story, "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell.  The supporting cast is fairly respectable at first glance; there is an Oscar winner for Best Actor, an Oscar nominee, a Golden Globe winner, and an Emmy winner, in addition to a dependable character actor.  Sure, you have a rapper-turned-actor in the lead role, but it's an action movie, so you know his lines will sound something like "Ice to see you...bee-yatch."  The acting load was always going to be on the supporting cast, and the casting sounded promising on paper.

So, where does it all go wrong?  Well, the first indication that this will not be a great movie is that the screenwriting credits do not even acknowledge Connell's story.  That means that they changed enough of the story that they could not be sued by Connell's estate.  So, they took a famous, recognizable idea, and essentially made this the Go-Bots to Connell's Transformers. Try to picture the face of a child hoping for a six foot-tall, fully articulated metal Optimus Prime figure on Christmas morning instead opening up a four dollar plastic Go-BotHilarious, right?  Well, that wasn't quite my reaction to the de-Connelling of this film, but it was darn close.

Despite the award-caliber supporting cast, the casting was another obstacle for this movie.  When the  highest-profile actor in your action movie is F. Murray Abraham, you have a problem.  Sure, he's a good actor (with astonishingly few good movies under his belt), but he's the wrong choice for a dumb action movie.  Oh, and Gary Busey plays a psychiatrist.  Busey telling people that they're crazy is the ballsiest casting I can remember that didn't include the words "Denise Richards" and "nuclear scientist."  Rutger Hauer isn't a bad choice; he's played crazy before, but here he's a lot older and fatter, with a pretty dubious ponytail.  Rounding out the supporting cast, there is Charles S. Dutton, whose voice is always nice to hear in a movie, although his movies are usually pretty bad.  There is also a pre-Scrubs John C. McGinley, which means that he plays a sniffling wuss.  Now that you know who the award-winning cast is, it seems a whole lot less impressive, doesn't it?

With that in mind, let's review the plot.  The movie opens with a montage of life on the street with Mason (Ice-T), interrupted by periodic clips of a raggedy-looking guy being hunted in the wild and dying by crossbow.  We spend a little bit of time with Mason, learning precious little except that he is alone and homeless, with his only friend and his dog both dying in the film's first five minutes.  We also see Mason get into a scuffle with a security guard, where he doesn't actually beat up the guard, but acts pretty crazy; there is a shadowy figure watching the scene from a conveniently parked car, who is never referred to again.  Mason is prevented from committing suicide by a homeless shelter volunteer (Charles S. Dutton), who gives Mason a business card for a job opportunity.  The job is to be a wilderness guide for a group of rich men on a hunting trip.  Leading them are Burns (Rutger Hauer) and Cole (Dutton), but they will be joined by Doc Hawkins (Busey), a wealthy oilman (McGinley), a businessman (Abraham) and his son.  Once they have all traveled and met in the remote Canadian woods at their cabin, the group has a meal together and, in the morning, wakes up Mason at gunpoint.  They inform Mason of their intent to hunt and kill him for sport, and they give him a small head start.  The game begins.

For reasons I cannot even begin to fathom, it takes over forty minutes to get to the start of the hunt.  It's not like the filmmakers wasted any script on character development, they just took their sweet time getting to the only part of the movie anybody cares about.  This isn't a movie that is pandering to critics, so there is no excuse for this waste of my (admittedly worthless) time.  What were they expecting?  The audience to say, "Aww...Ice-T named his dog Mango, and now Mango is dead!  Why do the good die young?!?"  No, the audience was undoubtedly thinking "Mango?  That's the best dog name you could come up with?"  The forty minutes wasn't even spent building up a mystery, either.  If the plot made you wonder why outdoorsmen would hire a homeless guy to lead them into the wilderness, that's one thing.  But you know that homeless people will be hunted in the woods because it's shown in the opening scenes.  Not only is there no suspense, there is not even the pretense of suspense.  There is, however, the question of what the hell Mason was thinking when he took the job.  Far be it from me to be cynical, but a street rat (to borrow a Disney term) being hired to lead veteran hunters in the wild is enough to make my alarm bells go off.  Add in way too much money ($500 a week plus room and board in 1994) for the work being done, and you have a definite sucker punch coming.  Of course, that's just me.  Perhaps Ice-T is one of those guys that sends his social security number and bank account info to that African prince who keeps emailing me about a profitable deal that requires no work from me.  What could possibly go wrong?

