The line between passion and cruelty is always hard to find when it comes to a sport like hunting, yet there is no doubt in the case of this 1994 movie, Surviving the Game.
It all begins with the usual day of poverty and despair for Jack Mason, a homeless Seattle man resigned to expecting nothing more from life, often seeking dangerous situations because he believes he deserves to die.
Indeed, the man’s family, unfortunately, died in the apartment fire where he worked as a janitor, leaving him forever scarred in the pain of loss and the tremendous burns covering his body.
So, while out at night, he is stealing a juicy piece of meat from a warehouse with his hungry friend Hank when a guard discovers them, and Mason tries to provoke the man into killing him.
The next day, he attempts to commit suicide again by jumping in front of a truck, but fortunately, Walter, a charity volunteer at a soup kitchen, comes to his aid and offers him a job instead of allowing himself to become desperate.
Walter then arranges an interview with Thomas Burns, a charming and highly wealthy businessman who offers to help his group of friends with heavy labor on a hunting trip.
Initially wary, Mason eventually accepts and so flies with these kind gentlemen to a remote, uninhabited forest, where they arrive on a plane driven by Thomas.
On the first evening, the men dine in each other’s company, getting to know each other, but something is odd about the strange talk they have around the table.
It won’t be until the following day that, waking up with a gun pointed in his face, Mason discovers the horrible truth, which is that the prey of this extraordinary hunt is actually him.
A bit of Action and Realism with 90s Macho Men
Ernest R. Dickerson is one of those directors who could be described as a skilled craftsman of the trade, exemplified by the splendid Never Die Alone, which remains an excellent example of black crime with the soul of Spike Lee and the human cruelty of the best Martin Scorsese.
Perhaps he has not always reached that level of excellence. Still, he has always carried out his task effectively, delivering excellent moments of entertainment to the audience.
In this context, Dickerson does not match the heights of creative spectacle achieved by his Asian colleague, and it’s also an uneven matchup, considering Woo is one of the global masters of action.
However, we must concede that the beginning of the plot, set in the impoverished neighborhoods of Seattle, is much more intriguing and original compared to Van Damme, who portrayed a sailor in the rival film.
Dickerson certainly benefits from the excellent screenplay by Eric Bernt, which depicts that marginalized part of the United States with evident passion and a certain degree of realism.
On the contrary, the editing becomes more frenetic (perhaps even excessively so) throughout the numerous action sequences.
Instead, the angry protagonist, Ice-T, is entirely inept at jungle survival, relying more on cunning than brute strength.
Evolving convincingly from a defenseless prey to an implacable hunter against the greed of his adversaries, who can never come to an agreement and thus are defeated.
May the implicit message of the story was supposed to be: unity is strength?
Low Budget, High Talent
Even though it’s clearly a low-budget movie, Surviving the Game boasts some of the best actors from the distant era of 1994.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Ice-T; sometimes, he convinces me, while other times, he seems perhaps too exaggerated and cartoonish.
Yet, in this particular context, his performance is compelling, thanks also, as I was saying, to the clever direction that avoids making him an invincible hero.
However, the cast’s peak quality is embodied by the psychopathic hunters after him, starting with the legendary Rutger Hauer, who needs nothing more than that diabolical smile to win over the audience and immediately ascend to the role of alpha male group leader.
The same goes for the menacing expression of Gary Busey, one of my favorites since the unforgettable Big Wednesday from 1978; in this context, he plays the role of an improbable murderous psychiatrist. Seriously, who would ever choose someone with such a face as their therapist?
Completing the trio of the most formidable hunters is Charles S. Dutton, perhaps the best in his transformation from a mild and loving Samaritan to a fierce tormentor ready to destroy his next victim.
The rest of the group is more human and flawed, starting with the excellent John C. McGinley, whom we all remember and love as the irresistible Dr. Perry Cox in the series Scrubs; here embodying an individual who kills more to alleviate his own pain than out of a genuine desire for death.
Different is the motivation of the older F. Murray Abraham, here in the role of Derek Wolfe Sr., who wants to initiate his young son, Derek Wolfe Jr.—who still has the innocent and naive face of William McNamara—into violence.