July 14, 2020 Game of Death (Movie Review)
There have been a few films that have tried to piece together what martial arts legend Bruce Lee had intended for his film project Game of Death before his sudden passing in 1973. Not to cause any confusion, the modern Horror film by the same title, is not one of them. It only shares a title with Lee’s sort-of lost film, so skip searching for kung fu and nunchuks.
That in mind, what does French-Canadian Game of Death have instead? It has seven teens playing a board game – the titular ‘Game of Death.’ The players are forced to kill or be killed. If they do not kill someone during their turn, their heads explode. They could kill a stranger, or each other, but someone has to die. Is there a way out for Tom (Sam Earle: Degrassi: The Next Generation series), Beth (Victoria Diamond: Chasse-Galerie 2016, Creeped Out series) and their friends? Or is it all over for them?
Directed Sebastien Landry (Un Parallèle Plus Tard 2014, Polyvalente 2017) and Laurence Morais-Lagace (Dakodak 2012, Rednext Level 2016), who both wrote the script with Edoaurd H. Bond (La Chienne 2013) before Philip Kalin-Hajdu (Skal 2017, YidLife Crisis series) adapted it to the big screen. It originally popped up at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, before it bounced from one festival to the next. Now, Cleopatra Entertainment bringing it to VOD on Tuesday, July 14th, 2020 for a broader audience to view.
It is a relatively brief film, running for 70 minutes or so. Though one might hope the game could start sooner than it does. The film runs on old school teen slasher characterization, in that said teens are grating stereotypes after sex, drugs and plinky-plonky, Danny Elfman-esque music. Not that there are not teens like that. It just might make the audience choose whose head they want to see get blamed first.
Luckily, it does not take long for things to pick up. The direction does a fair job building up tension between ‘turns,’ be it with a long, creeping zoom as things increasingly go awry, or the board’s ticking countdown. However, it is a sort of two-steps-forward, one-step-back deal, in that for each successful bit of direction, there is something that dispels the illusion. Working in vertical-frame smartphone footage works since they are teens on holiday. Then the first-person view sequences feel like a gimmick and including snippets of video games like Carmageddon bring back bad memories of Uwe Boll’s 2003 disaster-piece House of the Dead.
Whereas the gore effects look quite convincing from the build-up to the bang, so to speak. The best being the head explosions, as they look believable enough and showcase the direction’s strongest suit in its tension building. The only problem is that some scenes by design cause the suspension of disbelief to break and come crashing down. Like they are laid out in such an over the top way that it looks silly. With more restraint, it might have shocked even steely Horror vets. As it is, they will stifle a chuckle next to their fainted, more squeamish friends.
Still, the effects were good enough to win an award at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. Unlike the performances, which are much rougher. Earle is likely the best of the bunch, despite some stiff delivery in places, as he is the least annoying. Erniel Baez (19-2 series, Bad Blood series) manages to get more tolerable across the runtime too. The rest of the cast range from irritating to wooden no matter how grim the film gets.
Game of Death does have a few more positives to go on. There are some nice animated sequences resembling video games like 2012’s Hotline Miami and 2015’s Undertale (despite the Game of Death being a board game). Some of the plot developments are a little interesting too, working in elements akin to 1994’s Natural Born Killers and 2001’s Battle Royale. The film even gets quite touching as its nears the end. Granted, the actual ending kind of spoils that, but it has its little victories.
That said, one still has to test their suspension of disbelief, tolerance for dodgy acting, and the film’s lesser moments of direction to enjoy its best features. It makes for a confusing and uneven viewing experience overall, which can be hard to put up with. Game of Death is not the worst film about, though that just means it is only preferable to those lower on the totem pole. That is why Cryptic Rock gives it 2.5 out of 5 stars.