THE GAME (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, and for some Violence and Sexuality

Directed by: David Fincher

Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Donat, Carroll Baker, Armin Mueller-Stahl & Anna Katarina

Despite getting off to a rocky start with ALIEN 3, director David Fincher demonstrated his masterful cinematic storytelling in 1995’s crime-thriller SE7EN. Audiences seemed primed and ready for a follow-up thriller from Fincher, but 1997’s THE GAME grossed below studio expectations and typically isn’t one of the first titles that gets brought up in conversations about Fincher. While it certainly isn’t on the same high quality as Fincher’s perfect thrillers, THE GAME is a tense ride that keeps your eyeballs glued to the screen. In some ways, THE GAME feels like the feature-length version of a good TWILIGHT ZONE episode, which means that it comes with many positive qualities and a few noticeable problems.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a super wealthy banker who (despite living in a huge mansion and having a lavish lifestyle) just can’t seem to relax and enjoy life. When Nick’s younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) comes to town, it appears that Nick’s life just might change in exciting and potentially dangerous ways. Conrad gives Nick the unique birthday present of an interactive game that’s specifically tailored for each player. The strange gaming company CRS soon infiltrates Nick’s life seemingly everywhere he turns. Soon enough, Nick is being thrust into deadly scenarios and begins to doubt that he’ll survive this sinister “game.”

I’ve only seen a handful of Michael Douglas performances (I still need to watch WALL STREET), but THE GAME’s protagonist seems perfectly made for this actor’s style. Douglas comes off as a convincing tightwad, rich guy asshole and I was wondering if I’d be able to feel anything for this prick of a protagonist during the film’s first fifteen minutes. However, Douglas’s character does reveal a more human, emotional side as this “game” pushes him to his breaking point (both mentally and physically). Douglas gets to show a range of acting as his character goes through periods of depression, desperation, fear, anger, and determination. Michael Douglas acts his ass off and it’s a joy to watch.

The supporting cast doesn’t exactly have a big range of names as a lot of CRS employees and business colleagues only show up for a single scene or a couple of brief moments. Sean Penn makes the most of his small role as Nick’s desperate brother and gets to deliver a bombshell scene midway through that makes the already intense thriller even more intense. Deborah Kara Unger plays Christine, a waitress caught up in the middle of the game and also a potential love interest for Douglas. James Rebhorn is appropriately creepy as a CRS spokesman who introduces Douglas’s character to the potentially fatal “game.”

Because THE GAME is a David Fincher film, you can bet your bottom dollar that the cinematography looks slick and atmospheric. Fincher’s distinct visual style (that often has a unique feeling of bleakness to it) adds a layer of seriousness to material that (to be honest) dangerously comes close to being goofy and over-the-top. The viewer really needs to suspend their disbelief at certain points in the script to make this story work, but that doesn’t lessen the constant suspense. Much like Nick, we never quite know what is real and what is part of the “game.” We only have an idea that this won’t end well for the formerly Scrooge-like protagonist who’s finding his humanity as he’s trying to save his own skin.

THE GAME’s problems stem from plot holes that rear their ugly heads during the final minutes. The script went to the trouble of including lines of dialogue that fill in certain gaps and let the viewer know that there were other possibilities during certain scenes. However, a couple of big moments seem to rely on certain characters being omnipotent. One major scene has similar flaw that was pointed out and made fun of in DUMB AND DUMBER (of all things, and that film came out three years earlier than THE GAME’s release). I couldn’t help but think back to one line of dialogue and laugh my ass off, because that scene in THE GAME really falls apart when you think about it.

THE GAME is another solid thriller in David Fincher’s stellar filmography, even though it’s not quite on the same level of his other thrillers (e.g. SE7EN, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, GONE GIRL, etc.). There’s lots of suspense and entertainment to be found in this film, but you do have to buy into some pretty far-fetched ideas and silly coincidences (particularly in the action-driven finale). Michael Douglas’s performance is so good that it’s worth watching the entire film just to see it. However, constant twists (as silly as they get) and the thick atmosphere are likely to keep you hooked. As silly and ridiculous as THE GAME can be, it still remains a damn good thriller that’s worth watching. If you can overlook certain plot points, you might love it more than I did.

Grade: B+

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