Although Cannon Films folded in the early Nineties, Israeli producer-director Menahem Golan kept cranking out movies well into the next century. His post-Cannon output alternated misguided attempts at seriousness (The Versace Murders (1998), a sci-fi version of Crime and Punishment (2002) with Crispin Glover and Vanessa Redgrave) with a run of dire direct-to-video action films. Released under Golan's short-lived New Cannon Inc., Death Game was a surprise return to quality. A searing indictment of corruption within college basketball involving organized crime and the exploitation of African-American youth. Nah, just kidding. It's a bag o' shite.
Melding crass sports melodrama with a tasteless vigilante-thriller the plot centres on Jackie Stewart (Bo Brown), a college basketball superstar (despite sharing a name in common with the legendary Scottish Formula One racing champ) with a swollen ego set to be the next Michael Jordan. Or so everyone keeps reminding us despite ample evidence to the contrary. Jackie's talent goes noticed by local crime kingpin (Shh! Legitimate businessman!) Shakes Montrose (Billy Drago, hamming it up as per usual). His greasy goons gift Jackie with a flashy sports car and envelope full of cocaine insisting all they want him to do is play his heart out. In which case coke was a dumb idea. The drugs take an immediate toll on Jackie's game. After a disastrous loss, concerned coach Mickey Haiden (former Tarzan actor Joe Lara) trails Jackie to quite possibly the most pathetic looking rave in cinema history where he finds him partying with floozies and doing yet more blow. Alas, Coach Mickey's protestations fall on deaf ears. He ends up beaten to a pulp by Montrose thugs while Jackie joins the mobster at his mansion.
As the coach stumbles home, bloodied and beaten Montrose - for no obvious reason - decides he is not through messing with him. While Mrs. Haiden (Maureen LaVette) takes her husband to hospital his thugs stage a home invasion, terrorizing Coach Mickey's little son and killing their beloved dog. A scene that would be a lot more unsettling were the boy not played by one of the strange and inept child actors of all time. Seriously, the kid reacts to a masked stranger at his window by performing mock karate moves. Anyway the Haidens return home to find their son screaming in a bathtub covered in dog's blood. Which should be horrifying except, I can't stress this enough, is inept on all levels. Whereupon Golan slowly fades to Jackie relaxing in a jacuzzi while two naked Euro vixens somehow perform simultaneous blow-jobs. How does that work? Anyway, Coach Mickey contacts his close friend Police Chief Bob (Richard Lynch, uh-oh, yet remarkably giving the most grounded performance in the film) for help. Why do all the characters in Death Game sound like they belong in a preschoolers' book? Bob is genuinely concerned for the family's safety, but despite delivering a stern warning proves powerless to do anything since he happens to be on Montrose's payroll. Worse yet the mobster has him on video taking a bribe. D'oh! And so Montrose visits yet more pain upon the Haiden family.
But why though? By now most sane viewers will be wondering what exactly is Montrose's endgame? How does he intend to make money off Jackie? Especially given his evident disinterest in helping the athlete make it into the NBA. What does Montrose gain from relentlessly hassling Coach Mickey and his family? How are his men able to bump off so many policemen in broad daylight? Don't go expecting any answers. The film forgoes everything including logic for the sake of hammering home an overt message (repeated ad nauseam by multiple characters). Money can buy you anything in America. Money is above the law. Which might seem true, especially in this day and age, but has been handled with greater finesse in far better movies. The one mildly interesting thing about Death Game is that it combines tropes familiar from Golan's Cannon days: a ludicrously high stakes sporting event (Over the Top (1987)), a cash-in on black culture disguised as social commentary (Breakin' (1984)), a faux American milieu (here Belarus stands in unconvincingly for Pittsburgh!), cheesy melodrama that pretends to evoke contemporary America but actually reflects Golan's memories of old Hollywood movies, and vigilantism. Yup, when Montrose and his minions finally push Coach Mickey too far he steals a gun off a cop's desk (with ludicrous ease! In a police station!) and goes all Bronson on their asses.
In fact Death Game was originally intended to be the sixth film in the Death Wish franchise until star Charles Bronson proved disinterested. Evidently Golan felt the concept (part Hoop Dreams, part Death Wish) was too good to lose. Yet while Bronson's stone-faced tough guy stoicism was arguably the Death Wish series' lone redeeming asset, Death Game strains its already wafer-thin credibility trying to convince viewers the hero can take on Montrose's mini-army of professional killers with a single handgun. Bronson? Sure. Mild-mannered Coach Mickey? Nah. And in case you are wondering, yes, Golan goes full Michael Winner staging a gratuitous and degrading rape scene. It is grim stuff despite the perpetrators wearing ridiculous rubber monster masks. Yet the unpleasantness inflicted upon the Haiden family is tempered by the inherent strangeness of the latter and their reactions. Even Michael Winner may have balked at having the heroine emerge from a vicious attack with a cheery: "Ta-dah!" The depiction of Jackie and his mother (Charlotte Crossley) is possibly even more problematic. The former comes across so arrogant and self-centred, not to mention stupid, he hardly seems worth the coach's absurdly extreme efforts to save him. As a consequence the film comes across as unintentionally racist in its portrayal of underprivileged African-Americans as easily swayed simpletons whose foolishness impacts a decent liberal white family. Nonetheless Golan's sledgehammer approach coupled with a crass script and some truly oddball performances achieve the trash film trifecta. And a truly appalling theme song (also replayed ad nauseum) provides the rancid icing on the cake.