Not only is the price of film stock exorbitantly high (for those who haven’t embraced HD video) but when it comes to direct-to-disc action B-movies, filmmakers also know that they can only hold our attention for just so long that the running times of these titles are purposely kept short.
With this in mind, it's more important than ever to follow one of filmmaking's golden rules. Namely, in order to avoid sounding like that one relative we all have that aches to tell the same story again and again -- unless it's a critical piece of the growing puzzle that will payoff eventually in some spectacular way -- the final cut of a movie should never repeat the same information twice.
And in the latest kick-ass, bullets-blazing (pre-incarceration) Wesley Snipes testosterone-a-palooza B-picture Game of Death, screenwriters Jim Agnew and Megan Brown and director Giorgio Serafini followed that rule perhaps a little too well.
Essentially by giving us three beginnings to the movie, we first meet Snipes’s undercover CIA Agent Marcus Jones in a trio of different timelines that we’re unsure we’ve actually pieced together in the right way until just before Game reaches its fifty minute mark.
Finally we gather that although the film is bookended by events in “present day," it's mostly comprised of an extended flashback while Jones “confesses” everything that happens to a preacher without the actual benefit of an occasional voice-over track to clue us in as visually we follow Jones on a CIA mission gone horribly wrong.
Sent undercover for bodyguard duty, Jones is assigned by his world-weary, cynical agency mentor to gain the trust of arms dealer Smith (Robert Davi) by becoming his “close protection specialist” while simultaneously gaining inside knowledge on Smith's relationship with a corrupt hedge fund corporation looking to exploit the African oil trade.
And just seconds after Jones (and by extension the audience) begins to process the details of the operation, the film seemingly fast-forwards to what appears to be the end of the mission wherein the rules of the game have changed.
Double-crossed and framed for murder by fellow spies Floria (Kill Bill stuntwoman and Deathproofactress Zoe Bell) and Zander (kickboxer turned Expendables actor Gary Daniels), Jones quickly finds himself holed up in a hospital, which only makes his fight to survive that much more symbolic.
Fortunately for the writers but unfortunately for the action choreographers and technical consultants, our confusion over Game’s timeline are soon usurped by our dubious wonderment regarding just how many bullets Jones’s weapon actually holds as he begins picking off traitors one-by-one Die Hard or (more appropriately) Passenger 57 style without the need of a reload.
Yet thankfully, because we are dealing with some extraordinarily gifted martial artists in the form of Snipes, Bell and Daniels (among others), the filmmakers switch up the smack-downs throughout as it moves from magical ammunition gunplay to impromptu mini-UFC fights.
Mixing in some awkward humor – including some that’s actually intentional – along with escalating tension, the characters journey from one set to one of very few others that are nonetheless used superbly well in changing the feel of the movie from a sort of western high noon standoff in the hospital to a hostage heist thriller in boardrooms and vaults.
However, whether it’s because Snipes was understandably focused on troubles offscreen or he knew this wouldn’t be one of his more memorable titles, his performance in Game of Death lacks the appealingly effortless charisma that Snipes has exuded throughout his career.
And this unfortunate on-set "performance anxiety" issue appears to have been a contagious one as the other actors look like they’re just going through the motions... whenever they’re not doing their own stunts that is.
Or perhaps it was simply the confusion over both the initially indistinguishable timeline and the way that Snipes’s prop gun never ran out of ammunition that is finally to blame for the absence of enthusiasm from those involved that can account for this workmanlike effort.
Filling in for Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara who left the project after only a few weeks of production to pursue something else, Serafini does what he can with a visibly limited budget (hence: invisible ammo).
But as the movie continues on you begin to wonder if – like us – Serafini would’ve also benefited from a little repetition as opposed to the fill-in-the-blanks structure, which only offers information on a very need-to-know basis.
While Sony augments what can ultimately be chalked up to a mediocre Saturday afternoon time-waster with a superb Blu-ray transfer, in the end the movie that could’ve been so much better has to just settle for being simply better than last year’s other hospital thriller, Abandoned, starring the late Brittany Murphy.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.