Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Film Review: SURVIVING THE GAME (1994, Ernest R. Dickerson)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 96 minutes.
Tag-line: "Jack Mason knows he's going to die someday. But today he's not in the mood."
Notable Cast or Crew: Ice-T, Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey, F. Murray Abraham (AMADEUS), John C. McGinley (THE ROCK, SCRUBS), Charles S. Dutton (SE7EN, MENACE II SOCIETY, CAT'S EYE), William McNamara (OPERA, EXTREME JUSTICE, GLAM). Music by Stewart Copeland (Drummer for The Police, DEAD LIKE ME, WALL STREET). Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson (JUICE, the MASTERS OF HORROR episode THE V WORD with Michael Ironside). Written by Eric Bernt (ROMEO MUST DIE, HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME, THE HITCHER remake).
Best one-liner: "I like my meat RARE!" –"Try WELL-DONE, bitch!"

From THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME to HARD TARGET, there has been a majestic, rugged American tradition of making awesome movies about 'dudes hunting dudes.' Well, I'm here to tell you that SURVIVING THE GAME is one of the best- it's unrelenting, unhinged, unabashed, balls-out entertainment.

Rutger Hauer in a doo-rag hunting bandana... CAN YA BEAT THAT?

Former Spike Lee cinematographer and JUICE director Ernest R. Dickerson is at the helm, and the first act is a tale of inner-city desperation starring a heart-string-tugging Ice T (and his gargantuan homeless dreads) set to jazzy, oddly upbeat tunes by Stewart Copeland.

Recruited by the affably intense real-life manslaughterer Charles S. Dutton, Ice T quickly finds himself wrapped up in an illicit ring of blue-blooded, hobo-huntin' madmen.

Said madmen include a troubled, lunatic John C. McGinley (who's losing his shit before the hunt even begins!); a nefariously paternal F. Murray Abraham (I never thought I'd see Salieri head-butting Ice T:

his pansy son William McNamara (Argento's OPERA, GLAM); a fringe-jacketed, knife-slingin' Gary Busey ("Experience the animal within yourself!"); and douchey, goatee'd ringleader Rutger Hauer (he's the kind of guy who's clipping his nails and has got a bird on his shoulder while he's interviewing you).

Rutger Hauer carefully oversaw his character's grooming and coiffure- and made sure that it was accentuated for maximum douchiness.

As such, SURVIVING THE GAME becomes a masters course in acting. Watch the following scene, for example:

I'm blown away. Even Ice-T, who's not exactly a titan among thespians, becomes fully connected to the material when he's surrounded by this veritable phalanx of genius performers. Each moment, word, line, and gesture fascinates. Watch Busey's unwavering stare. Or Hauer's vague sense of morality in the way he expresses the sentiment that we should cherish each moment- it's his roundabout way of telling Ice-T that this meal is his last.

To Hauer's character, this is a kindness. It's the way that he does things- the imparting of a fleeting, final gift; a few of life's finer things before the deluge. Busey is less interested in the 'etiquette' of murder, but he's being honest in his own way, as well- "When you're eating the flesh from the pig... look into his little beady eyes. That way, you will be devouring his soul.”

Now, you don’t have to be a Busey scholar to realize that he made that shit up on the spot, but Busey's character is merely sharing his perspective on the nature of the hunt and each member's place in the world. As far as he is concerned, he was christened 'the predator' on his thirteenth birthday (more on that in a minute) and Ice-T has been christened as 'the prey,' perhaps merely by virtue of his homelessness. Each character has a chance to dip into their subconscious and speak in a kind of veiled candor, or a reptilian honesty, if there is such a thing. It is at once a confession and a deception. The hunt is separate from their life, yet the hunt is their life. Only now does F. Murray Abraham's character reveal his true nature to his son. In sharing this moment with him, they're closer to Ice-T than they are with their wives or children- he's a sacred object- a confessor- just as he is an object of hatred- the hunted. But note that in either implication, he remains an object, an instrument. Something less than human that still manages to flirt with the divine. "Doc, sometimes you even scare me.""Good." In another movie, this could've been a throwaway scene, quickly hammered out by its makers so that we could get straight to the ACTION, ACTION, ACTION! But instead, it's paced more like a film from an earlier era: character development is not a chore to be hustled along on its way like a necessary evil, it begets suspense. It increases the intensity of the higher stakes which are yet to come. Watch THE WAGES OF FEAR, Kobayashi's HARA-KIRI, any and every film which Hawks made. They're full of scenes like this– intense characters putting out their feelers, discovering the nature of the enemy, determining who exactly they're up against. Fanatical men exuding control, careful to reveal some (but not the full extent) of their hand. Ultimately, if scenes of this nature are executed with honesty, concentration, and a sprinkling of élan, they can be equally as satisfying as the eventual payoffs.

