The kids aren’t alright in the gruesome Game of Death.
Let’s bitch it out…
How you feel about the nihilistic youth of Game of Death may influence how successful you find this feature debut from up and coming Quebec directing duo Sebastien Landry and Laurence Morais-Lagace. Our protagonists are drug-taking, beer bong gulping, sex-obsessed protagonists who stumble upon a game that literally demands deaths in order to win. You’re just as likely to cheer for the assholes to die as you are to celebrate the killing spree they go on in order to save themselves.
The premise of the film is familiar, but genius. A group of hard partying teens find an old board game with a simple set of rules: kill the number of people dictated by the game (a shockingly high 24) within the designated amount of time or the players will die one by one. Despite an unexpected blood donation when the game is turned on, no one takes the rules very seriously; this changes quickly after a few heads pop in fantastically gory fashion and they realize just how lethal the game is. From there the teens divide into two camps: one that accepts that they are likely going to die and one that sets off to win by slaughtering everyone they encounter. As you might expect, the two groups come into conflict as the number ticks down, with a number of (too frequent) pauses along the way for characters to pontificate on their choice, fate, and death.
The film works best in the opening scenes as we hang out with the teens lounging by the pool, as well as on video. These brief intros offer a sense of who everyone is while establishing a Dionysian spring break-ish vibe. No one is taking anything seriously and the shaky cam footage and fast cuts are equally reminiscent of music videos and teen films. The party before the storm, as it is, makes the spectacular first few deaths that much more awesome, starting the film off with a few literal bangs (gorehounds will be very pleased by the excellent special effects, especially those exploding noggins).
Game of Death is obviously capitalizing on the familiar narrative trope in which teens/players are required to kill or be killed (see also: The Running Man, Battle Royal and the early entries of The Hunger Games franchise). It hews closest to the Japanese film in its embrace of gory violence, with liberal amounts of blood and visceral gratuitously spread around, but it lacks Royal’s awareness of social satire and compelling character arcs.
More problematic is the start/stop nature of the narrative, which struggles with pacing issues and mistakenly opts to pit the two groups of teens against each other rather than force them to come together to complete a disagreeable task. Unlike last year’s more successful The Belko Experiment, which pitted corporate employees against each other, Game of Death loses its nerve at the climax, leaving the audience uncertain who to relate to or why. Do we cheer when two teens tear through a palliative care unit in an orgy of violence captured in an (admittedly excellent) animated montage that is alternately surreal and videogame-like, or are we meant to be horrified? Should we cheer when a young child is saved from violence at the expense of one of the players, or do we mourn the loss of one of the few remaining teens?
These kinds of uncertainties occur frequently in Game of Death. The screenplay dedicates equal time to killing pair Tom (Sam Earle) and his sister Beth (Victoria Diamond) as it does to the reticent pair Ashley (Emilia Hellman) and Tyler (Erniel Baez Duenas). This is seemingly done in oreds to prompt the audience to question what they would do in such a situation, but the messaging is skewed, resulting in a watered down climax that is surprisingly lethargic in its pacing. This is a shame considering that there is no external conflict to drive the film, what with the absence of authority figures throughout most of the film (a kindly Park Ranger is initially positioned as a foil, but she is swiftly dispatched).
The Bottom Line: There is a lot to like about Game of Death – the gore, the premise, the opening scenes – but Landry and Morais-Lagace’s project is undermined by poor pacing, bland narrative arcs and a lack of conflict. I will, however, afford it bonus points for randomly featuring exclusively female State Troopers in the climax and a hot shirtless Santa in the closing reel.