Surviving the Game

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The rapper-turned-actor Ice-T is so awful in every performance he gives that I’m amazed he doesn’t appear in more bad movies. Think about it. If you’re trying to make a bad movie, your job is half-done just by casting him. Why, with Ice-T as your star, your script could be no worse than mediocre and you’d still wind up with a terrible movie. He’s like Hamburger Helper for lousy films.

Viewers of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” have already learned to change the channel when it’s an Ice-T-centered episode, and I have to assume people who saw his movie “Surviving the Game” in 1994 did so because they’d been misled regarding the amount of Ice-T it contained. I have no recollection of this film. Did the advertisements play up the presence of the other actors, the ones with actual names? (I have always believed that you should not be allowed to appear in a film if you do not have a name.) Did people buy tickets because they thought the film starred Gary Busey and Rutger Hauer, then curse when they realized Ice-T was the lead? I assume cinemas offered refunds in those cases, in the event they were not actually torn apart by enraged patrons.

My beef with Ice-T is that he delivers every line in exactly the same thuggish, tough-guy tone of voice, as if constantly trying to make us forget that he’s from New Jersey and his name is Tracy. Yet even when the situation calls for him to behave like a thuggish tough guy, he still isn’t convincing. He’s not even good at the one thing he’s good at.

“Surviving the Game” is an uncredited adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game,” the short story you read in school where a guy on an island hunts human beings for sport. You will no doubt recall that this story is awesome. And perhaps you’re thinking that if Ice-T is the one being hunted, well, maybe the movie is on the right track after all.

Mr. -T plays a dreadlocked homeless guy named Mason who lives on the mean streets of Seattle, where, this being the height of the Seattle grunge movement, he looks no different from anyone else. He has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in which both his dog and best friend die, and Mason is ready to cash in his own chips by stepping in front of a bus when he’s stopped by a soup-kitchen volunteer. This man, Walter Cole (Charles S. Dutton), says he has a business opportunity for Mason and tells him to go see a man named Burns for all the details. Forced to choose between getting a job and killing himself, Mason chooses to get a job, so I guess he’s different from most Seattleites after all.

Mr. Burns is played by Rutger Hauer, the supernaturally blond Dutchman who has appeared in almost 120 movies over the course of his career, almost seven of which have been good. Burns sees that Mason smokes cigarettes and questions whether he is physically fit enough to perform the job, carefully avoiding any mention of what the job actually is. Mason, eager to prove he can do anything, sees a treadmill in the corner of Burns’ office and says, “That’s one of those running things, right?” The good news is yes, you’ve correctly identified the function of that machine. The bad news is that the job involves applying the correct terms to objects, and you just failed.

But I kid. A treadmill is an obscure item that few people are familiar with. Burns tells Mason that the job involves accompanying groups on wilderness excursions as a sort of low-level, no-skills-required assistant. They hop in a small private plane with Walter Cole and head to the wilds of Oregon, where they meet up with another plane carrying the other four participants. These characters are played by John C. McGinley (Dr. Cox from “Scrubs”), F. Murray Abraham (Salieri from “Amadeus”), Gary Busey (terrifying madman from the alley behind the liquor store), and William McNamara (you’ve never heard of him). They all bunk down in a rustic cabin for a manly evening of cigar-smoking and meat-eating. Gary Busey tells a story about how he got the scar on his face. (Spoiler: It involves his dad making him fight a dog to the death.)

Busey also gives Mason some helpful advice as the men sit around the table eating the pig they’ve slaughtered and roasted: “When you’re eating the flesh of the pig, look into his beady little eyes,” Busey says. “That way you’ll be devouring his soul.” I am confident that this is not true. If it is possible to absorb another creature’s soul (which is doubtful to begin with), I’m certain it has nothing to do with looking the creature in the eyes. If that were the case, how would blind people devour souls?

Early the next morning, Mason is rudely awakened by his employer, who shoves a gun in his face and tells him what this is really about. They’re gonna give Mason a head start, and then they’re gonna hunt him like an animal. If Mason makes it to civilization before the hunters get him, he wins. If not, he loses, by which I mean he dies. The hunters are all highly successful alpha males who paid $50,000 apiece for this experience; Burns has been operating his shady operation for years; he’s licensed and bonded with the state Most Dangerous Game Council; yada yada. Mason is shocked to learn the true nature of his employment, but before he can even file a grievance with human resources he is shoved out the door and given a few warning shots to encourage him to run for his life.

I note that in scenes where Mason is pausing to catch his breath after running for a few minutes, Ice-T is unable to convincingly portray the concept of being winded. He pants a lot, but it just looks like a well-rested actor breathing a little heavily. It’s hard to fault the filmmakers for this, though; they probably didn’t think to put Ice-T on one of those running things before they cast him.

hall of heads

Mason’s one good idea is to double back to the cabin, as that’s the last place the six crazy hunters would think to look for him. When he gets there, he smashes open a locked room in search of weapons and discovers many shelves lined with the heads of previous victims, each in a separate jar, just like in “Futurama.” Mason’s natural response is to burn the place down, eliminating the evidence so the murderers can never be prosecuted. Quick thinking!

From there, the film takes on a Rambo-ish tone as Mason manages to outsmart and eliminate his hunters one by one. This would make more sense if Mason had any survival experience other than living on the streets of Seattle, subsisting on discarded lattes and remnants of vegan doughnuts, but the fact is we’re not given many details on Mason’s life before he became homeless. All we know is that he had a wife and child who died in a fire (but not one that he set in order to destroy a room full of severed heads), and that he apparently picked up a lot of skills involving weapons, explosives, hand-to-hand combat, and the types of traps that Wile E. Coyote used to set for the Road Runner. Unlike the coyote, Mason’s traps are successful. Also unlike the coyote, Mason’s favorite word is “motherf*****.” (Wile E. Coyote favored “s***head.”)

Father Hauer

At the end of the movie, after escaping from Mason and returning to Seattle, Burns is dressed like a Russian priest. It’s apparently a disguise — apparently he’s a man who wears a lot of disguises, although it’s the first time the movie has mentioned it. He was wearing a business suit when we first met him, and typical hunting garb after that. But I guess the rest of the time, he wears various disguises. He wears this one just long enough for Mason to catch up with him and kill him. All I could think of was the film’s poor costume designer, who got a list of outfits called for by the script, saw “Russian priest – Rutger Hauer size,” and must have been puzzled. “Why does the movie need a Russian priest costume?” she might have mused. Then she would have looked at the script, found the scene in question, and thought: “Even after reading the scene in question, I still don’t know why they need a Russian priest costume.” For the two minutes Hauer wears it, he’s in dim lighting so you can barely even see it. This is the sort of thing that can demoralize a person. Wherever you are, costume designer for “Surviving the Game,” I salute you.