In 1924, Colliers Weekly published a short story by Richard Connell called “The Most Dangerous Game.”
It involved a big-game hunter who fell from a yacht and washed up on an island. A wealthy former Russian aristocrat named Zaroff owned the island. And Zaroff had grown bored of big-game hunting and developed a more ruthless pastime, one that involved causing shipwrecks with misleading navigation lights and hunting the surviving crew members after they swam ashore. Ultimately, of course, the hunter and the Russian had to square off mano a mano.
The story was, among other things, a commentary on the “sport” of big-game hunting, very popular at the time among the wealthy. But the notion of hunting humans for sport apparently captured the fevered imaginations of many a writer and filmmaker.
It spawned the 1932 film, “The Most Dangerous Game,” starring Joel McCrea and Fay Wray. (Filmed on many “King Kong” sets with much of the same cast and crew during a break in the making of that film.) The movie was remade in 1945 with the title “A Game of Death.” Since then, numerous films and television shows have made use of the premise, often attributing the original short story as inspiration.
With “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” opening in theaters this weekend, it seems like the perfect time to revisit some of the better examples of this sub-genre of film.
8. “Surviving the Game” (1994)
Okay, this is not really a great film, but it has some wonderful actors playing really nasty bad guys, chewing the hell out of the scenery and generally spouting plenty of awful dialogue. Homeless Ice-T gets a job as a “hunting guide” for some rich guys, including Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey and F. Murray Abraham, (all scary enough in real life!) only to discover that he is their quarry! But Ice-T, as you might guess, won't go down without a fight.
This is generally just a foul-mouthed knock-off of the original story, entirely propped-up by the performances of Hauer and Busey.
7. “Death Race 2000” (1975)
A schlockmeister Roger Corman production, this film put the fun back in funeral. David Carradine as Frankenstein and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone as Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo are among the drivers in a high-speed cross-country race. In the futuristic world of the year 2000, U.S. democracy has given way to dictatorship, with the three-day race serving as a way to keep the populace pacified. Not only do the drivers score points for speed but for running down pedestrians, as well. The older and more infirm the pedestrian, the greater the point count.
This movie is a cartoonishly ultra-violent mess, with ridiculous “revolutionary” politics oozing through the mix, but, hey, Frankenstein's car is a Corvette made to look like a giant alligator, and almost every minute of this “cult-classic” is good for a laugh.
6. “Battle Royale” (2000)
This financially successful critical darling from Japan is often cited as having served as a “template” for “The Hunger Games.” I submit that minimal research into this topic makes it obvious that themes like people hunting people, blood sports as “opiates for the masses” and the morality of child soldiers are recurrent throughout both history and fiction.
In this case, a class of 15-year-old schoolchildren is taken to an island, fitted with explosive tracking collars, given basic provisions and various “weapons” and told they each have three days to become the last student standing.
The ensuing violence is frequent, brutal and oddly matter-of-fact. The students' motivations range from the comic to the melodramatic. The number of students with antisocial personality disorder seems statistically improbable for a group of 40-or-so kids.
More sophisticated critics were able to discern a greater level of depth to the proceedings than I was. I found the government's motivations for holding the annual contest murky, the characters laughable and the action filmed with all of the grace of security-camera video.
It is never made clear in the film if the “Battle Royale” has a viewing audience outside those running the game. What I'm still trying to figure out is why this film had such a large one.
5. “Hard Target” (1993)
Based on the 1932 film “The Most Dangerous Game,” this was revered Chinese action director John Woo's first American movie.
Sporting a mullet that appears to have been used to clean up after an oil change, Belgium's own martial-arts hero Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as Chance Bordreaux, homeless Cajun merchant seaman in New Orleans. When Yancy Butler shows up looking for her homeless, missing father, Van Damme saves her from local hoods and agrees to serve as her bodyguard and guide. Turns out that pops was a victim of a ruthless group of human-hunters, led by creepy Lance Henriksen.
