In “End Game”, the President is assassinated while under the diligent protection of uber Secret Service agent Alex Thomas (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who takes a bullet through the hand, but suffers even more from personal guilt. For you see, the killing shot wouldn’t have hit the President if it hadn’t bounced off Thomas’ hand first. (In a bit of trivia, just 10 years ago Jack Scalia, who plays the President here, would be playing the Thomas role.) Enter intrepid reporter Kate Crawford (Angie Harmon), whose investigation leads her to believe a conspiracy is afoot. After a failed hit on his life and Kate’s, Thomas quickly becomes a believer, but as we all know, realizing that there is a conspiracy and proving it are two entirely different matters.
Directed by former Tae Kwon Do champ and stuntman Andy Cheng, “End Game” is not altogether a bad action thriller. Oh sure, the conspiracy has almost no complexity to it, but the action is quite good, and the stars are more than up to the task. Far removed from his Oscar winning role in “Jerry Maguire” (not to mention a slew of really, really bad comedies), Cuba Gooding Jr. is surprisingly believable as an action star, chasing after bad guys with steely determination and leaping out of ponds with weapon in hand with the best of them. Former “Law and Order” babe Angie Harmon’s Kate Crawford plays the comedic sidekick to Gooding’s straight man, and is so charming that one wishes she had more to do after the film’s 30 minute mark. You also have to imagine what a nice change of pace this must have been for Gooding, who is usually saddled with the sidekick role.
Alas, the script by director Andy Cheng and J.C. Pollock has plot holes the size of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s bald head. The bad guys, led by perennial menacing henchman Peter Greene, are not the brightest masterminds in the world, resorting to good ol fashion explosives in order to conceal their meticulously planned conspiracy. Hey, an old lady and her daughter living in a trailer may know something. Blow’em up! Guys, I think that secret service agent and the reporter may know something. Blow’em up! You would think people who have conspired to kill the President would be a bit more discreet about covering their tracks. These guys don’t even know the meaning of the word. Although to be fair, instead of blowing up the bum that may know something, they just burn the guy to death. How quaint.
But while intricate conspiracy plotting is shamefully shortchanged, “End Game’s” real concern is the action, and Cheng and company certainly knows what they’re doing in this area. In one of the film’s best sequence, Thomas is on foot pursuing a suspect who is fleeing in a truck just used in a hit-and-run. Thomas manages to shoot out the truck’s windows, but the suspect escapes when Thomas is grabbed by cops (he was, after all, a crazy guy running down the street with a gun). But here’s the good part: instead of the chase being over, the suspect decides to come back for a drive-by on Thomas and the cops! Priceless.
Although not a full-fledged A-list Hollywood production (it clocks in with a budget of $20 million), “End Game” does have a number of glorified cameos, most notably James Woods as the do-nothing head of the Secret Service, and Burt Reynolds, whose face is looking mighty shiny post — well, whatever it was he had done to his mug. Woods, in particular, has a thankless role, although his character did participate in an incredibly (albeit unintentionally) hilarious moment when Thomas, after shooting two guys who had tried to kill him at his house and getting into a wild gunfight with a motorist earlier in the day, goes to Woods to ask for manpower in order to continue the investigation. As expected, Woods turns him down, but here’s the kicker: even though he’s the head of the Secret Service, Woods had no idea that one of his agents recently escaped an assassination attempt and was in a street shootout earlier in the day! Sheesh, no wonder the President got shot.
Like most films about government conspiracies and cover-ups, there’s a “final mastermind” that needs to be uncovered by the film’s heroes. “End Game” throws a couple of red herrings at us using its two big names (Woods and Reynolds), but the two men have so few scenes in the entire movie that it’s hard to take them seriously as the hidden mastermind. As a result, the Big Reveal is perfunctory, probably because the audience had already figured out the mastermind’s identity before the film’s heroes did. Although to give the film credit, the reasons behind the assassination was indeed very unexpected, if overly trite.
As a political thriller, “End Game” easily delivers on the thriller part, but is nowhere bright enough to survive the political section. It’s a plot-by-numbers conspiracy movie, with some winning performances from Gooding Jr. as a hardass gunman on a mission and Angie Harmon as his attractive sidekick. As well, the action scenes are very worthwhile; there aren’t a whole lot of them, but they pack quite a punch. If you went into the film not expecting anything overly clever in the plotting department, then “End Game” should meet your lowered expectations.
Andy Cheng (director) / J.C. Pollock, Andy Cheng (screenplay)
CAST: Cuba Gooding Jr. …. Alex Thomas
James Woods …. Vaughn Stevens
Angie Harmon …. Kate Crawford
Patrick Fabian …. Brian Martin
Peter Greene …. Jack Baldwin
Burt Reynolds …. General Montgomery