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Before ‘The Hunt,’ There Was Ice-T in the Weirdo Classic ‘Surviving the Game’

With an elitely strange cast of Ice, Rutger Hauer, Charles S. Dutton, F. Murray Abraham, John C. McGinley, and Gary Busey and a slew of WTF moments, Ernest Dickerson’s adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game” is equal parts bizarrely funny and moving

New Line Cinema/Ringer illustration

Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” is among the most widely adapted pieces of fiction this side of Romeo and Juliet. Even in the films, TV shows, and other productions that claim to not be reinterpreting it directly, its tropes are unmistakable: a hunter, or a group of hunters, stages games with human prey as their target. Shadows of the story crop up in pieces of major pop culture every year: say, the sadistic games of the patrons of HBO’s Westworld, the racist militia of Watchmen, the upper-crust family’s twisted game in Ready or Not, and the bloody annual melees of the Purge series. Even the most culturally significant horror film of the past decade, Get Out, shares elements with Connell’s story.

But this Friday, the most concrete adaptation of the story in the past decade arrives: The Hunt, directed by Craig Zobel and written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, the team responsible for HBO’s cryptic masterpiece The Leftovers. The of-our-times take on the story that the film attempts to offer resulted in a delayed release and has created confusing and diametrically opposed readings, since it deals in incendiary contemporary caricatures. The plot revolves around MAGA-adjacent “deplorables” being hunted down by a group of elite liberals as part of a game of sorts. Therefore, it’s been read both as an implicit parody of woke liberal culture and as cartoonish open season on American Republicans. (President Donald Trump himself repudiated the movie, without seeing it.)

In The Hunt, the hunters function as representations of the societal mainstream, their bloodsport protected by consolidated wealth. This, too, is true of General Zaroff of both the original story and its first, faithful film adaptation of 1932, but he is an overwrought cartoon villain, hidden away in a remote castle like Dracula. A well-cultured former thug of Czar Nicholas II’s who is obsessed with big-game hunting, Zaroff can only hunt people because he is operating outside of civilized society. Since he is regarded as a war criminal of sorts, it’s no surprise that the two ensuing Hollywood remakes of the story—1945’s A Game of Death and 1956’s Run for the Sun—featured ex-Nazis among their human hunters. Their deaths, then, function like propagandistic catharsis. (Things got weirder in the cinematic takes on the tale from the ’70s and ’80s, which included odd sexploitation angles, aliens, and pseudo-concentration camps in Australia; they are the stuff of a whole other essay, probably.)

In the ’90s, Connell’s story was then remade in Hollywood a couple of times within a year, resulting in two films that aren’t that much less ludicrous than Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity. The first to arrive was 1993’s Hard Target, a star vehicle for martial-arts hunk Jean-Claude Van Damme and action auteur John Woo’s first American film. It revolves around a racket in which billionaires pay thousands of dollars to hunt homeless people in the streets of New Orleans in the middle of the night. In the pre-gun-show (literally and figuratively) exposition, Woo portrays a modern city in turmoil, with a police force on strike and multiple industries in which employees are being laid off. The wealthy class exploits this recession to indulge its pleasures. In place of actual Nazis, blubbering millionaires and their hired thugs spew Ubermensch-y babble that makes them prime candidates for getting their faces kicked in by Van Damme.

If sociopolitical themes were relegated to the margins of the gun-fu ballet in Hard Target, the following year’s Ice-T star vehicle Surviving the Game made them the focal point. Outside of Woo’s film, it was the first major “Most Dangerous Game” adaptation up until that time to use Connell’s story to critique the mores of Western society rather than to implicitly uphold its virtuousness. The movie follows Ice-T’s Jack Mason, a homeless man living on the streets of Seattle, as he’s recruited by soup kitchen volunteer Walter Cole (Charles S. Dutton) and shady businessman Thomas Burns (Rutger Hauer), who organize elite hunting missions in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Of course, Mason eventually realizes that he is their intended prey, and then fights for his life. As if the main triumverate of cast members isn’t strange enough, any possible chance of the movie masquerading as a normal cultural artifact is ruined by the murderers’ row of character actors who play the supporting crew of MRA-esque hunters: Gary Busey as demented psychologist Doc Hawkins, F. Murray Abraham as “one of the most feared men on Wall Street,” and John C. McGinley as a hot-headed, mustachioed oil tycoon. (There are literally no women in this movie.)

For all the kitschy action and the kitschier one-liners, director Ernest Dickerson—a Spike Lee cinematographer who later became an important collaborator on The Wire and The Walking Dead—was clearly not half-assing this project. The rest of his filmography evinces his interest in holding a lens up to American racism in the content of low-budget genre films. See: his acclaimed, Tupac-starring debut Juice; his 1998 crime flick Ambushed, in which a black police officer is framed for the death of a KKK leader; or, most bizarrely, his 2001 Snoop Dogg ghost film Bones. But Surviving the Game is certainly campy and strange enough in its particulars to distract from the sincerity of the mission; there are enough involuntary chuckles and head-cocking WTF moments in its chronology to make it unclear when we are laughing with the movie and when we’re laughing at it.

