What It’s About: When an undercover CIA agent’s assassination target is almost assassinated by other CIA agents, he decides to try and save the guy for no reason.
Who It’s For: People clinically addicted to the sound of silenced pistols firing blanks.
Benjamin Franklin said that nothing is certain except death and taxes. But that was before Wesley Snipes. If you hate taxes like Wesley hates taxes, the only thing that is certain is death. (Though I sometimes think Mr. Snipes believes he IS Blade, a Daywalker he has played in films. Therefore, not even his death is certain.) 2010’s Game of Death does not address Snipes’s recent tax troubles. It focuses mostly on death.
The title of the movie led me to believe I was in for Saw-style puzzle-traps, or at least some Hard Target-esque drifter-hunting. (Man is the most dangerous game of all.) Sadly, neither was the case. In fact, after watching this movie, I’m unclear on what exactly the game of death was. Certainly, lots of people die in the movie, but mostly in pretty routine CIA-versus-corrupt-CIA shootouts. (I did not think the CIA involved itself so intensely with domestic criminal matters, but I am willing to allow this movie was not 100 percent accurate in its depiction of federal jurisdictions.)
Is being in the CIA a game of death? Is death what one uses to play this game, or is it the outcome? I wouldn’t call Russian Roulette a game of death, for example. It’s a game of firing a gun at your brain; death is just a frequent result. Or maybe death is the currency of this game? Is poker a game of chips or of cards? Is the film saying the very act of living is a game of death? Or perhaps going to Detroit, where this film is set, is the realest game of death of all.
Like all great films, Game of Death opens with a flashback, where there is some shooting. Most of the film is told in flashbacks, but sometimes there are other flashbacks within the flashbacks to things that are never explained? I realize I am being vague, but so are the flashbacks. Aren’t flashbacks supposed to explain things? “Why does this character hate cab rides? Oh a flashback to a time he had a bad cab ride, I get it now.” (I came up with that scenario off the top of my head. I am an incredible filmmaker.) It does not help that the film mostly flashes between different situations in which people are shot with silenced pistols. In fact, this movie is almost entirely CIA agents firing silenced pistols at one another from around corners. I guess, because these characters so often duck behind corners and fire their guns at other people behind corners, when they do it it reminds them of other times they did the same thing, hence the flashbacks. Either way, the flashbacks raise more questions than they answer. Game of Death is a lot like Lost. “Kate, we have to go back to the terrible movie.”
Marcus (Wesley Snipes) awakens from his flashback and starts watching a pick-up basketball game between a priest (Ernie Hudson in an uncredited cameo) and a bunch of kids. The scene lasts about seven minutes and the basketball is horrible. It is all missed layups and stiff-wristed dribbling. (“Detroit Casting Call: children who have only had the game of basketball described to them by my mom.”) It’s filmed like we are watching a great game, but I think the priest accidentally kicks the basketball at least twice. At the end of the game, the priest hands the kids money. I don’t think that’s how priests work. Did he bet on the game? “Hey kids, I bet you this game won’t be terrible and won’t last that long.” You lost, old man.
This confusing display of poor athletics and misguided charity convinces Marcus that the priest is a good man. He confronts the priest in his church and the priest asks him if he wants to confess. “I’m beyond redemption. I’m an undercover agent for the CIA. I used to believe in something. Not anymore.” Slow down, Marcus! Say a prayer first, or something. Also, shouldn’t CIA agents keep their undercover identities a little closer to their vests? So far, all that you know about the priest is that he’s terrible at basketball. I’m sure lots of bad guys are terrible at basketball.
We cut to another flashback. Marcus is a CIA agent returned from some dangerous mission. His handler tells him to assassinate an arms dealer or diplomat or both named Smith (Robert Davi, the pockmarked Edward James Almost) and a corrupt hedge-fund manager named Redvale (Quinn Duffy). The two are about to complete a $100 million gun deal to change the tide of some made-up foreign war. Evil hedge funds are always up to no good. Now, I am all for vilifying secretive financial services companies with the power to sway and destroy national economies, but this movie doesn’t seem to actually have a
firm grasp on what hedge funds do. The movie is definitely under the impression that the biggest, most evil hedge fund in the world is one guy based in an office building in Detroit and that the basement of that building has a vault containing billions in cash that looks like the business center at a Radisson and is guarded by two rent-a-cops. One character says, “These guys are all about power. They are like the Mafia in Sicily. They control everything, but they live in shacks.” Yes, hedge fund managers are known for having modest homes.