As if it wasn't exceedingly clear already, Busey is out of his mind in this picture. I mean, he always is, but here the muzzle is OFF. Busey later delivers an utterly mind-blowing monologue about the day he killed his boyhood dog with his bare hands and became a man.

I'm astounded. In a different film, this could have won him an Oscar. I’m serious. Busey has tapped into some primitive, subterranean chamber of the soul where few dare to venture, and he has emerged with something both captivating and repulsive, muted and visceral, improvised and premeditated, brutish and calculating - and it's quite possibly the best staging of a monologue I've ever witnessed.

In fact, for a typical actioner, there are a LOT of monologues. And they’re good ones, too. Then things get loco- McGinley ends up infusing his character with pathos:

Ice T gets to make one of those ‘leaps of faith’ like in every survival movie, shreddin’ guitar solos accompany myriad beat-downs, Rutger Hauer gets to show off that Russian priest outfit he stole from the set of WEDLOCK:

and a shot of PHILADELPHIA appears with the subtitle “Seattle.”

Guess they thought no one’d notice? Wow.

Still, based on the caliber of performer and the well-paced, intricately unfolded narrative: five stars and my highest recommendation.

-Sean Gill


skeelo said...

Hell yes. I don't remember why but I saw this a few months ago and was shocked at the development of character and story. I didn't think it was gonna be THIS good. But yea, the way the downfall of the members is layered with their character/desires and not just straightforward blow-em-up stuff is just killer. sheeeeit, i gotta watch this again soon, I remember loving the shit outta the build up to the chase.

J.D. said...

Busey is awesome. Even in crap movies he's usually still good in 'em.

Hell, all this film needed was some Powers Boothe chewing up the scenery and it would've been complete!

Sean Gill said...


Right on- definitely a solid flick which delivers some unexpected goods. I advise- at the very least- watching the Busey monologue once a month.


Wow, Powers Boothe might ratchet this thing into overload. We might as well toss in the rest of the cast from EXTREME PREJUDICE- Nolte, Ironside, Forsythe, Clancy Brown. And maybe some Brion James for good measure (this IS a Rutger Hauer flick). James could lead an additional horde of third-party Cajun warriors á la SOUTHERN COMFORT. Then we would never need to watch another action movie again, period.

J.D. said...

Yeah, adding Ironside to the mix might be too much, might throw the universe too out of kilter with all that testosterone and "keen" fashion sense (yeah, I'm thinking of Ironside and that sweater he wore in that one film you wrote about - burned in my brain, dammit!) going on in one film. It would be amazing, though.

Jay said...

haha, this movie was a classic the minute it came out. I remember seeing it in 96 or 97. Me, my best friend and brother watching it. My best friend is a big John C. McGinley fan ever since his crying in Platoon. I think this film would have hit its apex if Powers Booth and Jeremy Irons was in this. Irons would have channel his inner-"dungeons and dragons" to chew up scenery though.

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by! McGinley is pretty damned intense in this flick, and he really gets a chance to run the gamut from glaring, pitiless psycho to emotionally overwhelmed survivor. Irons certainly would have fit right in with this crew, too. I can totally see him palling around with F. Murray Abraham.

David Robson, Proprietor, House of Sparrows said...

Lovely piece on an undervalued film. I'm grateful to you for grabbing the Busey monologue - as you say it's beautifully acted and staged (I love Dutton's reaction shot - he's heard the story before, and is carefully gauging Mason's reaction).

My only quibble with the movie is the very final scene - to keep it spoiler-free, the real climax of the film happens right before it, and one doesn't really need to see the loose ends wrapped up.