"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, "the most dangerous" of all game "animals," 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 novelist Robb White knew when he "borrowed" the plot for his novel "Death Watch," which in turn led to a 1974 TV movie ("Savages") starring Andy Griffith as the crazed hunter.
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. The film staggers under these blows and never really recovers.
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, in "greed is good" mode) 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 overequipped six-wheel Mercedes SUV, his satellite 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 ("Carre blanc") 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.
And that's before a finale that goes completely off the rails.
But this "Dangerous Game" formula has outlived Faye Wray (a 1932 film) and Andy Griffith and survived Ice-T ("Surviving the Game" in '94). 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.
"Beyond the Reach" - 2 stars (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R for some violence
Running time: 1:32