Revisiting Surviving The Game: a slightly different 90s action thriller

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Ice T and the late Rutger Hauer star in 1994’s Surviving The Game – and here’s why it’s well worth digging out.

Spoilers lie ahead for the film. In particular, we talk directly about the ending in the last 2-3 paragraphs, and there’s a further spoiler warning when you get to that bit.

Originally written in 1924, Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game has served as the inspiration for multiple films, radio and TV episodes, from the celebrated 1932 film starring a pre-King Kong Fray Wray, through to a segment in one of The Simpsons’ ‘Treehouse Of Horror’ anthologies.

Released by New Line in 1994, Surviving The Game took Connell’s tale of a wealthy hunter going after human targets, and turned it into an action vehicle for rapper Ice T, already familiar to audiences from his role in New Jack City. Directed by Ernest Dickerson, Surviving The Game should be seen within the context of 1990s Hollywood, as the success of Do The Right Thing, Boyz N The Hood and New Jack City spurred a wave of mainstream releases from non-white creatives. One of the studios most associated with these films was New Line, which released a number of diverse range of films, including teen comedy House Party, sports drama Above The Rim, crime drama Set It Off and early comic book adaptations Spawn and Blade.

One of the key filmmakers of this period, director Ernest Dickerson got his start as a cinematographer on John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet, and went on to several collaborations with Spike Lee, including Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X (he also lensed the underrated thriller Enemy Territory, which is worth checking out). Dickerson would follow up Surviving The Game with other genre efforts such as the Tales From The Crypt movie Demon Knight and the Snoop Dogg-starring Bones.

The original version of The Most Dangerous Game (including the 1932 film) concerns a famous hunter named Sanger Rainsford (renamed Bob and played by Joel McCrea in the ‘32 film) who is shipwrecked and finds himself on a private island owned by an exiled Cossack Zarroff (Leslie Banks). Rainsford finds himself the prey in Zarroff’s latest hunt, and finally learns what it means to be hunted like an animal. Reduced to a feral state, he emerges from the darkness to slay and (it is implied) replaces Zaroff.

Whereas the 1932 version added a female love interest and a sexual subtext to Zaroff’s hunts, Surviving The Game takes Connell’s tale of a wealthy hunter going after human targets, and emphasises class and racial disparities.

In the original version too, the protagonist is a wealthy, famous white game hunter who is forced to empathise with the animals he has hunted, Surviving The Game turns the story into a contemporary metaphor for America’s racial divide, with a group of wealthy (and mostly white) men hunting a homeless black man, Mason (Ice T).

A homeless man with a tragic backstory, Mason is an outsider who is ignored by the world around him. In the opening scenes, Mason’s dog is killed by an uncaring cab driver, and his best friend – an elderly war veteran – dies in his sleep. Alone and forgotten, Mason is the perfect target for the film’s unscrupulous villains.

The racial subtext is obvious – the closest contemporary analogue is The Purge franchise – and I don’t mean that as a criticism. Surviving The Game is a straightforward genre exercise based on primal emotions, and as such, it accomplishes its goal: if you ever had a visceral reaction to those photos of millionaires standing over the prey they hunted, this is the movie for you.

Ice T fits the role of Mason like a glove: at his base, the character is a survivor with no time for niceties. Ice T gives the character a directness that fits with Mason’s extremely functional worldview. He has no time for his antagonists and one of the film’s pleasures is watching the rapper/actor cut Hauer and Dutton off with a pithy comeback that punctures their self-important musings.

It’s a performance that was never going to win an Oscar, but does give the character a weird sense of vulnerability that works for the role.

As the protagonist of an action movie, Mason is a fine example of the archetypal action hero of this era: the everyman. But while Mason is influenced by the post-Die Hard trend of physically unimposing heroes, Surviving The Game pushes the archetype to the extreme; most of the obvious examples from this time (Bruce Willis’s John McClane, Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs, Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan and Richard Kimble) are either familiar with weapons, or possessed of some skill or knowledge that enables them to defeat their antagonists. What’s refreshing about Mason is that the qualities he does possess are those of an ordinary human: he does not know how to use guns (in one scene, Mason fires a shotgun from the top of a mountain down at the hunting party), his fitness is not great (his smoking saps his energy) and he’s not used to the wilderness.

While Mason is portrayed from the outset as self-sufficient, he’s no MacGyver (at least at first). One of the best elements of the movie is how it maintains Mason’s vulnerability for the majority of the film, rather than going for an easy out and turning him into a Rambo-esque survivalist . It is only at the climax that Mason gains the upper hand.

From a 2019 perspective, one of the joys of Surviving The Game is how small in scale it is – the hunting party is only comprised of six people with rifles, and most of the set pieces are based around them stalking Mason on foot through wooded areas and mountain ranges. There are only two explosions (or three, if you count a spoilery-moment), and no car chases. That economy gives the movie a sense of tension and intimacy. Combined with the extensive location photography, Surviving The Game has a sense of verisimilitude that prevents the movie from coming off as a cheap repeat of the familiar premise.

