in yet another interpretation of richard connell’s 1924 short story the most dangerous game, surviving the game stars ice t as the hunted. it came out in 1994, eight months after john woo’s hard target, which is also based on the connell story though neither movie gave connell credit.
mr. t, ice plays a homeless man named mason whose only friends are a dog named mingo and a war veteran named hank (jeff corey). when mingo and hank are both killed, mason intends to kill himself by running into a semi. his suicide attempt is interrupted by cole, played by charles “roc” dutton, whom we see giving out food to the homeless, and may have been following mason. mason is told of a job opportunity with cole and his business partner burns, played by rutger hauer. as if hauer’s presence isn’t shady enough, he makes mason run on the treadmill for twenty minutes to test his “endurance”.
instead of porn, mason is actually hired as a nature survival guide. he’s being flown in a helicopter across the oregon border into presumably the woods of washington state. things start to look bad when cole and burns’ friends show up, and they are played by gary busey, john c. mcginley (tv’s scrubs, albert brooks’ mother, office space), and academy awards winner f. murray abraham from amadeus, last action hero, and brian de palma’s scarface (as a doctor, an oil man, and a wall street businessman named wolfe respectively). after a big feast in the cabin in the woods, mason wakes up with a gun to his head. like the pig at the feast, mason comes to realize that he is the one being hunted in this game. and since mason is homeless, one may even say he is in this hunger game.
it takes a bit of suspension of disbelief to think that mason is convinced that he is hired as an outdoor nature guide. if i were him, i would wonder why they would hire a city homeless for the job instead of a wilderness homeless. but there also wouldn’t be a movie if mason follows some of my personal rules: never follow strangers into the woods, never follow rich men into the woods, never follow anyone into the woods…in fact, just stay in the city would be my number 1 rule, followed by “never follow a hippie to a second location.” from the movies i’ve seen (deliverance, into the wild…etc), nature/wilderness = danger while city = safe.
i noticed i’ve been complaining a lot about a film’s length lately. knowing the film’s premise and the actors involved, surviving the game takes about half an hour before they get to the woods. expecting nothing more than a direct-to-video action movie, the opening first half hour actually sets things up nicely with sharp focus. the backstories and expositions fill in appropriately rather than boring scenes to pad the running time. the big feast scene right before the hunt brings to mind the opening diner scene from reservoir dogs, with less referential elements and director showboating. it’s a pretty smart shorthand to introduce a bunch of new characters.
the standout in this sequence is gary busey, who gets a chance to deliver a wonderful monologue before busey himself turns into self parody. though i’m not a fan of scrubs, john c. mcginley is also great as griffin the oil man. abraham unfortunately doesn’t get much to do. on the other hand, hauer is great as the main villain. it’s probably more to the credit of the movie that he looks and acts differently in the three acts of the movie. dutton is solid as usual, one might say he’s roc solid. ice t is surprisingly great as the unfortunate homeless man. though at that point in his acting career, he’s only been in new jack city, ricochet, walter hill’s trespass, and ted demme’s who’s the man?, he avoids the plague of most rapper-turn-actor performance: he’s throughout believable as a homeless man trying to survive instead of the macho posturing/sneering/braggadocio caricature. i think ice t does a better job here than the wooden jean claude van damme performance in hard target.
surviving the game is directed by former spike lee cinematographer ernest dickerson, who also directed juice, tales from the crypt demon knight, the adam sandler/damon wayans vechicle bulletproof, the wesley snipes death game movie futuresport, snoop dogg’s horror movie bones, and dmx’s never die alone. he also has quite an impressive tv credit that includes the wire, weed, treme, dexter, and the walking dead. the screenplay is by eric bernt, who also wrote virtuosity with danzel washington and russell crowe, jet li’s romeo must die, highlander: endgame and the hitcher remake.
it’s not an original movie and it doesn’t break any new grounds but between dickerson and bernt, there is just enough personality, quirk, and focus to make surviving the game a cut above most direct-to-video action flicks. it never strays from the story and message. the ending sequence alone redeems the flaws one encounters during the movie. though it’s more or less an action movie, it’s not action driven or action for action sake like most movies we’ve been getting. the characters overall behave within the internal logic of such premise. or maybe i am just nostalgic for the fact that a movie like this was able to gain theatrical distribution. under the current economy, surviving the game would no doubt be a direct-to-video action flick with a tenth of its budget. i also like that they know what the movie is supposed to be so they don’t go into the racial/class direction, though if they were to remake it, they totally could, with the recent occupy movement and the trayvon martin incident.
it seems appropriate to rank surviving the game amongst similar movies. it may not be as beautiful to look at or as visually pleasing, it has a better screenplay than hard target. as far as movies that takes place in the pacific northwest woods go, it’s better than the twilight saga. this is bernt’s best screenplay if you ask me. though scenes are supposed to take place in seattle, it is mostly filmed in wenatchee, wa, with philadelphia standing in for the cityscapes.
interestingly, of the seven main characters, steven seagal has played characters with the same names (mason, burns, cole). and that reminds me of why i appreciate surviving the game, ice t’s mason character is formerly a mechanic, instead of a former/ex fbi, cia, black ops…etc. he doesn’t fight the hunters head on but rather uses his skill foil them.
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