once again cribbing from oriental treasures, wesley snipes stars in game of death which homages the (in)famous bruce lee posthumous last movie instead of classic literature (the art of war). game of death was released direct to dvd in february 2011, a few months before snipes was sentenced to prison for not filing his taxes. in the last decade, outside of the blade movies, his only other theatrical release was 2010’s brooklyn’s finest. there are about nine d-t-v movies released during those ten years with game of death being the latest.
based on the netflix synopsis and the title, i was expecting a die hard-ish movie in a hospital. like maybe he has to go up each floor of the hospital and then eventually fight a tall basketball player (yellow jumpsuit optional). it would be pretty funny since they stole the title from a chinese movie, and instead of kareem abdul jabbar, snipes can fight say, yao ming at the end. it would have been an interesting reversal.
snipes plays marcus, a cia agent undercover. we know this because within five minutes of the movie, he says “i am an undercover agent for the cia.” he’s telling this in a church to a priest played by ernie hudson (ghostbusters, the crow, sugar hill), who also acts as the exposition/narrative device.
just in case you miss that line, there is also a flashback (one of many) a few minutes later where we see his boss/mentor asking him to go undercover. as with most secret meetings in movies, this one takes place on a park bench. though his boss/mentor/father figure makes it sound like it’s some kind of impossible mission. and just in case you miss that too, there’s also the frequent reliable newspaper headline to remind you of what’s going on. and all this is within the first 20 minutes of the movie.
the unpossible mission has marcus working undercover as a bodyguard for robert davi (die hard, raw deal, the taking of beverly hills, no contest, grand theft auto: vice city)’s frank smith, an arms dealer. little did he know that his teammates decided to go rogue, to take the money for themselves. always betting on black, marcus is not going to fail the mission and let the traitors accomplish their goal.
despite my wishful thinking, game of death is not quite a die hard-ish movie nor does it have anything to do with the bruce lee game of death. like passenger 57, it kind of borrows the die hard formula and then abandons it to follow a more standard action formula. the clearly structured three acts: introducing the characters and situation, a hospital cat and mouse game, and finally the building where smith (davi) and redvale (quinn duffy) make the deal.
title notwithstanding, there’s not much in the way of the gamey aspect. snipes and everyone else are in morose mode here. gary daniels (final impact, full impact, jackie chan’s city hunter, fist of the north star: the movie, tekken: the movie, dolph’s retrograde, seagal’s submerged, the expendables) and zoe bell (death proof, angel of death, bitch slap) play the traitors effectively. bell is a veteran stuntwoman so it’s kind of disappointing that she is involved mostly in gunfights (at least she has more screen time here than the wasted cameo part in gamer). daniels however has a pretty good fight scene with snipes near the end. there is one standout scene that takes place in the mental ward of the hospital that somewhat distinguishes it from the usual d-t-v action movies.
but since we know pretty early on the roles everyone plays in the movie, there is a lack of suspension and tension. with its framing device, we know from the opening that marcus got away with a bag. it also makes all the long negotiations and dialogues pointless. so the death part of the title doesn’t come through either. so neither gamely nor deathly.
as with most d-t-v action movies, game of death is also afflicted with the post-production post-action swish/swoosh symptoms. director giorgio serafini, perhaps worried that audience would be bored, plays with the footages by doing fade outs, grainy shots, superimposed, and black and white images. though thankfully, it’s not as bad as most in that departent and the movie overall is understandable (in the visual sense, not so much in terms of character motivations). i also like the fact that the film is actually shot in detroit, michigan where it takes place, instead of vancouver or eastern europe. and as i mentioned in several other reviews, i’m a sucker for dazzlingly shot big city footages. and though at first it seems repetitive, the led zeppelin-ish rock score that shows up in every action scene works simply because it sounds so much like kashmir.
game of death is passable as a low budget d-t-v action film. i would put it a tad below passenger 57 and just about on the same level as the art of war. most interesting aspect to me is the behind the scene stuff. abel ferrara (ms. 45, china girl, the funeral, body snatchers 93, dangerous game, the addiction, tv’s subway stories) quitted after a few weeks of shooting. the wrap around scenes feature snipes in church and watching a basketball game that reminds of ferrara‘s bad lieutenant and king of new york, which stars snipes, and makes one wonder what ferrara‘s version would have been like. though more or less adequate, we are a long way from the snipes who acted in films by not only ferrara but also spike lee (mo’ better blues, jungle fever), mario van peebles (new jack city), ron shelton (white men can’t jump), philip kaufman (rising sun), mike figgis (one night stand), and even maya angelou (down in the delta). after his release from prison next year, i hope he’ll get to do things more similar to the above mentioned films (and demolition man) than merely being a more talented/less laughable seagal-ish d-t-v roles.