'Game' isn't as fun this time around

April 18, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The last time you saw "Surviving the Game" it was called "Hard Target"; it's had other names -- "Open Season," with William Holden, was another such variant -- on back to its original source, a short story called "The Most Dangerous Game." It's the old chestnut about the debauched big game hunter who, having killed everything that can gore or bite or poison, now yearns to hunt something that can think.

Possibly it's our increasing and melancholy tribalism that recalls this clunker; in both the John Woo version ("Target") and this Ernest Dickerson version, the human game animal is a homeless man and the hunters are rich boys off on a psycho bender. There's a sense in both of them that society has become so ruthlessly compartmentalized and compassion such an obsolete value that, as classes, the wealthy and therefore debauched no longer consider the impoverished even human. (The original short story, if dim memory serves, made no such point.)

VTC In a mano-a-mano, Woo leaves the square, obdurate Dickerson in the dust: Woo's action stylings were like a Fourth of July held during the middle of the D-Day bombardment, and Dickerson, Spike Lee's former cinematographer, still has a lot to learn. But Dickerson choses a better leading man: Ice-T, whatever you think of his music or his reputation, is a far more charismatic figure than banty little Jean-Claude Van Damme, who seems to have muscles on his eyelids and nostrils. Ice-T's a man, not a martial arts robot: He makes you feel his character's pain and his struggles to survive are desperate, not particularly beautiful, as Woo made Van Damme's.

In this version, the homeless Ice-T, named Jack Mason, isn't glamorous or romantic (Van Damme's character had been in Marine Recon); he's just a little man who never caught a break and suffered a tragedy and is now suicidal. He's picked up by a self-styled missionary (Charles Dutton, excellent as always) and offered a mysterious job in the wilderness as a "hunting guide" by Rutger Hauer.

After sharing a hearty meal with the hunters -- the best touch, for the clear madness of the hunters is their need to get to know him as a man before they set out to slay him; it excites them, somehow -- they launch him on his way and, after another hearty meal, set off after him with a variety of exotic weaponry.

The wilds of Oregon are beautiful, and the hunters are an amusingly debauched lot, though I never believed for a second F. Murray Abraham was capable of firing that huge Heckler & Koch semi-auto he carries. (He never does shoot it.) Best was Gary Busey, contributing another baying psycho performance: He has a brilliant little soliloquy in which he evokes the forces that created him. Hauer and Dutton, as ex-CIA cowboys still addicted to the hunt, are equally chilling; I could have done without Abraham and William McNamara as his son and their crippled relationship, which was somehow too painful for the fun and games the movie seeks to offer.

Some critics have beaten up on Dickerson for the racially inflammatory nature of the film, but the director undercuts it to some degree by integrating both the societies at top and bottom: Dutton, one of the hunters, is black, and Jeff Corey, Ice-T's poignant close friend among the homeless, is white. Also, no incendiary racial invective is unleashed, and the antagonisms break down along class, rather than color, lines.

It's too bad Dickerson isn't much of an action hand. The fights have a sameness to them, and there's no sense of the hunt: We don't feel the intellectual excitement of the opponents moving and counter-moving against each other; it's just a big chase.

"Surviving the Game"

Starring Ice-T and Rutger Hauer

Directed by Ernest Dickerson

Released by New Line

R-rated

** 1/2

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