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`THE GAME' A CHILLING RIDE THROUGH VIRTUAL REALITY.

Byline: Bob Strauss Daily News Film Critic

Nasty, controlling, lonely and liking it, superfinancier Nicholas Von Orton's idea of a great birthday is dinner for one in his San Francisco mansion, watching cable business news.

In other words, this guy needs to get whacked upside the head, bigtime. And in this way, he represents the movie about him, ``The Game,'' perfectly.

A mean-spirited parable whose many complications unfold with ruthlessly intelligent and cold-hearted glee, ``The Game's'' glory lies in its controlled decimation of a control freak's life.

But despite its blood-freezing efficiency, this thriller could have used an extra whack or two. Director David Fincher (``Seven'') and writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris (``The Net'') were probably, and justly, so proud of themselves for keeping the movie's paranoid, lies-within-deceptions framework grippingly tricky for two hours, they ran out of mindbending cleverness by the film's climax.

But a gimmick movie like this one depends inordinately on its payoff. And while the end of ``The Game'' doesn't exactly fizzle, it's not sufficiently breathtaking, either. The effect is kind of like ``The Usual Suspects'' if Keyser Soze turned out to be the guy you thought he was.

The lead-up, though, is good, cruel fun. Michael Douglas delivers another superb cinematic creep job as Van Orton, a man who thinks nothing of firing his father's best friend (Armin Mueller-Stahl) over short-term profit margins and begins and ends conversations with a curt ``Humor me with specifics.''

But specifics are just what he can't get from Consumer Recreation Services, a company that puts on staged, live adventures for those lucky enough to afford them. Or, in Van Orton's case, someone unlucky enough to have a trouble-prone little brother named Conrad (Sean Penn, who's in all of three scenes) who signs him up for a customized CRS Game, whether he likes it or not.

``It'll make your life fun,'' Conrad tells his skeptical brother. But fun is not what Nicholas wants. Or gets.

He is not amused when Daniel Schorr starts talking directly to him from the TV set. He quickly tires of all the keys and clown mannequins someone keeps leaving on his property. For some reason, he can't seem to get through the day anymore without a stain on his shirt.

Annoying at first, things grow increasingly alarming as Van Orton is set up for a blackmail scandal, shot at, driven into the drink, bled of his assets, drugged and left in a Mexican graveyard. Is his brother also a victim of the sinister, slippery CRS, or perhaps in cahoots with them?

Nicholas' only guide through the acid funhouse that his life becomes is Christine (Deborah Kara Unger, the crumpled steel blonde from Cronenberg's ``Crash,'' doing marvelous, complicated work). She's obviously associated with CRS, too, but to what extent is kept tantalizingly up for grabs.

``The Game'' is lighter than ``Seven.'' I know, the apocalypse would be, too, but Fincher exposes a dark comic side in the new film that nicely meshes with the plot's many improbabilities and fundamental preposterousness. ``The Game'' has a crisp yet ominous look, again brighter than ``Seven's'' purgatorial murk but unsettling just the same.

And there's a lot to like about ``The Game's'' entertaining take on unlikableness. We would have loved it, though, if it ended with equivalent wicked genius.

THE FACTS

The film: ``The Game'' (R; violence, language)

The stars: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn.

Behind the scenes: Directed by David Fincher. Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Produced by Steve Golin and Cean Chaffin. Released by PolyGram Films.

Running time: Two hours, eight minutes.

Playing: Citywide.

Our rating: Three Stars.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Deborah Kara Unger may be in cahoots with the puppeteers in ``The Game,'' but Michael Douglas can't be sure.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Sep 12, 1997
Words:630
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