Monday 23 November 2020

Game of Death (France/Canada/USA 2017: Dir Sebastien Landry, Laurence Morais-Lagace)

Not to be confused with the 1978 Bruce Lee movie of the same name, Landry and Morais-Lagace's film joins a select group of flicks including 2000's Battle Royale, The Belko Experiment from 2016 and 2012's The Hunger Games, featuring stories where people are pitted against each other in a fight to the death.

Game of Death serves up a gaggle of young people hanging around the pool, drinking and kvetching with each other, as young people do; they all seem pretty disposable characters; of which more later. When pizza - and drug - delivery guy Tyler (Erniel Baez) turns up, the group turns on, and discover an octagon-shaped video board game from the 1980s called, appropriately, 'Game of Death.' In a sort of ouija board set-up, the players place their fingers on paddles arranged in a circle around the board, with a video screen in the middle giving instructions; handily there is a perfect match of people to paddles, so everyone gets to play. There is also a written guide to playing the game, which of course is only read after they've started. When the machine is turned on, each of the players gets a pinprick in their fingers; the blood from the prick enters into the machine, and the central screen shows the number 24.

Pretty soon the group realise, after reading said instructions, that they've entered into a devilish contract with the game; the number 24 relates to the amount of people they need to kill to stay alive. And to start things off one of their number, Matt (Thomas Vallieres) suffers the indignity of his head blowing up, Scanners style; if the group don't start killing others, this will start happening to them, one by one.

Game of Death is, at face value, a pretty simple 'kill or be killed' movie, but look beneath the surface and there are some interesting things going on. Much like the aforementioned movies, it's a discourse on how quickly humans can tap into their basest survival instincts when faced with extinction (a running gag, a nature programme playing on various TVs showing the fate of the manatee, suggests that what we're seeing is just another species' fight for survival). The humans in this case show different levels of willingness to clock up the death numbers until they realise that the killing of others is the means of their own continued existence; and a scene towards the end of the movie, where some of the group enter a palliative care hospital to increase the kill count, feels like a humane conclusion to their plight, only to watch them execute both staff and patients alike, randomly.

The 'villain' within this bunch of the terminally unlikeable people is undoubtedly Tom (Sam Earle), a preppy looking guy dressed in white, who is the first to 'get' the rules of the game, forcing Tyler to drive his pizza delivery van over a pedestrian, only for Tom to finish off the victim himself. Later Tom and his friend Beth (Victoria Diamond) separate from the two other remaining survivors , Tyler and Ashley (Emelia Hellman), with both couples determined to remain alive at the expense of the others. The violence here is graphic and mostly achieved via practical effects, but the overall tone borders on the comic (one victim, a park ranger, is played for laughs); as the deaths increase, there's a growing feeling of participating in a live action video game; indeed an 8 bit animated interlude underlines both that feeling and indeed the way in which we're supposed to view the movie.

Game of Death is undoubtedly scrappy and tonally uneven, but at 73 minutes it knows not to outstay its welcome, and its audacious style and queasy gag violence makes it a strange viewing experience. I actually really liked it. Not quite sure why it's taken so long to get released though, in that it already played two UK film festivals in the last couple of years.

Game of Death is released on digital download from 26 November.

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