The kidnapping movie is a great choice for filmmakers with limited budgets because it allows you to create a tense and compelling story with minimal settings and characters. That’s exactly what the makers of The Badger Game bet on with their story and it shows both the benefits of the concept as well as the problems it can run into.
The titular concept refers to a ransom scenario in which the victim is lured into a morally compromising situation so the kidnappers can use it against them for blackmail purposes. The mark is Liam (Sam Boxleitner), a sleazebag businessman who regularly cheats on his wife. The plotters are Alex (Augie Duke), a jilted sidepiece of Liam’s, and her dim but violent brother Kip (Patrick Cronen).
Also drawn into the plot are Jane (Sasha Higgins), another woman wronged by Liam, and Shelley (Jillian Leigh), a down-on-her-luck ex-pal of Alex’s who is talked into being the bait for a piece of the action. The kidnapping is successful but things almost immediately begin going wrong once the plotters try to blackmail Liam. Pretty soon, the dysfunctions of the group are tearing them apart as their plans spiral into greed, resentment and violence.
All the elements are in place for a nice, tense kidnapping flick and to be fair to The Badger Game, there is a mechanical effectiveness to its audience manipulation tactics: the film delivers an appropriate amount of twists along with a few squirm-inducing bits of violence so the proceedings never get dull.
Unfortunately The Badger Game never really capitalizes on its momentum because writer/directors Joshua Wagner and Thomas Zambeck never rise above that basic level of manipulation. The characterizations are mostly thin and unlikeable, which makes it hard to get too emotionally invested when things go wrong and people start dying. There’s a lot of swagger in the dialogue as it reaches for sarcasm but it usually feels forced. The setpieces are sometimes compelling but the plot stringing them together often suffers from lapses in logic or loose ends.
The directing technique is hit-and-miss, with violent scenes failing to hit as hard as they should because of awkward choreography and a lot of underlit night scenes that really wear on the viewer’s eyes after a while. The filmmakers fare better with their actors, who all put a lot of energy and commitment into often sketchy characterizations. Leigh probably fares the best as the most likeable of the kidnappers and Higgins has a few choice moments as a woman whose uses sarcasm to hide some emotional wounds.
In short, The Badger Game is a middling example of the kidnapping thriller that is never as nerve-wracking or darkly humorous as it would like to be. The energy is right but the craftsmanship needs work.
Blu-Ray Notes: Severin recently released this title to blu-ray via their Intervision Picture Corp. sub-label. The transfer does as well as it can with the uneven photography, with the interior sequences looking the best. The audio is a lossless presentation of a 5.1 stereo mix: there’s not a lot of multi-speaker activity happening here but the blend is smooth overall.
As for extras, two commentary tracks are included. The first features filmmakers Wagner and Zambeck as well as composer London May. The co-directors offer plentiful production tales and appreciations of their cast, with May adding some interesting material about how the score was created. The second track features actors Duke, Leigh and Higgins: it’s a jokey, playful track with periodic gaps of silence where they talk about the performance challenges from scene to scene and cheer on each other’s work.