Along with The Dark Knight Rises and Prometheus, the big screen adaptation of The Hunger Games is one of the most anticipated movies of 2012. Directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) and based on the young adult series of novels by Suzanne Collins, the film is set in a dystopian future where children are selected at random to fight to the death on live television. The film’s cast includes up-and-coming stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, as well as veteran actors Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks.
To celebrate the release of possibly the first blockbuster of 2012, Dan and I have decided to highlight some of cinema’s greatest battles to the death. Some are classic works of film and some, well, star Jean-Claude Van Damme. So without further ado, let’s fight!
The Most Dangerous Game (dir. Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932)
The first (and still best) adaptation of Richard Connell’s famous short story, this RKO production cleverly appeared just before Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code and that pesky old Hays Office began censoring all the dirty, sordid, delightful elements out of the movies. For a while, anyway. It certainly seems like a tale too dark to have flown in the 1940s. If you don’t already know, then I’m sorry, but it hangs on the premise of men hunting one another for sport.
Joel McCrea (Foreign Correspondent) and Fay Wray (King Kong) find themselves stranded on the private island of Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who seems to have moved in just down the block from Dr. Moreau’s island. Zaroff is not interested in making animals into people. In fact, his chief fascination is what separates mankind from his fellow critters. Reason and cunning, he argues, make man the most dangerous game of all. See how they worked the title into the script there?
But of course, this is all hypothetical, yes? No! Count Zaroff has every intention of demonstrating his theory on the most practical level possible. He proposes that his guests may go free if they outlast his attempts to hunt them overnight. And so they gamely run through the jungle, hide in the waterfall, and generally try to keep their wits about them as Zaroff looses arrows, hounds, and various other fiendish devices after them.
With its romance-of-attrition subplot and melodramatic score, the film is certainly more flowery and over-the-top than its source story, but stays true to the themes of resourcefulness and the triumph of basic humanity. It remains some of the most brilliant RKO melodrama of the period.
Series 7: The Contenders (dir. Daniel Minahan, 2001)
This unsubtle satire says just about everything worth saying about reality television. Purporting to be the latest series of a “kill or be killed” TV show already in progress, it tracks the movements of several contestants picked at random, handed a gun, and sent to eliminate their competitors while camera crews follow them around the clock. All of this happens in the real world, where collateral damage and environmental factors may change the game at a moment’s notice. There is no arena in The Contenders, and it’s all happening live, at all times. It distills the most disturbing aspects of reality TV and plays them out in a context of raw violence and extremely dark humor.
Brooke Smith, whom you may know as a would-be victim in The Silence Of The Lambs , stars as Dawn, a defending champion of the last series, whose main stake in the contest is the baby she will be having in a matter of weeks. She is that most dangerous of humans, a protective mama, and she has long since accepted the reality of having to kill under duress for her child’s sake. It gives her a focus, and a singularity of purpose, that her fellow contestants can scarcely match.
Director Daniel Minahan does not waste time setting up how and why American life has gotten sufficiently harrowing to allow this program on the air. Presented in a rapid-fire television format full of act breaks, recaps, and flash-forward teasers, it presents an interlocking series of chilling character studies with impressive economy. It may not seem like the most original premise, but it takes the idea in some fresh directions. It is reminiscent Stephen King’s original novel The Running Man (not so much the subsequent movie), backed a little bit out of dystopian fantasy and expanded to a multiplayer context.
The production values are convincingly low, like a feature-length re-enactment sequence from America’s Most Wanted. The performances are only decent, but then again it’s supposed to be unscripted television with average joes in front of the camera. Despite its lack of critical success, this is an impressive indie production and has all the makings of a cult classic. With a compelling premise and plenty of narrative twists, it’s good entertainment against your better judgment. Hey, just like “real” reality TV.
Battle Royale (dir. Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
No discussion of The Hunger Games, bloodsports, or fights to the death would be complete without a discussion of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, adapted with care from Koushun Takami’s blistering novel. As part of a government reprisal against upstart students of bygone years, the suits abduct a random class of students annually. The students are transported to a remote, apparently inescapable location, and forced by means of some light science fiction to hunt one another until only one is left alive. The winner goes free. Sound familiar?
Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, has taken plenty of flak for allegedly borrowing this idea from Takami’s book. It seemed evident the moment that The Hunger Games became the Next New Thing. But who cares, really? If she claims to have had the idea all on her own, is it really that implausible? Takami might just as well have plagiarized one or both of Stephen King’s works on the subject — The Running Man and The Long Walk. A healthier attitude for critics of the younger franchise is that the Western world can have its own version rather than risk a sullying remake of the Japanese film. Barring The Magnificent Seven, Hollywood has done a pretty poor job of adapting Japanese cinema to date. And making Battle Royale the way it should be made takes guts that your average filmmaker simply does not have. One must also consider the rather tender topicality of American high school violence, which might make a literal translation of Battle Royale‘s satire a bit too hot to handle.
Based primarily around the likable Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and his closest pals, the story of Battle Royale is at its core an astute satire of the adolescent experience in general. From the point of view of a teen, is being humiliated in front of your dream girl, or being excluded from the cool girls’ gang, any less horrifying than being chased with a sickle or a loaded gun by a class geek with a score to settle. Once set free in the woods to kill as they please, the kids immediately begin re-forming the same alliances, cliques, and circles as at school. For some, it is the only way to cope with the stress of their predicament. They simply know no other way of acting.
Of course, this scenario gives certain advantages to a troubled loner, who never dared dream such a chance to get even might come their way. Picking off clusters of cowering classmates seems pretty sweet for a while, but some of the more resourceful kids show formidable solidarity in times of crisis, even though each knows that eventually, the others must die. It also bears mentioning that the organizers of the contest, in a truly diabolical twist, have chosen to equip the kids randomly — sometimes with weapons, sometimes with food, and sometimes with useless junk. It truly is anyone’s game, if they would but recognize it. All in all, Battle Royale is a crushing fable of loyalty and the often ruthless demands of survival. Physical danger may stand for itself or as a metaphor for teenage social pressure, depending on how intellectually you care to view it. A freewheeling sequel followed, but came nowhere near the powerful and incisive first installment. look for noteworthy
Be sure to watch for noteworthy appearances by Japanese renaissance man “Beat” Takeshi Kitano and deadly pixie Chiaki Kuriyama (Gogo Yubari of Kill Bill fame)! They both get to revel in some very violent antics.
The Running Man (dir. Paul Michael Glaser, 1987)
The Running Man is one of those movies that you can’t NOT watch if it’s on TV. Unfortunately, it is rarely shown, making it that much more exciting when TNT or Spike decides to air it at 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday. After becoming one of the most famous actors in the world, thanks to his role in James Cameron’s The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the king of action movies in 1987, having recently starred in Commando and Predator. The Running Man was just icing on the cake for his legions of fans.
In the movie, Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, a former pilot wrongly convicted of a brutal massacre of a group of innocent people. However, the year is 2019 and society has pretty much collapsed, so instead of being sent to prison or getting the death penalty, Ben is given the chance to win his freedom by competing in the game show The Running Man. Televised live, the show pits “runners” against “stalkers” (psychopathic killers in all manner of extravagant costumes). If the runner survives, they get a full pardon. Not a bad deal.
The event is hosted by the ruthless Damon Killian (Richard Dawson) who encourages audiences and viewers to bet on which stalker will be the one to kill the unlucky runner who has been fed to him. Ben manages to stay alive with the help of his two friends and a woman named Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso) whom he accidentally got wrapped up in his situation.
There are so many amazing things about The Running Man that’s it’s hard to keep track. First, we get Richard Dawson (yes, Family Feud Richard Dawson) as the man behind the barbaric television that seems to be the only programming available in 2019. Future Minnesota governor and conspiracy theory uncoverer Jesse Ventura also stars as the all-time stalker champion Captain Freedom who comes out of retirement to take Ben down. We also get a great cameo from Jim Brown as Fireball, a stalker with a jetpack and a flame thrower.
