The Most Dangerous Game is one of the more enduring thriller formulas. About a big game hunter who longs to take a shot at human beings, it’s been adapted every few years since Richard Connell’s short story first appeared, back in 1924.
The hunter’s unarmed prey must outwit and turn the tables on the rich psychopath. You mess with that can’t-miss formula at your own peril, something the novelist Robb White knew when he “borrowed” the plot for his 1973 young adult novel Deathwatch.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But the folks re-adapting White’s book for Beyond the Reach tamper and tinker with perfection — a little overly convenient cheating here, a contrived finale that goes wrong and then goes more wrong.
Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) is Ben, “the best tracker in the county” in his corner of the desert Southwest. The sheriff (Ronnie Cox) swears by him, which is why Ben is summoned to take super-rich businessman Madec out into the wastelands, beyond “The Reach” (a geographic feature) in search of a trophy bighorn sheep.
Madec (Michael Douglas) makes a little metaphoric show of “establishing a dominance hierarchy” with his new employee, much as bighorn sheep do in their herds. Ben is leery of this guy with the over-equipped six-wheel Mercedes SUV, his sat phone, portable espresso machine, imported rifle and imported scope. But the kid needs the cash. His girlfriend (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) is off at college, and Madec is quick to crack about how easy it will be for her to move on from a poor uneducated hick like Ben.
A big business deal is in the offing. Madec is impatient and trigger happy. There’s an accident. And before Ben can respond to it, the hunter, “a fast thinker,” has covered his tracks and figured that lone eyewitness Ben needs to run off into the desert, with nothing but his watch and his underwear, and die.
Irvine makes a convincing Ben, a wary kid a little slow on the uptake, but a man with skills and the physique to scamper up rock faces and stay alive as Gordon Gekko with Guns tracks him.
Douglas makes a good villain out of a cardboard construction, a cutthroat businessman with a weakness for piano concerti on his truck stereo and dry martinis in his cooler.
But French director Jean-Baptiste Leonetti and producer/screenwriter Stephen Susco (the American remake of The Grudge) trip over themselves trying to invent fresh wrinkles in this Man vs. Man vs. The Elements tale. Ben has flashbacks. His dream the night before the hunt is prescient, with comically obvious foreshadowing. They give Ben wildly improbable assistance and tumble into that tired crutch of every screenwriter of a hack Western — dynamite.
It’s too bad the filmmakers couldn’t figure out this “game” has rules that made it work and that you violate at your own peril.
Cast: Michael Douglas, Jeremy Irvine, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Ronnie Cox.
Director: Jean-Baptiste Leonetti.
Screenwriter: Stephen Susco. Based on the novel “Nightwatch” by Robb White.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 95 minutes. Violence. In Miami-Dade only: Sunset Place.