Hunting Games (2023) Review
Hunting Games was directed and written by Justin Lee (Apache Junction, Apache Junction) and stars Chris ‘C.T.’ Tamburello (The Most Dangerous Game, Habitual), Ed Morrone (Final Kill, Hellblazers), Randy Charach (The 2nd, Zombie Tidal Wave), Danny Trejo (The Curse of Wolf Mountain, The Legend of La Llorona), Bruce Dern (Mid-Century, The Weapon), and Tito Ortiz (Robotapocalypse, Trauma Center). It’s about a hunter, a group of mercenaries, and the cops all fighting over the same target: a big bag of cash.
The Plot: Cash is king, as they say, and filmmakers tend to agree, coming back to the idea of a misplaced lump sum often; so many plots revolve around the fantasy that it’s hard to make it new again – a truth that Hunting Games exemplifies.
On the heels of a job that netted Henry (Dern) a load of cash at the cost of hired gun Austin’s (Ortiz, present for a whole three minutes) wounding by FBI agent Howell (Charach), mercenary Darby (Morrone) and his crew are in town to pick up the quarry undetected before the agent can find him. Lee tries a little harder than normal to set up a new collision course, with the townspeople’s fondness for open season a holiday of sorts, finding huntsman Will (Tamburello) setting up his camp right next to Hunting Games’ MacGuffin.
Deer are the desired take, but Will stumbles upon the drop and gathers it for himself, putting the mercs on his trail. It’s simple stuff, and it stays that way even with the addition of other parties like local sheriff Munoz (Trejo) and his force, but it doesn’t need to be any more complex or convoluted than that. However, it could’ve used some kind of escalation to raise it above being as generic and forgettable as it is. Hunting Games doesn’t squander the title of something like The Most Dangerous Game, but there’s just nothing to set it apart from the beginning until the predictable ending.
The Characters: A familiar premise should come with a slightly less bland set of characters, but as has been the pattern for Lee’s scripts, there’s hardly anyone that stands out as something more than the bare minimum of characterization.
Will is as milquetoast as a protagonist can get since there’s barely any development or even personality attached to him. Aside from his introduction which displays his profession as a soft-spoken logger and a grieving widower (like I said: milquetoast), Hunting Games never even provides a motive beyond the obvious for his choice to stick with the money, even when Darby provides a chance to hand it over. This doesn’t make him unlikeable – an everyman is preferable to a ruthless killer – but neither the script nor Tamburello does much to endear the character to the audience.
Villainous personalities are barely visible, as the closest the film comes to creating an opposing force is a weak and ill-explained partnership between Henry and Darby. What doesn’t track is the old man’s decision to stick with Darby, who apparently has worked for him over the span of a decade, since neither of them get along. Henry opted to hire Austin despite Darby’s presumably solid record, which seems like an easy way out of maintaining threat levels and having to write an authentic error. It doesn’t help that the three mercenaries aside from Darby aren’t even given names, leaving the intimidation to a questionable bet.
Federal and police presences are basically forgotten for most of the runtime, as Munoz essentially tells Howell that the cops aren’t going to be able to do much in the vast woods in which they supposedly protect, and Howell doesn’t showcase special agent tactics or skill. Law enforcers show up for a few action scenes, but at least they aren’t really meant to be attached to, whereas the other parties that require that effort hardly register.
The Action: Free reign is given for the setpieces since the movie makes a note of the wilderness being out of range for cellphones and the internet and too well concealed for satellite services to be of use (a fact that is later proven untrue), but Hunting Games doesn’t have much imagination for conflict.
Leeway can certainly be given for a low-budget effort’s necessary delay in action but said action should bring a bit more fury to compensate for the wait. Hunting Games doesn’t have much of a payoff in that regard; though it does start with a bang, in slow motion for maximum effect, it’s not a big one, nor does it do literally anything to any of the characters, including putting them in danger of the blast radius. At least it’s something.
Cat and mouse gunplay makes up the rest of the encounters here, and they’re all essentially the same. Will runs away from his pursuers, thinking he’s farther away from them than he really is, either takes a shot in his backpack or sees one hit a tree next to him, returns fire, and runs away again so the cycle can repeat itself. It’s like some kind of action movie purgatory. Since ammo wasn’t intended to be expended in large quantities by the mercs, one might think it’d run out, but that’s not the case. Lee just rinses and repeats until the movie reaches civilization again.
A big finale isn’t in the cards for Hunting Games, but it does at least manage to bring together all of the movie’s factions for a sort of showdown in town. It suffers from the same limitations, but at least there’s some potential for collateral damage here, even though the dullness of the proceedings is never alleviated, making for a poor example of low-wattage action filmmaking.
The Technics: Evidently some revenue is being generated with Lee’s frequent releases, and the assumption would be that the profits would be put into subsequent outings, but Hunting Games is as chintzy as the director’s feature debut.
Wooded locations are no stranger to the helmer’s eye, and the one he favours is no longer one of my own after a few of these movies. Picture clarity and blocking remain decent, probably owing to whatever camera cinematographer Eamon Long (Hunters, A Tale of Two Guns) frequents, but the result is a thoroughly interchangeable looking product whose moments of beauty and spectacle come from nature instead of deliberate decision making.
Audio is another issue with the movie, as there isn’t any sort of consistency in aural aspects. Dialogue ranges from muted to acceptable in terms of the mixing, and the music, which sounds exclusively like stock material (there’s no credited scorer that I could find) rarely fits with the setting or mood. One of the few bright spots is the use of practical blood, but because of the lack of casualties or impressive makeup effects, it doesn’t really add up to anything.
In the long line of duds from director Justin Lee comes another hot off the presses. Hunting Games retains the same blandness in all departments with no upward filmmaking trend in sight.