The Game

The Game (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is the forty-eighth birthday of Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas), a filthy rich investment banker in San Francisco, but he is far from a celebratory mood. His father killed himself when he was forty-eight and the trauma of having witnessed the suicide lingers. Conrad (Sean Penn), Nicholas’ only sibling, hands his brother a birthday present. On the card is a name of a company, “Consumer Recreation Services” (CRS), and right below it is a telephone number. With a sly smile, Conrad claims it is the best thing that has ever happened to him and he insists that Nicholas call the number.

The premise of “The Game,” written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, scratched at the deepest layers of my curiosity. The first half is very strong as it is dedicated solely on our protagonist trying to figure out what CRS is exactly and what services it offers. However, the latter section is less engaging as it leans on combing through typical thriller elements like having to run from people with guns. And yet despite this, the myriad twists and turns come right out of left field. As an in-the-moment experience, the strands demand to be untangled.

Its title refers to a game but it is vague in terms of which party is supposed to be having fun. If I were Nicholas and I found a creepy wooden doll on my driveway, I would have called the company immediately and informed them that I would like to quit the game. But not Nicholas. As a man of wealth and power, he seems almost drawn to the dark turns. Douglas does a good job in allowing the pleasure his character feels to be translucent. Because of this subtlety, it is communicated that maybe Nicholas has not taken part in something this exciting for a long time. Though he suspects that the game might be dangerous, it might be worth seeing it through.

One of the most interesting scenes takes place in CRS. There, Nicholas is able to speak with a representative named Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn). Nicholas asks to be explained to him the nature of the game. Jim circumvents the request and simply tells him that the game is specifically tailored for each person. Nicholas does not like this answer. He asks another question. Another roundabout answer. Something does not feel right. There is tension in the push-and-pull between the two.

Chases and shoot-outs are less fun and intriguing. They seem off tonally; it feels as though I were watching another psychological thriller with half a brain. Furthermore, we are subjected to lines like, “You’re the only one I can trust!” For a smart character like Nicholas, it just comes off dopey. Does it not occur to him that at that point in time, no one is to be trusted? Has he not learned anything from the terrible things that just happened to him? Certainly these scenes should have been excised in order to allow better flow.

By the time the ending comes, I was still interested in how the story will end but I felt somewhat exhausted by the twists. They are good twists—surprising—but the irregular pacing of the second half has taken its toll on what should be a lean, tightly controlled thriller. Directed by David Fincher, “The Game” looks great with its brooding darkness and the performances have layers. However, the execution of the two halves proves that giving birth to an ace thriller is not child’s play.

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