The film’s primary set pieces—particularly, in its exposition—are too strange to feel like anything other than the result of some deeply-considered metaphorical arithmetic by Dickerson, rather than incompetency. In its opening moments, a sumptuously fake-dreaded Ice-T emerges from a trash pile, only to have his dog get hit by a cab. The cabbie then beats the shit out of him, asking him repeatedly (and inexplicably) for money. Later, Mason and an ex-veteran homeless friend sneak into a factory to grab a hunk of meat, fighting a security guard who is more than ready to kill them viciously; the two then roast the meat over a spit, quite literally evoking hunters in any century bringing a kill back to camp. We watch Dutton’s character, Cole, shadowing him through all of this, and realize that the fact that Mason deals with adversity every day as a homeless person is precisely what makes him a worthy target for the human hunters. This assessment culminates in one of the movie’s weirdest turns: a montage where Rutger Hauer’s character forces Mason to run on a treadmill to prove his “endurance.” We see flashes of time passing as Ice-T half-heartedly trots along to the strains of Police drummer Stewart Copeland’s lightly whimsical Delta-blues-tronic score, which gives us no clues as to whether this is meant to be tragic, hilarious, or both. (Copeland’s score confuses the issue similarly in many other scenes, as well.)

Still, it’s difficult to laugh too hard at the film, even at its wildest moments of mismatched tonality. Cole and Burns’ enterprise is explicitly tied to the business of “helping the homeless,” set in a city whose homeless population was (and is) one of the largest in the nation. There is something uniquely chilling about how earnestly Cole initially seems to be trying to help Mason, talking him out of committing suicide only to leeringly wave a Glock in his face when he awakes on the morning of the hunt. Throughout the film, Dickerson leans into nastier implications than any other Hollywood versions of Connell’s story, in many of which the hunters had nothing against their prey—or in fact, respected them. John C. McGinley’s character can hardly contain his hatred of Mason even before the game starts, stopping just short of a hissed slur: his daughter was killed by a man who looked like him, we’re told. F. Murray Abraham distills the general attitude toward Mason while talking his idiot son (dragged along on the trip in the interests of becoming a man) off an ethical ledge: “He’s a homeless piece of shit … he’s nothing, he’s less than nothing,” he rattles off matter-of-factly. At one point, Hauer’s character sneers about his time in third-world countries: “It’s a cliché that life was cheap there, but life was way beyond cheap.”

The convoluted construction of this last line seems to mirror the tone of the entire film: Yes, Surviving the Game is full of bizarre or hackneyed devices that underscore obvious points—the rich and the society they prop up do, in fact, exploit the poor and marginalized—but that doesn’t make the points less true. And the line itself, like much of the film, is awkward and redundant, but that is part of what makes it so memorable, to the point that it seems to be invested with a weird and singular sense of purpose.

In the forest, while running from the hunters and their ATVs, Ice’s character feels the purity of his primal essence—as Busey’s character puts it—by magically turning into a superhero-like fighter and genius war strategist. Smeared with mud—is it intended to be camouflage? Or has he just been rolling in that much muck?—his performance becomes half stunt double. But in the scenes Ice is definitively in, Dickerson puts a great deal of effort into humanizing his character, zooming in on his twitching thumb when he remembers the trauma of losing his wife and child, even forcing Ice—not exactly a Method actor—as far as possible toward tears. Even weirdly overplayed scenes like the one where Mason symbolically trims his dreads to the strains of smooth jazz—after Hauer’s character gives him money for a hotel room for one night—feel somehow poignant. At moments like this, Dickerson’s enthusiasm for his source material is infectious.

If it is also one of its most absurd, Surviving the Game stands as the most charged and subversive “The Most Dangerous Game” adaptation to date—that is, depending on how political you think The Pest is intended to be or if you could sit through (or have ever heard of) The Eliminator. Rather than exploiting fears of post-war phantoms, it made the 1990s American elite—specifically, a cross-section of privileged ur-bros defining the capitalist establishment—the villain. In Surviving the Game, the horror lives among us, as opposed to on a remote island or planet; the leader of the hunt (Hauer) does not have to retreat from public life to facilitate his vile schemes. Dickerson used a truly strange assortment of tools to try to construct a horror-thriller that doesn’t serve solely as pseudo-propaganda or a simple, Poe-like tale of terror. It’s not clear that either it or its spiritual successor The Hunt know exactly what they are trying to say, but Surviving the Game—including Ice-T’s hair and wardrobe coordinator, Gary Busey screaming likely improvised lines about the importance of staring pigs in the eyes while eating them, and the whole rest of the team—says it with a ton of heart.

Winston Cook-Wilson is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Grantland, and The Guardian.