The rest of the movie is much better than the first half.  Mason is hunted for a bit, but the hunters are very clever; they only always travel by loud ATVs and shout Mason's name when they're chasing him.  You see, that will throw Mason off, because he is going to expect them to be sneaky.  Surprisingly, Mason doesn't do most of the killing in this movie.  Two die by accident, another by Dutton, and one by Hauer.  Mason manages to kill one person with his hands.  The other dies when Mason throws him into the hunting group's cabin (now on fire), specifically in the trophy room, with a couple dozen severed human heads in mason jars.  Get it?  Ice-T's name is Mason!  What a great script.  Anyway, pickled heads are apparently very explosive, so as soon as Mason thrown the guy into the room, the whole place blows.

I'll skip most of the action scenes and just cut to the end.  Not surprisingly, the two headlining actors survive the game hunting trip.  When it comes down to just Ice-T and Hauer, Ice-T races off on an ATV (after sustaining a badly injured knee and a bullet in his gut) toward the plane that will take the hunting group home.  Only, when T arrives, he realizes that something is wrong.  The airplane explodes.  Brilliantly, Hauer anticipated the need for a fully functional airplane, stocked with explosives that could be set off remotely.  Hauer then goes to the real airplane and flies back to the city.  Ice-T, though, survived the game plane explosion and is apparently able to get back to the United States with a bullet-perforated stomach (never mind what the explosion did to him) within three days.  I assume he made it by ATV, because he would have been hospitalized by anyone who gave him a ride anywhere. Nothing promises fun like a severe abdominal wound and off-roading in an ATV for a few hundred miles.  Three days later, Hauer is preparing to skip town under an assumed identity.  He apparently has dozens of soldier identities lined up with false passports, but he chooses his foreign priest outfit.  Eschewing the easy way to disguise his identity (shaving his beard off and cutting his hair), Hauer carefully dyes both hair and beard black, ties his hair into a single braid, and dons a small hat with a big yarn puff on the top and a long robe.  If it wasn't for the priest collar and the rosary (seriously, what denomination wears this?), I would have mistaken the outfit for that of a railroad-era Chinese immigrant.  Anyway, Hauer soon finds himself face-to-face with an inexplicably healthy Ice-T, only this time, they're on his turf.  The game is over.

My biggest gripe about this film is that they never --- not even once! --- say anything along the line of "we hunt the most dangerous game of all...MAN."  What a letdown!  Aside from that, this movie is about what you would expect.  The acting is pretty terrible.  Ernest R. Dickerson's direction is horrible.  The pacing is god awful.  The decisions are inexplicable (Hey, Ice-T, you just got a job...want to clean up your look?  Well, I guess cutting your dreads to only shoulder length and shaving your beard into a fu manchu is pretty office-friendly).  The hair choices are astounding --- Ice-T's fake dreads stick out more than even Bob Marley's kids' hair and Rutger Hauer sports an ineffectual ponytail.  It isn't surprising that this movie is filled with moments that make absolutely no sense (a cabbie picks a fistfight with a homeless guy?  A night security guard is willing to murder a different homeless guy for no reason?), but it is surprising that these moments are the most entertaining in the film.

On the plus side, the action isn't bad and the movie avoids racist undertones by casting Charles S. Dutton as one of the hunters.  Instead, the movie is just classist, which isn't offensive at all.

As a film, this movie fails in almost every way.  It's not unwatchable, but it's the sort of thing you would be proud of only if your kid made it.  Unfortunately, this is not nearly dumb enough to entertain me as a funny-bad movie.  Well, parts of it are certainly funny-bad, but there are long stretches where the movie is just boring.  If someone cut the first half hour of the movie, this could be a poorly made finger-quotes classic.  As it is, it's just a bad movie that hunts the most valuable game of all...your time.  Seriously, it pisses me off that they don't use that line in the movie.

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