Surviving the Game (1994)
★★ / ★★★★
“He’s a homeless piece of shit. He’s nothing. He’s less than nothing.”
And so the hunt begins between predators and prey in “Surviving the Game,” an action-thriller directed by Ernest R. Dickerson that could have benefited from a more polished screenplay. There is an idea worth exploring here: the rich, most of them white, literally hunting down a poor black man like an animal in the woods for the sake of “therapy,” entertainment.
As an action picture, its chase sequences are only mildly entertaining. There are only so many ways to show Ice-T, playing Jack Mason, a military veteran who became homeless after the death of his wife and daughter, running away from the highly privileged men who wish to murder him for sport. About halfway through, not even Ice-T’s approach of embedding humor in Mason’s desperation—as if to acknowledge that the plot itself is preposterous—is able to keep the movie afloat. A pattern emerges: Every other scene a hunter drops dread punctuated by our protagonist sustaining a fall or a minor injury only to end up fighting back again. It becomes somewhat of a bore eventually because there is a flatness in how the chases are shot; there is only occasional catharsis to the much-deserved kills.
The screenplay by Eric Bernt is not written sharp enough for the work to be considered an effective satire. For instance, I enjoyed there is one black man (Charles S. Dutton) among the hunters who is the right-hand man of the ringleader (Rutger Hauer). He is not quite the Uncle Tom character, existing to serve his white master, but neither do we get a sense he is a completely independent figure who is above his black identity. Cole is somewhere in between which makes him rather dull. Why have a minority character among the villains when you are not willing to take it all the way so that there is power behind the punchline? It is a waste of a character; imagine this role being played by a white man and there is only minimal difference.
Another missed opportunity: There is a white teenager among the group who is shocked upon the discovery that this is no typical hunting trip. (His father, played by F. Murray Abraham, requires that he be there because his son is “becoming too much like [his] mother.”) This should have been a key character because a) he is white, b) he is outside of the average age group of the group and c) it is not his choice to attend. Derek (William McNamara), like Cole, is written in a middle-of-the-road fashion and so he has nothing to do other than to utter lines showing disapproval. These potentially curious characters are wasted in terms of the big picture, the message that the movie is trying to communicate in regards to race and class in America.
Or is it actually saying something? I marveled at this question somewhere in the middle because none of the balls being juggled in the air are particularly interesting. Surely there is tension during the setup—up until Gary Busey’s scene-stealing performance where his psychiatrist character, also one of the hunters, explains to Mason why he considers the scar under his eye to be a birthmark—but the latter half is a drag for the most part. For a story that promises thrills and excitement, I witnessed a lack of energy and craft.
Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
After a homeless man (Rutger Hauer) rescued a prostitute named Abby (Molly Dunsworth) from being kidnapped, the crime lord’s sons (Gregory Smith, Nick Bateman) carved the word “scum” across his chest. Hobo, sick of the senseless violence and drugs that plagued the streets, decided he would clean up the city by shooting crooked cops, pedophiles dressed as Santa Claus, and murderers with a shotgun. Written by John Davies, Jason Eisener, and Rob Cotterill, “Hobo with a Shotgun” began with a manic energy so intense, it seemed unknowing in what to do with itself. It was proud to a grindhouse picture; terrible dialogue, laughable acting, and obvious make-up were purposely not reshot. It wasn’t afraid to show breasts for the sake of showing them, gory decapitations, and even a school bus filled with children being torched for mere shock value. Clocking in under an hour and thirty minutes, it was a lot to swallow. Unfortunately, the film only really had one joke so it felt thirty minutes too long. The relationship between Hobo and Abby wasn’t developed in a meaningful way. Having an emotional core is critical in a movie like this because the symbolic father-daughter relationship was a beacon of hope in a city ruled by demons and depressed denizens. Hobo and Abby talked about leaving the city and starting their own mowing business. It was as close as we got to learning about their motivations as a team. The rest of the scenes were fun but they quickly became convoluted. Take the men in the metallic suits. While it was very funny that they kept a giant octopus as their pet (and sparring plaything), they were tedious to watch because barely anything could stop them in their tracks. Who were they and, since they had the brain to build their own weapons, what made them decide that working for a crime lord was a good idea? We didn’t even get to see their faces. The movie started as a fake trailer for another groundhouse movie. Maybe it should have remained that way because the material was stretched way too thinly. The writers were obviously capable of making a statement. That’s why the ironic bloody violence worked. But by allowing the material to go on autopilot, it made me think that perhaps they got lazy. They should have taken more risks by exploring homeless people’s roles in our society. We see them in our streets but when we pass them, most of us pretend not to see them. We force them to take embody the role of the invisible. But hand them a weapon and they suddenly have our attention. Directed by Jason Eisener, “Hobo with a Shotgun” was a gory good time only in its first hour. It ran out of creativity over time which was reflected by a lackadaisical conclusion. Its message was obviously violence never being the answer to violence, but it didn’t need to be so obvious. The writers rested on their laurels.
Blade Runner (1982)
★★ / ★★★★
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was given an assignment by the leader of the Tyrell Corporation (Joe Turkell): to hunt four replicants (Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Brion James, Joanna Cassidy), human-like creatures who lacked natural emotional responses as humans, and “retire” or assassinate them when they reached planet Earth. Rick’s mission became a bit complicated when he started to fall for another replicant named Rachael (Sean Young) who wasn’t aware of her true nature. The first time I saw “Blade Runner” back when I was in high school, I was far from impressed with it. But after having more experience with films, I decided to give it another chance. Unfortunately, I still think it’s an overrated postmodern science fiction picture. Obvious questions were left answered. For instance, how can we discern a replicant from people with abnormal psychology such as those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder? Having only one factor that supposedly determined whether someone was a replicant or not was, for a lack of a better word, foolish. It didn’t sound like science and the screenwriting was to blame. Admittedly, it had influenced the look of gritty sci-fi movies that came after it and I was impressed with its visual and special effects. I felt like I was actually there. But the look of a movie isn’t enough to elevate a material that lacks an emotional core. The way Ridley Scott directed the project left me cold. I tried to buy the budding romance between Rick and Rachael but I didn’t feel friction and tension between them. Rick was supposed to be tortured for falling in love with a replicant and Rachael was supposed to find herself through Rick but their self-discoveries felt like a tertiary element because it lacked focus. As for Rick hunting down the four murderous replicants, I felt like the situation could have been solved in thirty minutes. I didn’t think they were menacing because I didn’t find them interesting. Their mission was to find a way to prolong their four-year lifespan. However, Scott didn’t invest the time for his villains to ponder over their existence. Instead, there was a formula. We observed the villain doing something out of the ordinary and then Rick appeared to perform his assignment. It was one dimensional and I was exasperated with its lack of ambition regarding character development. As a film about dystopian future, instead of looking forward and trying innovative things, it used a formula as a crutch and that’s what I found to be unforgivable. While it might have been visually inspiring, everything else felt insular and inaccessible. Audiences and critics expressed their distate for the film back in 1982 and for a good reason. No amount hyperboles regarding its visual mastery can persuade me that it’s an outstanding, well-rounded picture if I don’t feel something.