|Surviving the Game|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 21 December 1999|
Although ‘Surviving the Game’ at first glance seems to be a fairly straightforward, down-and-dirty actioner, it turns out to have a lot on its mind. Director Ernest Dickerson and writer Eric Bernt manage to make work up some thought-worthy social analogies without impeding the rocket-speed action.
There have already been many (and doubtless will be more) screen versions of the story "The Most Dangerous Game," in which hunters stalk human prey. Here Dickerson and Bernt use the premise to make a few scathing points about what happens when people start making distinctions about what counts as a meaningful existence.
When we meet Mason (Ice-T), he’s been homeless for two years, following the loss of his family in a fire. Sharp cross-cutting in Chapter 1 matches the latest loss in Mason’s life - as he fails to prevent his dog from running into traffic - wit hthe loss of human life as a group of hunters bypass a deer to bring down a terrified man. Mason doesn’t know these folks yet, but he soon will. When Mason is lured out to the wilderness with the promise of a $200-a-day job as a guide (he thinks hunting is dumb but the money is great) and passes a strenuous endurance test, the audience is way ahead of him. However, once he catches on to the true nature of his straits, his survival skills come to the fore.
‘Surviving the Game’ sets itself apart from the pack in a few ways, most notably involving Mason’s character. Ice-T makes him about as accessible as an action hero can be: smart, funny, credibly scared yet beyond doubt resourceful in a crisis. Bernt has created a few memorably quirky baddies. Rutger Hauer as their leader recalls his work in ‘Blade Runner,’ soft-spoken, hearty and eerie, and Charles S. Dutton is an inspired match as his partner in crime.
Visually, the DVD transfer is very handsome, with evocative mist in the opening sequences and beautiful preservation of natural light at the start of Chapter 6, as well as fine reproduction of pyrotechnics. Sound is okay but not wonderful, especially when sound effects contrast immediately with speech. For example, in Chapter 16, a good, loud gunshot is followed by a fuzzy scream; it takes a couple of seconds for the dialogue track to become reasonably clear again.
Although the story is told in comic-book terms, the philosophy expressed by the hunters about the value (or lack thereof) of Mason’s life sound uncomfortably like rhetoric spouted in the real world. Mason’s adventures may be unlikely, but the mindset that puts him in front of the gunsights is not so different from that which condemns others in his original circumstances to slower but equally deadly destruction on the streets.
Director Dickerson hits the ground running in terms of pace. There’s a bit of horror film imagery involved here, especially in Chapter 12. Dickerson achieves an almost unnerving intensity at times, particularly in a sequence involving some booby-trapped transportation, but the strength of the film is with the protagonist. Mason never turns superhuman - he’s just an essentially intelligent man whose will to live is revived through sheer indignation. Unlike his pursuers, Mason doesn’t discount their humanity - he defends himself but he’s never cold-blooded, leading to a climax that manages to at once sate the audience’s desire for vengeance without reducing the hero to the level of his adversaries.