Soon, one of Jean-Claude's homeless pals falls prey to the hunters, too. As Van Damme and Butler begin to gather evidence that the homeless men are being murdered, Henriksen and his goons decide to eliminate any threats to their operation. Will the hunters become the hunted? Will Henriksen get his due? Does the phrase “grenade in pants” ring any bells?
Solid Woo action scenes, but the cheesy script and Van Damme's spectacular lack of acting talent keep this from being a truly awesome film.
4. “The Running Man” (1987)
With “The Running Man,” director Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky of TVs “Starsky and Hutch”) took a stab at the “over-the-top, thinly-veiled R-rated science-fiction satire,” as mastered by fellow director Paul Verhoven, and he acquitted himself pretty well, considering that he was brought in a week into the production to replace fired director Andrew Davis.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Ben Richards, a former police helicopter pilot in the future wrongly convicted of killing civilians and forced to participate in a reality TV game show, “The Running Man,” where convicts are hunted by superstar “stalkers.” Richards begins killing off the hunters, one-by-one, and ultimately helps an anti-network resistance movement expose the fact that supposed “winning” contestants in the past have all been murdered.
While Ahnuld approaches the material with his usual gusto, the real standout is “Running Man” host and show-runner Richard Dawson (former "Family Feud" emcee) as the glad-handing, lady-kissing and utterly ruthless Damon Killian. Subtlety was the last thing on the minds of anyone involved in this very loose adaptation of the Stephen King novel.
3. “Predators” (2010)
In this admirable effort to reboot the “Predator” franchise, various armed and unsavory human characters find themselves abruptly transported to an alien planet, where they soon discover that they are intended to serve as the “game” on what is essentially an alien “game preserve.”
They are relentlessly stalked by a group of deadly aliens, who possess active camouflage (rendering them basically invisible) and thermal-imaging vision, allowing them to locate their prey regardless of light conditions or concealment. These are more members of the race who fought the acid-spitting aliens from “Alien” in two crossover films and stalked both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Glover in the two previous “Predator” movies. A solid cast including Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne, Danny Trejo and Topher Grace mixes it up with the inhuman hunters in a well-realized otherworldly environment.
Based on an earlier script by producer Robert Rodriguez, “Predators” makes a good case for the notion that the only thing more fun than humans hunting humans is aliens hunting humans.
2. “The Hunger Games” (2012)
Call it a “young-adult” movie. Call it derivative. Call it whatever you like. But you do this film a disservice if you dismiss it out-of-hand. I'm sure various aspects of this story were inspired by others. What fictional entertainment hasn't been? But “The Hunger Games” takes the concepts of child soldiers, people hunting other people in a contest, and keeping a society pacified with such a contest to an entirely new level. The dystopian future of “Games” is fully realized.
Jennifer Lawrence brings real nobility and depth to the character of Katniss Everdeen, and Donald Southerland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci all deliver outstanding supporting performances. “The Hunger Games” doesn't just tell you a story. It, like any really good movie, transports you to a different reality and gives you the complete tour.
1. “Predator” (1987)
A film conceived as a response to a Hollywood inside-joke that since Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa had beaten the world's greatest fighters on film, his next opponent would have to be a super-powered alien. Somehow, the concept morphed into a team of Special Forces commandos sent to rescue a government official from a Central American jungle subsequently being hunted by a super-powered alien.
No Sly in sight, but Arnold Schwarzenegger leads a group of heavily armed musclemen, including Carl Weathers (Rocky's adversary Apollo Creed in the first two films of that series), through the proceedings as they are savagely picked off one by one by the extraterrestrial hunter.
John McTiernan, director of the action classic “Die Hard,” misses no beats here. He relentlessly ups the ante both in terms of the violence and the suspense, making it far less likely that audiences will notice that this film really has no point.
Well, okay, maybe the point is that if you go hunting Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Central American jungle, you might just discover that man is, indeed, the most dangerous game.