‘Tag: The Assassination Game’ Shoots to Kill
Linda Hamilton and Robert Carradine make time between classes for games, guns, and getting busy.
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions – I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s pick is an action/comedy from the ’80s about a fake assassination game played on a college campus. You’re probably thinking, “oh, is it the one that had the misfortune of opening in 1985 against the powerful pummel horse that is Gymkata?” The answer is no, it’s not Gotcha! This one opened in 1982 opposite The Sword and the Sorcerer.
Mention the ’80s movie about a college assassination game and most people remember Gotcha! starring Anthony Edwards. It’s the one where he falls for a sexy CIA agent played by Linda Fiorentino who likes him back because he’s an innocent-looking “wirgin.” It might surprise you to learn that it wasn’t the first movie to tackle the apparently popular college campus game alternately known as Assassin, Elimination, and KaOS. It was preceded three years earlier by the equally goofy yet far more serious Tag: The Assassination Game (aka Everybody Gets It In the End!)
Goofy *and* serious?! I know it sounds crazy, but I swear it’s true.
The film, written and directed by Nick Castle (The Boy Who Could Fly), sees players competing with toy pistols – they shoot suction-cup darts rather than Gotcha!’s paintballs – in a ranked game leading to a final tournament between the top two players. Gersh Bruce Abbott, Re-Animator) is the defending champion who takes the game a bit too seriously, while Susan (Linda Hamilton, The Terminator) is in it purely for the challenge and fun. She finds a friend in Alex (Robert Carradine, Revenge of the Nerds… which also starred Edwards!), a writer for the school paper who decides to do a story on the game as a way to get closer to her. His story takes on a darker spin though when Gersh starts killing the competition for real leaving a trail of bodies in his wake on a collision course towards Susan.
So yeah, it’s Gotcha! with a serial killer in place of cold war shenanigans.
Castle, who played “the Shape” in John Carpenter’s Halloween, made his feature directorial debut here – and paid tribute to his friend the horror master by naming the character running the game on campus Carpenter – before going on to make some far more familiar films including The Last Starfighter and Major Payne. There’s an interesting tone and style to the film, but it’s easy to see the former as being part of the reason it never quite caught on with the public.
Tag opens just like Gotcha! with a suspenseful stalking that soon reveals itself to be part of a game, and the silliness continues from there. There are some physical comedy bits both in general and specifically with the suction cup guns, the dialogue occasionally riffs on noir films, and Michael Winslow (Police Academy) even shows up doing his sound effect shtick. Once the murders start though the kills themselves are portrayed as realistic while Gersh’s growing insanity dances off in the other direction. He’s having fun even as bodies are hitting the floor, and while it works – the other characters can continue acting frivolous for the majority of the movie because they’re unaware that the killings are even happening – it’s still just jarring enough that it could easily have turned off or confused viewers.
Castle shoots the film with a good eye for action and framing which keeps our attention piqued and focused, but it hasn’t aged well on the lighting front. Most of the film takes place at night, and the darkness swallows a bit too much of the action in ways that only a remaster from an original print could possibly address. Still, we’re never lost as the film’s final act becomes an extended chase of sorts with Gersh and Susan engaged in battle – even as she still believes it to be a game – and Alex in hot pursuit having finally connected the dots between the game and the handful of missing students.
The film is Hamilton’s second feature credit, and while stardom was still a couple years away it’s clear even here that her talent and charisma were both shining strong to the point that she’s the brightest spot in a dimply-lit film. The others are fine, including a blink and you’ll miss him Forest Whitaker, but she’s the magnetic center of it all.
Tag: The Assassination Game is a fun little flick that delivers some laughs, some goofy romance, and some well-crafted action and suspense. It lacks Gotcha!’s catchy theme song, European locales, and short-haired Fiorentino, but it’s every bit as deserving of a watch and a spot in your memory.
Read more entries in last year’s The Essentials, and follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.
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