Monday, September 10, 2012

T.A.G. - The Assassination Game

NetFlix Not Available
DVD Purchase HERE for $8
IMDB 5.8/10
My Rating: 7/10

A campus newspaper reporter is drawn into a college game of TAG by his attraction to one of the players.  Through her, he becomes immersed in the world of play-killers and spies, until the two of them stumble into the path of a deranged murderer stalking the gamers.

Let's rewind to the early 80's, 1982 to be exact.  Back then, one of the raging controversies of the nation was WHAT to do about these satanic, suicide-provoking, heavy metal-infested role-playing games that were becoming so popular.  TV newscasters and sermonizers predictably freaked the fuck out and warned of impending social collapse if your kid was playing tabletop D&D with his buddies in the spare room - Never mind that you'd think it would be a parent's dream-come-true if their teen opted to stay home and do something that didn't involve drinking, drugs, or stoplight racing.  For a period of several years, we were bombarded with continual negative press regarding D&D, with the media seizing on every possible scare story to drum it it into a national issue.  Rona Jaffe's infamous "Mazes and Monsters" was an onerous example.  Today it's rightly considered a laughingstock by the RPG community, and looked back at much as we view Reefer Madness, but at the time people actually took this nonsense seriously.  In fact, I still attribute one of my earliest anti-religious jolts to a sermon I sat through where the preacher was ranting about the "satanic ills" of D&D while waving a copy of the Monster Manual in the air, howling, "There are DEMONS and WITCHES in here!"

Well, yes, but the same is true of Grimm's Fairy Tales, and for the same reason.

I vividly recall looking at the guy and thinking, "If this minister is so utterly, demonstrably clueless about what he considers a driving moral issue, WHY are we sitting here listening to him tell us how to live every Sunday?"  More potently, it was an example of just how stupid one can look if they get exercised about something that they have no understanding of.  I realize this is heavy stuff for a movie review, but it plays into why I enjoyed TAG so much at the time.

Alongside D&D, we also played a lot of Killer, one of the first live-action RPGs, in both high school and college.  Killer involved each player receiving the name of another player, their target, who they then had to stalk and "kill" with a toy gun until there was only one champion left.  As one can imagine, this was a blast.  TAG riffs on this concept with a group of college students cheerfully playing assassins. And while one of the players does go off the deep end, TAG was unusual at the time for portraying the players not as unstable, needy, friendless misfits, but rather as just ordinary kids looking for a little excitement.  This was so refreshing that I loved the movie to death, and it still remains a personal favorite of mine today.

The movie centers around a college newspaper reporter of the cigar-smoking, Chandler-reading, hopelessly romantic variety who has a mysterious encounter with Linda Hamilton, a player in TAG.  Ahh, Linda...

Linda Hamilton has never BEEN more gorgeous than she is in this movie, and she's able to convey a sort of sultry, film noir, femme fatale vibe that is far beyond her years.  She's just another player, a psych major who's looking for a fun time after hours, and our hero joins up with her because A) he is hopelessly smitten, and B) he is looking for a story for his newspaper.  This leads him, and the viewers, into the game world of TAG and we get to meet a lot of wildly varying players and the bizarro gamemaster who runs the show.  Speaking of, he's hilarious and steals his scenes effectively.  Anyone who's ever played a Killer-type game will recognize this guy immediately:

Our other main character is Gersh, the reigning TAG champion, played by Bruce Abbott (Yep, the Re-Animator guy) in his first starring role.  When an attempted shower assassination goes badly for him, our man Gersh goes off the deep end and begins taking his gaming way too seriously... murdering one student player after another and marking them off his "Kill" list until the inevitable face-off with Linda and Bruce.  Thankfully, it isn't played off as another god-awful "Gaming makes you unbalanced" message-movie - It's pretty obvious that Gersh is not all there from the start, and the game simply gives him a method for his madness.  The second half of the film is basically an 80's slasher with guns instead of knives as Gersh kills his way through the cast.

So why do I love it so much?  It was written and directed by genre legend Nick Castle, for starters, and the acting and dialog crackle with unusual energy and spice for a low budget flick.  You'll genuinely  like the characters and no one is there just to be a victim, a bimbo, or a hero.  Also, viewed from today's vantage point, it's a fascinating time capsule of college life before the days of cell phones, internet, and other electronica. Concerts, live action games, hanging around the student activity buildings, smoking cigars in dorm rooms... TAG gives us a microcosmic peek into the world of yesteryear's 20-something. After the college gun crimes of the past ten years, this is one movie that will never, EVER be remade today, so let's appreciate it for what it is - A look at a more innocent time when college students shooting each other was fodder for action-packed escapist adventure instead of the routine evening news.

PS - Special mention must be made of the opening credits sequence.  Most low budget flicks of the time were content with a simple credit roll, but this wasn't enough for Nick Castle and so we get an extended, swanky parody of a Bond opening, complete with rubber dart guns and LOTS of feathered hair (Skip ahead to the 1min, 50sec marker if you want to jump straight to the music):