When it comes to making an effective thriller on a low budget, films like John Carpenter’s 1976 classic Assault on Precinct 13 offer a familiar but valuable lesson: Keep it simple, stupid. Or, to put it another way: Filmmakers with shallow pockets often can’t afford to execute the mammoth ambition they’ve poured onto the page. Writer-director Damien Lay’s debut fiction feature, Game of Aces, embodies this teaching to the fullest extent. Each facet of its spare construction—only three main characters, one unified setting, and a timespan of around a day—reflects a canny, utilitarian approach to both plot and budget. Perhaps most tellingly, this is a film about aviators and planes that sputters to the end of its 97-minute running time without one of its main characters piloting a functional aircraft.
The film’s WWI-set story sees Captain Jackson Cove (Chris Klein), a grizzled former flyboy grounded for frequent and flagrant drunkenness, tasked with rescuing a German double agent, Josef Von Zimmermann (Werner Daehn), who’s crashed in the middle of an Egyptian desert. Posh nurse Eleanor Morgan (Victoria Summer) rides along to assist him in the proceedings, but spends most of her time spouting exposition and complaining about Cove’s erratic antics. From the faux-grindhouse opening credits, which feature digitally implanted saturation artifacts and a font that can only be described as “Tarantino-esque,” it’s clear that the film isn’t particularly interested in WWI as a historic event. Instead, it’s focused more on embodying the tone and tropes of the pop culture that resulted from the conflict, such as films like Inglourious Basterds and the video-game series Medal of Honor. Hence, Eleanor the nurse wears five pounds of highly conspicuous glamor makeup that the relentless desert sun never seems to erode, and Captain Cove yells his catchphrase, “Batter up!,” before whacking anything or anyone.
While these stylized sensibilities can grate, the comic chemistry between Klein and Summers manages to carry the film’s first half hour. Unfortunately, once their characters finally happen upon Daehn’s double agent and the wheels of the plot begin to spin in earnest, the film simply gives way to things exploding and people screaming at each other, and none of it with much sense. A core part of what makes stripped-down thrillers like Assault on Precinct 13 and Die Hard so compelling is their economy of worldview: Though the characters may dwell in the damp fog that lies on the line between right and wrong, their goals and allegiances are always clear. Not so in Game of Aces. As the shoestring action begins to ramp up more and more, characters switch sides and shift motivations on a whim, dictated less by the dynamics of their personalities and more by the needs of the screenplay.