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Tag: The Assassination Game (1982)
~Review by Grawlix (January 2019)
Tag: The Assassination Game is one of those movies in the long and illustrious line of stories that take a then-modern game or fad and posits what might happen if losing meant you die. It’s a storytelling tradition that goes at least as far back as Richard Connell’s seminal short story The Most Dangerous Game, which I highly recommend you read if you never have. It’s such a reliable narrative setup that it seems that every time something new becomes popular it’s virtually inevitable that a movie about its killer version it just on the horizon. Lately, plots involving killer video games have proven to have some staying power. One can only imagine that killer fidget spinners and juul pods are right around the corner.
In Tag, the game in question is Assassin, aka Killer, a perpetual live-action game (sort of like a LARP without boundaries) in which each player is given a target and tasked with “eliminating” them through various simulated means (the players in Tag use suction cup dart guns). As the circle closes, the remaining targets are reassigned until the final two players are left targeting each other. It was apparently all the rage on college campuses in the 80s and is still played today though its popularity has taken a bit of a hit since dodging real bullets has become a more depressingly realistic concern in recent years. As usual, it only takes a couple of jerks to ruin it for everyone.
Tag is, then, naturally set on a college campus with a thriving Assassin scene, though some players take it more seriously than others. The current reigning champion is Loren Gersh (Bruce Abbott) whose identity is tied so tightly to his success at the game that we don’t even learn his major until the final reel. When Gersh is tagged out on a fluke by his oafish klutz of a target, he snaps. Grabbing his real 9mm from his dorm room (I was going to make a joke about this, but these days, hell, it almost feels like a future-proofing decision by the screenplay. Unfortunately.) he takes an unauthorized mulligan, effects a lethal do-over, then thenceforth plays the rest of the game for keeps.
Opposite Gersh is Susan Swaze (a debuting Linda Hamilton). Swaze isn’t quite as committed as Gersh, but she’s still a formidable player, not above using her feminine wiles to her advantage. When she briefly takes cover in the dorm room of Alex Marsh (Robert Carradine), a writer for the school newspaper, during a “shootout”, the stricken reporter immediately decides to write an editorial on the game as an excuse to follow Susan around. Initially annoyed by his presence, Susan does manage to get some use out of him as a scout and a decoy. But Alex is persistent in his advances, and eventually a few romantic sparks begin to fly.
This is where the movie started to lose me. See, here’s the problem, as I see it: The Gersh plot thread is by far the more interesting part of the story. There’s a ton of potential in chronicling the deterioration of a guy in a mentally precarious state losing his main (or only) source of pride and satisfaction, having that send him off the deep end. Had the movie spent a little more time with Gersh, maybe getting into the origin and details of his psychosis (explaining why he feels the need to keep a pistol in his dorm room, for example) it might’ve become something truly special.
The Susan plot thread, on the other hand, is by far the best looking. This isn’t just a commentary on Linda Hamilton’s appearance, but she also has an undeniable, magnetic charisma that outshines most of the rest of the cast. It’s understandable that the movie would want to give her plenty of screen time for this reason, it’s just a shame that a lot of it takes the form of a fairly rote romantic subplot of a type that movies of this era seemed to build into their scripts almost purely out of a sense of obligation. That’s not to say that the movie suddenly morphs into Sleepless in Seattle or anything, it’s just that the would-be romantic parts really bring the narrative to a halt. Had the Alex Marsh character decided to play the game himself with Susan kept as more of a mysterious wildcard type, it would’ve made for a much more engaging story. Instead we get what amounts to a lot of airy filler punctuated with Gersh occasionally popping up to kill someone, just to remind the audience that he’s there. (Amusingly, Hamilton and Abbott would end up marrying later in 1982).
Tag was helmed by Nick Castle, an early associate and collaborator of John Carpenter, and, much like Carpenter, he sports an impressively varied resume. After Tag he went on to direct The Last Star Fighter, Dennis the Menace, and Major Payne among others. He has writing credits on Escape from New York and Hook. He donned the iconic Shatner mask as The Shape/Michael Meyers for the original Halloween. His name even shows up on a few soundtracks. Tag was his first directorial effort and its roughness around the edges really bespeaks his inexperience and lack of specialization. Production wise, there’s nothing really bad about it, but there’s unfortunately nothing really remarkable about it either. The writing is functional. The acting is adequate, but undemanding. The camerawork is clear, but basic. The music is genuinely inspired, with a lot of jazzy, big band tunes that recall film noir and spy thrillers. Likewise, the opening credits are a brilliant pastiche of James Bond and similar franchises. Unfortunately these brief, inventive bits ultimately set expectations that the rest of the movie can’t quite reach. As his first feature, It’s understandable that Castle would want to play things a little safe, it’s just a shame that the missed opportunities are so glaring.
I’d compare Tag: The Assassination Game favorably to the 1997 Michael Douglas vehicle The Game as well as the 2009 Canadian indie flick The Wild Hunt, though the former is far more polished and the latter is better written. Tag will always have its place in motion picture history as the directorial debut of Nick Castle and the feature film debut of Linda Hamilton (and Forest Whitaker, in a brief cameo) but on its own, it’s a frustrating misstep full of good ideas, but marred by so-so execution.
Final Grade: C+
Tag just barely makes it over the hump from C to C+ on the strength of its core concept and a final reel that finally pulls together some ideas that would’ve been better explored a half hour earlier. In the end, it delivers less than it promises, but it still does enough to be watched and enjoyed.
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