Within a week or two of receiving this assignment, Marcus is undercover as Smith’s most trusted bodyguard. What? Marcus is literally cleaning his gun while sitting alone with Smith on his private jet. Now, or anytime leading up to this, would be a great time to kill him. Instead, Smith has a heart attack on his way to make the deal with Redvale and Marcus fights to save him. “Not on my watch. I mean, explicitly on my watch, but not right now!” Meanwhile, the CIA handler is murdered and evil CIA agents start trying to kill Smith and Marcus. Marcus gets Smith to the hospital, but he then gets a little lightheaded. “Do you have a candy bar or something? I’m diabetic.” He says that! This elegantly presented character trait really flushes out Marcus’s characters and makes him infinitely likable and human. A nurse offers to “give him a treatment.” (This movie understands diabetes as well as it understands hedge funds.) She leads him to an empty and disorganized area of the hospital, because, the nurse says, the hospital has been under renovation and today is the day everybody is getting “moved over.” That line of dialog is an extremely airtight explanation for why most of this film takes place in an abandoned hospital with no extras.
The evil CIA shows up and starts trying to find Smith and kill Marcus. There are about 30 minutes of scenes where people hide behind corners and shoot guns with silencers on them at each other. It’s brain-meltingly boring. Multiple times characters behind cover yell, “Can’t we just talk about this?” No, we can never talk about this, not after you’ve tried killing them, a lot. I believe in peaceful conflict-resolution, but at this point anybody who thinks we can just talk about it deserves to get shot. We still don’t know why Marcus is trying to find Smith and make sure he’s safe. There is no further mention of Marcus’s diabetes.
Marcus stumbles into the psych ward floor of the hospital, where the mental patients are wandering around the halls and licking the paint off the walls. One keeps yelling at him, “Can I touch you?” This does not seem like an accurate representation of mental patients or how big-city hospitals work. Even though all the patients are very nice to Marcus, one touches him and Marcus breaks the guy’s wrist. Then he points a gun at the rest of them. What a guy! Maybe he just has low blood sugar.
Marcus is captured by the evil CIA, who we learn just want to steal the $100 million from the deal for themselves. There is a stirring and convincing monologue from somebody about how the CIA is sort of evil anyway so why not. Profound. They were trying to kill Marcus for a while but now they knock him unconscious and frame him for the murder. Now they should kill him right? Xander, the head evil CIA guy, is about to, then has another flashback, one that doesn’t even include Marcus, to a scene at a nightclub, and he decides not to pull the trigger. Hmm. Why did you put the smoking gun in Marcus’s hand if he’s going to wake up later? He will probably put the gun down. This makes no sense.
Xander was also trying to kill Smith, but instead they pump him full of drugs so he can complete the deal with Redvale. They show up at Redvale’s office with Smith, and Redvale does not buy that Smith is okay and calls off the deal. So Xander turns it into a normal robbery. Why didn’t they just rob Redvale in the first place? Redvale has one fat security guard, and then two more fat security guards down in his vault containing a billion dollars. Xander shoots all of them with a silenced pistol. Marcus makes it over there. Almost everybody gets shot with a silenced pistol.
The showdown ends with Marcus facing off against Xander in a karate fight on the roof. There is a bunch of kicking. There are virtually zero punches or takedowns. Don’t these guys know that most fights end on the ground? Xander does a split and hits Marcus in the balls, so Marcus breaks his arms, legs, and neck, in that order. As he’s wanted for the hospital murders and the robbery, Marcus goes on the run.
Now we are caught up to present day. The priest digests this whole confession. If the confession was anything like the movie, it must have been insufferable. “Then, Father, I jumped out from behind the corner and shot at the one guy but not the guy from before, but just as I did that he hid behind his corner, then I went behind my corner and so when he came out from behind his and shot me it didn’t hit me because I was behind a corner. Amen.” The priest forgives Marcus, and Marcus walks out of the church, having left behind the duffel bag of gun money he did end up stealing at the end. Presumably, the good priest will find the donation and be like, “I’ve got a lot of terrible basketball to play if I want to get rid of all this cash. Amen.”
When You Should Watch This Movie: Game of Death is filled with plodding action, sluggish fight scenes, and pointless slow-motion, so it is ideal for when you want to watch a karate movie but you just got your eyes dilated at the doctor’s office and fast movement gives you a headache.