No, not that Game of Death. Anyone looking for the classic Bruce Lee martial arts movie will be disappointed. No one’s wearing a yellow tracksuit in this joint American-France-Canadian indie horror outing. This Game of Death actually premiered at the SXSW Film Festival way back in 2017. Where it’s been for the last three years is anyone’s guess. But this mix of Jumanji, Natural Born Killers, and a bit of Battle Royale has finally arrived on VOD platforms. At an ultra-trim 73 minutes, Game of Death promises some frenetic gore and gratuitous violence. So was it worth three-year wait?
For several bored Millennial teens, it’s just another day of drinking and sex by the pool. No parents, no rules, no responsibilities. But everything changes when they find a vintage electronic board game. The rules seem simple enough – they each place their finger on a skull around the ‘Game of Death’. And then the game board unexpectedly pricks them. As their blood pools into the game board’s centre, they actually read the rules. All the players have unknowingly agreed to killing 24 people. If a countdown passes on the game board without a murder, one of the players dies. Most importantly, the game isn’t over until they’ve committed 24 murders or they’re all dead. No one buys it until one of the player’s heads suddenly explodes as the timer expires. Now the remaining teens realize they’re playing a game of ‘Kill or be killed’.
Maybe directors Sebastien Landry and Laurence Morais-Lagace wanted to say something about Millennials. Game of Death is an almost unbearably obnoxious parade of teen excess for its first 10 to 15 minutes. If there was some deeper meaning, Landry and Morais-Legace abruptly abandon it once for hyperkinetic visuals and explosive gore. Though some of the CGI mayhem looks obviously cheap, the directors are quite adept at filming around it. Much of the direct violence occurs off screen. And quick editing avoids overexposing these limitations. What’s left is a thick caking of blood and entrails that highlights some good practical effects. Gorehounds should appreciate Game of Death.
Though some of the CGI mayhem looks obviously cheap, the directors are quite adept at filming around it.
Much of Game of Death feels like a sprint with contrasting visual styles. As the movie races forward, the camera work and editing becomes increasingly hyperkinetic. There’s an unexpected point-of-view shot used only once alongside intermittent cellphone video footage. A final massacre in a palliative care facility – which is sickly humorous in and of itself – switches back and forth between live action and retro animation. Things slow down for a what’s a surprisingly tense showdown. And Landry and Morais-Legace seem to visually reference several movies including Natural Born Killers, Battle Royale, and a bit of House of 1000 Corpses. There’s style here to spare. Not all of it gels together. Regardless the movie’s second half is a gleefully perverse exercise in blood and guts.
Game of Death Doesn’t Waste Time on Characters or Deeper Meaning
Standing out amidst the sea of gore – and with such a short runtime – was going to be difficult. For better or worse, Game of Death doesn’t even really try to give us compelling characters. Early quick edits of phone videos is about as much character background as the movie offers. Game of Death introduces us to one character as he masturbates in his bedroom. Afterwards, it’s all sex and beer funneling until the killing starts. Though just about everyone in the movie plays it straight, Landry and Morai-Lagace’s screenplay largely just gives the young actors caricatures to perform.
Afterwards, it’s all sex and beer funneling until the killing starts.
Only a handful of the characters stand out – you likely won’t remember anyone else’s name. By the movie’s climax, the two surviving couples – the enthusiastic players and guilt-ridden survivors – get a chance to impress. Emilia Hellman makes the most of the opportunity. Too bad her monologue about the meaningless of life is, well, kind of meaningless. Game of Death is a movie with no subtext, and it’s last minute efforts to give the mayhem meaning feels pointless. An annoying park ranger with an unusually close relationship with their dog gives the movie it’s most over-the-top character. The character also gives Game of Death it’s most intentionally funny scene.
Game of Death a Stylish, Straightforward Gorefest
For about 15 minutes or so, Game of Death is almost obnoxiously unlikable with its initially deplorable characters and hyper-visual style. But once the killing starts something surprising happens. Game of Death actually becomes a pretty cool little movie. No, it’s certainly not for everyone. Nonetheless, Landry and Morais-Lagace exhibit an excess of dark humour, clever gore, and style in just 73 minutes. In fact, the movie’s climatic showdown feels compelling. And while they borrow concepts and styles, Landry and Morais-Lagace fuse them into a uniquely contemporary movie. Some people will love it, others will hate it. Still Game of Death can likely expect cult status somewhere down the road.