Speaking of the stalkers, let’s take a look at some of these characters. There’s Buzzsaw (Bernard Gus Rethwisch) whose preferred method of killing is a chainsaw. We have Professor Subzero (Toru Tanaka) who has his own hockey rink complete with razor sharp hockey sticks and exploding pucks. Best of all, though, there is Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth). From Wikipedia: “Dynamo, an opera singing man who drives a buggy and wears a suit that allows him to project electricity.” The 80s really were a magic time.
Bloodsport (dir. Newt Arnold, 1988)
Okay, to be fair, the fights in Bloodsport don’t necessarily have to end in death. They can end with one fighter being paralyzed, put into a coma or simply left twitching on the mat. What’s important is this Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle is the epitome of the ridiculousness of 80s action movies. It’s filled with terrible one-liners, atrocious acting and characters more shallow than a pothole. But it also has some amazing fight choreography and is (sadly) a highlight in JCVD’s filmography.
Very, very, very loosely based on real life events, the film centers on Frank Dux (Van Damme) and American fighter who sneaks into the most dangerous (and illegal) underground martial arts tournament in the world: the Kumite (pronounced koo-mah-tay; fun, right?). Typically Americans, especially white Americans, aren’t allowed to participate in the Kumite, but since Frank was trained by the legendary martial arts master Senzo Tanaka (Roy Chiao), the judges let him participate.
Of course, Frank dominates the tournament, finding a friend, Ray Jackson (Donald Gibb), and a female admirer, Janice Kent (Leah Ayres), along the way. Frank’s only real competition comes from the impossible-to-defeat and merciless champion, Chong Li (Bolo Yeung). After Chong Li puts Ray in a coma and steals his signature bandanna (seriously, that is a plot point), Frank vows to defeat Chong Li and win the Kumite.
It is nearly impossible to watch Bloodsport with a straight face. The dialogue is absurd and Van Damme gives one of his most wooden performances ever. But who cares? The fights are awesome and a bunch of dudes get knocked the hell out. We also get to see a young and very intense Forest Whitaker playing one of the Army officers sent to bring Frank in for deserting his company.
In all seriousness, Bloodsport is, in many ways, a precursor to films like Warrior and Redbelt which feature the relatively new sport of mixed martial arts. In Bloodsport, we see fighters from all over the world using a wide variety of fighting styles from karate and jiu jitsu to boxing and wrestling. While MMA was still a long way off, Bloodsport does a decent job of compiling and showcasing the myriad martial arts techniques that now make up the fastest growing fighting movement in the world.
Mortal Kombat (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 1995)
When Mortal Kombat was released in 1995, fans of the video game had been eagerly awaiting its arrival in theaters for several years. The production was plagued by delays and casting changes that made it seem like the movie would never happen. Luckily, though, it was finally completed and, even though the final product is absolutely awful, fanboys all over the country were just happy to see live action versions of their favorite fighters. If you aren’t familiar with Mortal Kombat the video game, it was one of the most violent and controversial games around in the early 90s. Of course, that also made it one of the most popular.
The movie attempted to adapt the game’s very weak story outline into a feature film. In the movie, once a generation, mortal fighters must compete in an epic tournament against fighters from another dimension who are WAY better equipped to do battle. The fate of humanity rests on the shoulders of three fighters: Liu Kang (Robin Shou), Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson). Under the guidance of Raiden (Christopher Lambert), a god-like entity who can manipulate electricity, the fighters must do battle against Shang Tsung’s (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) best men who are ordered to leave no opponent alive.
The filmmakers do a respectable job fitting in the game’s most famous characters and catch phrases, including “Finish him!” and “Flawless victory.” Regardless of how silly the film adaptation was, fans were just happy to see Scorpion, Sub-Zero and the four-armed Goro on the big screen. At the time, actually, the film’s special effects were about as cutting edge as you get, making the spears that fly out of Scorpion’s hands look pretty awesome. All the special effects and impressive fight sequences in the world, though, couldn’t save the movie’s puerile script and poor performances.
The movie, of course, spawned a sequel (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation) and made a lot of money at the box office. While it isn’t a great work of art, Mortal Kombat is at least a cool action movie and a great memory for kids who grew up playing the game.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”