Written by: John Brancato & Michael Ferris
Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, James Rebhorn, Deborah Kara Unger, Peter Donat
Entertainment truly belongs in the eyes of the beholder. What one individual might find enthralling, others could experience as a complete bore. It’s what makes finding the ultimate gift for the man who has it all so difficult, which The Game sets to create. Truly a dangerous and twisty game where reality remains unclear for much of the runtime and trying to figure everything out becomes part of the joy in watching the feature.
Cutthroat in his business practices and relationships with others, Nicholas (Michael Douglas) gets a visit from his younger brother, who recommends a life-changing game by a company named Consumer Recreation Services. When taking up the offer to play the game, Nicholas realizes he may have gotten himself into a dangerous predicament.
When a film’s protagonist has the likeability of a snake, building sympathy becomes quite the hurdle for the filmmakers to unleash upon the audience. This becomes the case with Nicholas, who seemingly could care less about the feelings of others with his business practices even to the point of firing a man for a few drops in the stock market price of the company. For anyone who has worked with a man like Nicholas could easily find themselves not liking this character and not feeling bad for the treacherous experience he’s gotten himself into, but The Game does something incredibly effective in building the connection with the audience. This comes from putting the protagonist in such a scary and perilous situation that our basic human need to survive comes through and we just hope this guy survives. Something that felt impossible from the beginning but comes through in such an impressive manner.
Michael Douglas had quite the streak in the 80s and 90s being cast as an arrogant rich man and he does it well again here in The Game. From the menacing looks he delivers to his employees and waiters, Douglas delivers such an intimidating performance as Nicholas, which makes it a bit satisfying to see him taken down a notch through this experience. The man who has it all and the confidence to take on any situation gets put in a place where he practically needs to beg for help from others. Almost like “A Christmas Carol” in some way and Douglas sells the entire experience in such a convincing way.
The contents of the game come as a mystery throughout, as it’s only defined as a life-changing experience by Nicholas’s brother. Even when he completes the physical and necessary psychological evaluations, it remains unclear exactly what the game will entail. It only becomes slightly clear when it begins but knowing what actually fits within the game and what presents actual danger to Nicholas becomes part of the fun. The knife-edge of believability becomes critical to the success of a story like this and The Game finds the right balance to keep it enthralling and allowing just enough doubt to remain throughout the entire viewing experience.
Speaking in too many specifics becomes quite tricky with a feature of this style as many of the turns show the brilliance on display in this feature but should not be spoiled for a viewing audience who has not already seen it. This film manages to create so much doubt in its surroundings while simultaneously presenting the impending danger of Nicholas that allows the different twists to really sell the impact of the game. Part of that comes from the ridiculous nature of what occurs to this man. Several moments beg the question of how in the world could a certain event be part of the game and eventually tally how much it probably cost if it all came as part of the experience.
It all begins with Nicholas arriving and seeing a large clown toy found laying on his driveway. That would have been enough to scare the lights out of me and run away in fear for whatever the rest of the experience could have probably brought, but Nicholas is certainly a champ for continuing. He does, of course, think the game no longer brings fun but rather a hellscape he would prefer to escape at the nearest exit.
David Fincher steps into the director’s chair for this feature and delivers plenty of the trademarks one should expect from this phenomenal filmmaker. As always, he delivers a certain darkness to his stories leaving a wickedness when you walk away from it but the quality of the content keeps the audience engaged and enthralled. What could have been a fairly schlocky presentation of events becomes thrilling sequences where everything in this man’s life gets torn to shreds for the sake of some fun. Fincher is never afraid to lean into the depravity of the circumstances his characters find themselves in and he really lets loose with Nicholas and this journey of basic survival.
Twists and turns galore, The Game amps up the entertainment factor to a high degree and does not let go of the doubt until the very end of its runtime. It pushes the protagonist to his absolute limit and then some in a game that asks the audience at what point would they tap out for the sake of their sanity. Of course, when aspects of the game feel as real as getting shot at, you have to feel bad for even the most unlikeable of characters. Therein lies the true effectiveness of this feature and why it maintains its exhilarating aspects despite its premise.