"Surviving the Game" (1994)
“Surviving the Game” (1994)

A worthy flashback given the current racial and political climate in the USA, in light of the election of one Donald J. Trump as leader of the so-called “free world.” It’s also the film’s 23rd birthday, released in theaters on this day in film history, April 15, 1994.

“Surviving the Game,” directed by Ernest Dickerson, is a loose adaptation of Richard Connell’s much-adapted 1924 story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” this one starring Ice-T, Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey and Charles S. Dutton. It’s a b-grade genre flick; but I’d also consider it something of a guilty pleasure, with Ice-T being the weakest link in terms of the strength of the performances. This was made 3 years after “New Jack City” (another guilty pleasure), and Ice was still relatively new to this particular game, although he appeared in 4 other films during that 3-year period.

But it’s one of several adaptations of Richard Connell’s short story, with a basic concept that has been borrowed for numerous films – inverting what were fashionable big-game hunting safaris in Africa and South America by wealthy Americans in the 1920s. The original tale follows a big-game hunter from New York City who lands in an isolated island in the Caribbean, where he is hunted by a Russian aristocrat.

Essentially, human lives are deemed negotiable or even worthless, and they become prey for other humans.

The 1994 film adaptation itself isn’t great (this was 2 years after Dickerson directed the superior “Juice,” his directorial debut), but the ideas it introduces are deep and inspire debate. Whether Connell’s original story was written to make some social commentary is kind of irrelevant, given just how much of a powder keg the ideas presented are, without him needing to make any explicit affirming statements or otherwise. It’s oozing with class under- and overtones.

You have one man seemingly believing that man is superior to animals and thus man has the right to hunt animals; and then you have another man who believes that his fellow man makes for the most interesting game to hunt because of man’s ability to reason, therefore providing a different kind of challenge that no mere animal can match. So the hunter of animals is hunted by a fellow hunter who hunts men, and so the hunted man maybe experiences the fears that animals experience while being hunted.

By casting Ice-T, a black man, as essentially the prey, Ernest Dickerson’s adaptation adds a racial component to Connell’s original story, and so it’s oozing with both class and race under- and overtones; although the underlying race-play comes with a twist in the fact that one of the hunters is also a black man in Charles S. Dutton. But I suppose that relationship is more of a class struggle.

Ice-T plays a homeless man who is hired as a survival guide for a group of wealthy businessmen on a hunting trip in the mountains. However, he soon finds out that the men are killers who hunt humans for sport, and that he is their new game.

I wonder if the story in reverse would/could ever be made into a film – 4 black men hunting a white man for sport; is America ready for that story? How would that be received?

Watching it, I kept thinking of films like the 2007 French thriller titled “Them,” as well as Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” and even the Übermenschian themes in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” (itself based on a play inspired by the Leopold & Loeb murder case of the early 20s).

The obvious commentary on the seeming insignificance of black lives in the eyes of the (mostly white) rich and powerful aside, the film also conjures up thoughts on the results of our being desensitized to increasingly graphic depictions of violence. Essentially, the idea that we’ve become so bored with existing “game;” video games, for example. What excited us at first, no longer does, so we seek games with even more action and more violence, as they gradually start to replicate the real-life experience of killing. Until we get bored with that experience, seeking more of a thrill, more of a challenge, more of a high, and eventually turning to/on each other for sport.

Although, unlike “Them” and “Funny Games,” in the end, the “prey” in Dickerson’s film survives, effectively becoming the hunter, turning the tables on his predators, which the audience naturally should cheer.

Check out “Surviving the Game” on its 23rd birthday as a genre film. While not Dickerson’s best, it’s definitely a piece of work with relevant ideas worth pondering. After all, there’s really no such thing as “mindless entertainment.” Despite its themes, the film didn’t make much of a splash when it was released. It was mostly panned by critics (27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and earned a measly $7.7 million at the box office. It’s available on various home video formats.

Here’s its trailer as a refresher: