Right at home in the “Freak Me Out” strand of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, Game of Death is probably more-or-less exactly the film you expect it to be. It’s a simple but fun romp that manages to eke out the most from its wacky premise, despite being held back by structural shortcomings and uneven dialogue.
The premise: a group of self-absorbed teens (shaded in by modern millennial stereotypes) discover an ominously-named old board game and agree to play, failing to realise both the stakes and what it will take to win. Once begun, the “Game of Death” demands that they take the lives of 24 other people, or face their own imminent demise.
After a few players have their minds literally blown for nonparticipation, the game is on and it’s kill-or-be-killed. The film escalates from there, with the more sociopathic players quickly making themselves known and the cast dividing into those who embrace the mantra of the game, those who resist it and those who can’t handle the pressure and shut down completely.
If there’s any gem in the rough to be found here in it’s Erniel Baez Duenas’ drug dealer Tyler. He starts the film as the comedy relief but pivots to become more central as the plot goes on. His performance is endeared by some great reactionary moments. Game of Death operates on a level of absurdity that he manages to find the right frequency for. By comparison, the rest of the film’s cast is almost-entirely forgettable.
Though it does lean a little heavily on both horror tropes and today’s millennial stereotypes, you do get a reasonable sense of at least some of the film’s characters in the opening act. However, these characterizations quickly become muddled and worn as the body count rises and it feels like the remaining players become little more than dull angst machines by the end.
This issue is never more clear than in the film’s dialogue, which proves to be its biggest weakness. There are some lines so bad they produced audible groans from the audience. That said, this issue is aided by a lack of clarity regarding whether or not the film and cast are in on the joke.
I felt much the same about the overly-overt sexualization of the female characters, who spend the each of the film’s three in needlessly skimpy outfits. Sure, this might be part of “the formula” for these kinds of movies – but it’s a part that made me question the internal logic of the film’s characters probably more than it needed to.
The above said, don’t think I didn’t enjoy this film. There’s a relentless creativity to Game of Death that’s easy to get on board with. Directors Sebastien Landry and Laurence Morais-Lagace break up traditionally-shot scenes with slick animated sequences, Snapchat clips,Go-Pro footage even a dash of cinemascope. This energy is further augmented by the electric soundtrack and sense of humor that’s all over the place, with one recurring gag involving manatees proving particularly memorable.
While the Game of Death ultimately ends up being a very fun film to watch, it’s important to note that it achieves this despite of the weight of its weaknesses. If you want to see a schlocky millennial murder-spree, this will do the job in a clean 71 minutes. If you’re looking for something with a little more substance and less superficiality, it probably won’t fit the bill.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Game of Death is screening at this year’s Sydney Film Festival on the 8th and the 13th of June. For more information about the festival and screening times, click HERE.