The Most Dangerous Game was directed and written by Justin Lee (Hellblazers, Hunters), who adapts his script from the short story of the same name by Richard Connell, and stars Chris ‘C.T.’ Tamburello (Habitual), Casper Van Dien (Assailant, The 2nd), Elissa Dowling (Slice and Dice, The Electric Man), Judd Nelson (A Tale of Two Guns, Relentless), Randy Charach (Zombie Tidal Wave, Beyond the Law), Tom Berenger (Sniper, Eye See You), and Bruce Dern (Mid-Century, Last Shoot Out). It’s about a shipwrecked father and son fighting to survive being preyed upon by a big game hunter seeking a new thrill.
The Plot: Sometimes it’s reworked, other times its appearance is from influence; the ubiquitous short story of man hunting man is no stranger to screens. However, direct adaptations of the literary classic are far less common, making this outing a bit different though no less predictable.
Cruising towards the Kodiak Archipelago to hunt the local brown bear, sportsmen Sanger (Tamburello), Marcus (Nelson), and Rex (Charach), along with friend Whit (Dern) are arraigned to their island destination via shipwreck leaving the trappers stranded and Whit dead. See you later Dern, thanks for the 8-ish minutes of screen time. Heading towards the sound of gunfire, the three men run into Von Wolf (Van Dien), who they come to discover doesn’t have the best intentions. Audiences, on the other hand, will have already known that from countless renditions of the premise.
Getting some lengthy back and forth about the nature of the hunt out of the way, Von Wolf “offers” to make a getaway out of the sport and won’t take no for an answer, as seen by his execution of Rex for trying to opt-out. Aside from adding in these extraneous characters for exposition and others like Mary (Dowling) and Benjamin (Berenger) for Sanger to assist, the deviations from the short story are minor. It makes sense to stick close to the source in a direct adaptation, keeping the focus of the movie on Sanger’s survival, but the short story was just that; this movie doesn’t fill the gaps with anything meaningful, making it an acceptable but generic offering
The Characters: Given the chance to properly expand on the characters of the original story, Lee instead shuffles the details and identities for largely semantic differences, trying to find something to say about post-war life, but his script doesn’t wring much from the idea and leaves the characters dry in the process.
Deciding to set the movie some time after World War Two and making Sanger a veteran of the conflict at first seems like an interesting idea, but it backfires before long. Nothing about his time overseas shows from his behaviour in that he doesn’t act like a soldier, encouraging sleeping instead of proactivity and demonstrating minimal survival skills. Backstory is lacking too, with brief flashbacks of the man running and some explosions being the only trait to identify. Detachment from reality is attempted but it’s mishandled, making him seem more lazy than traumatized.
Baron Von Wolf is very clearly a German stereotype. Zaroff’s character in Connell’s story wasn’t much different in all fairness – but the difference here is in the script’s efforts to comment on bloodlust – which doesn’t gel with the eccentricities of Von Wolf, a problem the short story didn’t have to deal with. He’s a bit over-the-top here, with a mean streak since childhood that continued across several different species of animals, leaving him with only one form of game to hunt; although he’s already gone and done it, as shown by the wall of skulls in his abode. He’s a fine villain, crazy and cartoony enough, but has no place in this movie.
Supporting characters are bland in the same way that Sanger is, making the huntsman the spark of the movie since the writing allows for a performance in a way that the rest of the cast didn’t receive.
The Thrills: In a movie like The Most Dangerous Game, it’s not hard to tell what kind of paths the director and the script will take in order to make survival a plausibility and give downtime a level of prescience surrounding incoming adversaries, and Lee has no intention of challenging convention.
Plot stuff and whatever passes for character development make up the first third of the movie, but once Von Wolf begins laying out his proposition for the hunt, the movie gets a jolt out of the death Rex. The sequence is a bloody mess, with the man getting his head pounded into a pulp (though it’s not particularly explicit), Samuel taking a bullet, and Sanger knocked cold. It’s got the brutality that Von Wolf exposited about, backing up the claims of violence with some proof.
Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there, as the pace slows down in order to accommodate the added support of Mary and her brother, although the brother’s inclusion is out of desperation for action, as he lasts all of three minutes; killed in a stupid and predictably shot sequence. The movie should be emphasizing traps and survivalism here but any attempts are feeble as the script gifts the three targets a small cabin full of supplies (including grenades and bullets), effectively nullifying any risk from the setting. Traps only make a single ineffective appearance here too, leaving the core idea hollow.
Lacking a degree of prowess in his chosen field, Von Wolf’s quarters have been decorated with plenty of stuffed animal heads and taxidermied full bodies, but when put up against a protagonist as passive as Sanger he’s reduced to nothing. Even when his targets’ attempts at staying hidden are nonexistent, he still walks right by them without so much as a second glance. After being grazed by a falling tree (the only trap), he retreats from the woods (and the movie for 25 minutes) to dress his wound. That well-executed outburst means nothing when the movie itself doesn’t build on it.
The promise of excitement will always reside in this premise, but aside from one brief moment of tension that isn’t even amongst the main idea of the movie, Lee didn’t fulfill that promise.
The Technics: Pitfalls of independent filmmaking are numerous, but with time and experience, a director and crew should be able to develop a style for their efforts and an ability to work within constraints. Despite churning out over a dozen features in four years, Lee has really only begun to approach this.
Affording equipment can be extremely rough – and it shows in the Most Dangerous Game – since the audio isn’t great, with stock sound effects commonplace and background noise being picked up and left in the final cut, and visuals that don’t amount to much aside from static camera placement in wild exteriors. Action visuals like gunfire and explosions, though barely present, are produced digitally and don’t pair well with the barebones setting that the story requires. It’s a mess from the essential categories.
Writing and dialogue are big issues here too, with the post-WWII setting only barely maintained in speech as characters are given lines that sometimes sound period appropriate and other times sound like a movie written in the modern day. Each conversation stilt walks between eras and makes it hard for the actors to do their jobs.
A faithful adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game is hard to come by, and while Lee sticks closer than most do, that doesn’t make the weak characters, technical facets, and near-complete lack of excitement bearable. There’s always next week’s rendition. And there’s always FilmTagger to suggest something similar but better.