Richard Connell's pulp novella The Most Dangerous Game has been filmed once, excellently, under its own title--in 1932, as a taut, hourlong thriller from RKO--but has had its plot pilfered countless times. It's the story of the mad Count Zaroff, played in the RKO version by Leslie Banks, whose hobby is hunting human beings as game on his private island. He gives hero Joel McCrea and heroine Fay Wray a little head start, then unleashes the dogs. The rest of the 1932 film is all chasing, running, stalking, evading. It's the sort of premise that moviemakers keep coming back to again and again, because it's simple and immediately captivating. Set it in motion, and the plot takes care of itself. Last year it showed up in John Woo's American directorial debut Hard Target, and now in Surviving the Game, in an uncredited but even closer adaptation set in the remote Pacific Northwest.
This time the hero is Mason (Ice-T), a homeless black man with a tragic past, living in Seattle. He gets a job offer--a mysterious hunting-tour agency takes him on as a "guide." Since by his own admission he knows nothing about the outdoors, and since the only qualification the creepy agents (Rutger Hauer and Charles S. Dutton) demand is stamina, the offer ought to make him suspicious. But he feels he has nothing to lose, so he allows himself to be flown to a remote mountain cabin. Here he meets the rest of the hunting party, a bunch of rich yahoos played by such extremely familiar action-movie faces as Gary Busey, John C. McGinley and F. Murray Abraham. Before too long, Mason also snaps to what, or rather who, the object of the hunt is. For the rest of this gruesomely violent, testosterone-heavy and often quite exciting film, he scurries through the woods and tries to outwit the bloodthirsty sickos. In spite of his greenhorn status, he manages pretty well, although the filmmakers refreshingly don't allow him to do anything too superhuman--we don't even get the usual line about how Mason used to be an Army commando to explain his prowess, because it isn't needed. Rather, the odds are evened up by making the bad guys about as moronic and careless a bunch of killers as the action genre has ever seen.
In keeping with this, the actors kid their kinky roles, giving them a tongue-in-cheek edge. Gary Busey takes the prize, delivering a long, utterly deranged monologue about his abusive father with tremendous force, but McGinley's wound-too-tight act comes in second, and all of the cast has hammy fun.
The director is Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee's brilliant cinematographer who made a shaky directorial debut a few years back with the urban-actioner Juice. His direction here is better--cleaner and snappier--and his cinematographer, Bojan Bazelli, puts the same glorious, golden tones he used in Sugar Hill to more appropriate use here. There's also a compelling musical score by Stewart Copeland.
But neither these cinematic felicities nor the touch of over-the-top parody in the acting can cover the fact that this is a conventional potboiler, with an overworked, lurid premise. If it weren't for Ice-T's turn in the lead, Surviving the Game would stand a good chance of seeming heartless and offensive. There are too many people in the audience, in this day of gun love and barely concealed loathing for the homeless, who might find the party's hobby appealing.
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But the star humanizes the film. Ice-T is a delight in action roles (and could probably work in more mature genres, as well) because he has a bracingly commonsensical manner. When Mason encounters something or someone stupid or evil or frightening, he addresses the situation with a dismissive, almost prissy irritability that gives him the moral high ground. In Surviving the Game, the filmmakers are wisely at pains to show that Mason is loath to kill, that he puts a value even on the lives of those who are trying to kill him. The saving grace of Surviving the Game is that this quality makes Mason seem ten times stronger than a Schwarzenegger hero.