The film’s small scale provides another benefit in its focus on its villains. We get a combination of 80s and 90s boogeymen (rich tycoons who do not care about the poor, and rogue government employees (ex-CIA black ops), a vaguely Southern gent) played by a similarly great collection of 80s and 90s character actors. In the line up are the sadly departed Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner), Charles S. Dutton (Alien 3), Gary Busey (I’m With Busey), John C McGinley (Scrubs) and F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus). Surviving The Game is a worthy showcase of prime action movie knavery.

As the ostensible leader of the party, Hauer is Burns, a CIA killer who runs the hunting expeditions alongside his combat buddy, Walter Cole (Charles S. Dutton). Together, they run the ‘game’, a staged hunt which had originally been devised by Busey’s Doc Hawkins as a way for field agents to cool down after operations, but which has evolved into a sport for cold-blooded elites.

Hauer plays Burns with the same icy relish as his stateless terrorist Wulfgar from Nighthawks. When Mason kills his best friend, Burns’ veneer breaks: there’s a nice moment of Burns walking away from the group, and tearing up.

The only other person of colour in the movie, Dutton’s Cole, is initially presented as a benevolent presence – after he saves Mason from a suicide attempt, Cole offers him a job.

But it soon becomes clear that Cole’s actions are not motivated by empathy: he is acting as the group’s ‘casting agent’, volunteering at homeless shelters to scope out potential victims for the hunt. The filmmakers seem to emphasise Cole’s disdain for Mason over the other villains: it’s difficult not to read Cole’s character as a commentary on the idea of exceptionalism. Cole has made it to the top of the food chain, and has no compunction about perpetuating the current system for his own benefit, rather than trying to change it. Mason is just another target in his scope.

As the man who came up with the idea of the hunt, Gary Busey is one of the standouts. In any other movie, he would feel miscast (there’s an argument that Hauer and his roles could have been combined), yet here his casting is one of the movie’s selling points. The ‘Prince Henry Stout’ monologue alone is absolutely hypnotising. It seems to be heading in about 20 different directions after every sentence, and Busey sells the ridiculous story with the relish of a counsellor telling scary campfire stories. Busey is not in the movie much, but his off-kilter energy and sudden impulses give the movie an unsettling vibe that lasts long after he turns into a human roman candle.

While none of the cast approach Busey’s… singularity, they all feel like distinct personalities.

F. Murray Abraham plays Wolff Sr, a wealthy man who sees the hunt as an opportunity to make his son (William McNamara) a man. Lacking the machismo of the other villains, Abraham gives Wolff Sr a preening sense of entitlement that makes him the most hateable of the villains. Abraham and McNamara don’t get that much to work with, but their combative dynamic feels organic, and grows more overt as the film progresses. By the end of the movie, the hunt begins to feel like the concluding instalment in a long-running conflict over their differing ideas of masculinity and empathy for other human beings.

John C. McGinley’s Griffin lost his daughter to a homeless man, and sees Mason as a stand-in for his rage. An asthmatic racked by loss and guilt for what he has become, McGinley gives Griffin a neurosis that makes him the most unpredictable of the group.

While the script is pretty economical with exposition, the cast do a great job of giving these villains a sense of history. They all have motivations, and one of the best aspects of the movie is the way that their personalities and motives are never fully in concert. The hunting party’s mutual antagonism gives the movie another layer of tension to the familiar plot mechanics.

On the downside, it’s a pity that for how interesting the characters are, where they end up doesn’t feel quite as special as it should.

Here come the heavy spoilers.

The ending of Surviving The Game is a little odd. For one thing, the movie runs out of bad guys too quickly. While the movie is believably lo-tech in terms of its set pieces, once Mason starts killing off the hunting party, the movie loses its sense of pace and invention. Simply put: Mason runs out of bad guys to kill in inventive ways.

While the movie has been building toward a showdown between Mason and Burns, the script takes a bewildering turn for magical realism.

To an extent, it feels like the filmmakers are trying to take their own spin on the short story’s ending: Mason becomes one with nature, and turns from hunted to hunter, becoming an almost-supernatural force as he kills off the hunting party. Sadly, this is one of those cases where the idea is more interesting than the execution.

After killing the other members of the hunting party, Mason chases Burns where the killer manages to escape by a gambit that is somehow more supernatural than Mason’s transformation. We then cut back to Seattle for a final showdown between Burns – disguised as a priest – and Mason.

This switch is a little baffling. At first, I was expecting the ending to be a reversal of roles, with Mason using the familiar environment of the city’s back streets to his advantage. Instead, we get a brief scuffle in an alley.

Despite its slightly iffy finale, Surviving The Game is a fun genre flick with some enjoyable performances and some subtext that gives the familiar story a sense of originality. As a 90s action film too, it’s something of a standout, and very much warrants being sought out. Just 96 minutes long, too. They don’t make ’em like that anymore…

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