The preceding moments were filled with trepidation. A DVD, held solidly in the hand, its contents a fog of ambiguity, returned the gaze I cast upon it. ‘What,’ asked I, ‘is this beast I’m about to watch?’ All this talk of survival, talk of games, words of promised action and forthcoming exhilaration, provided little in the way of answers. The central question, turning my senses wild with speculation, was the following: what game?
Monopoly rarely gives a man cause to fear death. Are we to expect some formula-tweak along the lines of Killer Monopoly? Is that what this is? Persons sit down to play the old property game only to find their rent being paid in blood? In the fashion of the finest Asian spook-fests, the curse of the Killer Monopoly, I presume, would circulate the area, an inner-city suburb, dealing death to a group of teenagers before falling into the hands of a young couple moving into their first home. What better way to break in a new abode than an exciting bout of Monopoly! But oh no, fun and games are not to be. A hotel on that square?! No, don’t do it, you don’t know what evil lurks beneath that red block! Don’t pick up that Community Chest; your husband’s already gone into anaphylactic shock, that’ll finish him!
Such were my expectations. These were the only answers I could summon forth from the bowels of the unknown. But to my great surprise, and also a painful blow to my skills of prediction, it turned out to be untrue. No menacing minutes spent glued to a board game, no city-sized strolls into Mouse Trap, no Scrabble modified to be playable with human organs. The game spoken by this DVD is a wholly different game.
Commiserate not, wise reader, for the games on display are of a quality equal to any flights of the imagination. I dare say not even the playful prose of Nabokov could concoct such an intriguing burst of ludic spirits. Surviving the Game is its own world of play – a sphere of gleeful competition peppered by faces both respected and adored.
All the board games have been retired, yet the logic remains. The screams of chess pieces taken with brutal rapidity echo in the background.
The words of the title imply a subject: who is doing this surviving? Surely the act of surviving cannot be bereft of a survivor, someone to enact the motions necessary to survive? With impeccable logic we discover cloaked in the drapery of survival a man called Ice T, or as his friends call him, Ice Motherfucking T. (No doubt Jacques Derrida devoted huge swathes of unpublished writing to Ice Motherfucking T, him and the metaphysical violence augured by he who is coerced into surviving, to survive, to be a survivor.)
Ice T is a hobo living down and out in the city. Downtrodden in the extreme, he can do nothing to prevent his dog being run over, his best friend dying in his sleep, or the memories of his dead wife and daughter returning to haunt him. One day, Rutger Hauer offers him a job. Ice T’s to lend his assistance to one of Hauer’s hunting trips, to act as a kind of rugged huntsman, someone to do the mundane chores Hauer and his buddies have no time for. So off he goes, flown by Rutger Airlines into the wilderness. Little does he know, they’re not about to hunt rabbits or deer – they’re about to hunt him.
Naturally this is where the film gets interesting. The slow beginning of Ice T’s introduction – the endless bereavements, the establishment of his a-man-with-nothing-to-lose character – fades out as quickly as the twangy guitars that underscore the scene where he’s in the bath. Soon the real meat is on show – the action unequivocally commences.
The bulk of the film is the following: Ice T gets chased through a forest by Rutger Hauer, F Murray Abraham, John C McGinley and Gary Busey.
Sounds like gold? That’s because it is!
Some genius actually thought of this scenario. What majesty of human creativity!
‘Get this, boys,’ the studio exec says. ‘A bunch of awesome actors from the realm of action fiasco and budgetless cinema run after Ice T…and we’ll throw in Charles S. Dutton, fresh off Alien 3…and we’ll give F Murray Abraham a whinny son to represent the liberal conscience; it’ll be magnificent!’
And magnificent it is. Straightaway bloodlust becomes mingled with strategy as each of the two parties attempts to outwit the other. Lit cigarettes are stuck in trees to create a false trail; cunningly-placed footprints do similar. Intellect and instinct run in unison. The hunters live in a dark patriarchal world in which the psyche’s most nefarious attributes are exhibited. Characteristics stigmatised by society are free to roam as colours shift hue from modernity to medieval times, the faces of Homo sapiens fade into those of former incarnations.
Hauer’s feisty leader makes for a joyous villain. He loves the hunt and survival is a sport to him, but his sense of humour remains – he never fails to spit some teasing remarks Ice T’s way. Hauer’s the calm counterpoint to Busey’s frenetic psychologist. Busey explodes on-screen in a tirade of psychobabble, lyrically exposing man’s deepest primal urges. The debris of scattered blonde hair and giant white teeth barely has time to settle before Busey starts once more into another monologue. This time it’s a biographical tale: 8-year-old Busey, still only a child, is forced by his father to fight a bulldog. The mutt prevails for a long time, permanently scarring Busey in the process, before Busey is able to break its neck. For a long time after the story is told, the maniacal glint of Busey’s eyes remains spread across the screen, surviving long into the black of the fade out.
I have no doubt that Busey was just playing himself in this film.
To conclude: Surviving the Game’s slight leftist tendencies are a buoy to my enjoyment. A Wall Street man, a bourgeois psychologist, some CIA-affiliated goons, persist in exploiting a poor man who’s been cast out of society. They look down on him, sneer at his poverty and see in him nothing more than fodder for their games, that is to say, games to them, but to him life and death. Such a political reading is a nice adjunct to the film; however, it is surely the dynamic play of images and Busey that makes the film stand out as a highlight of mid-90s action, to be slotted somewhere between Hard Target and Judgement Night.