“Are we really in our generation going to allow the biggest mammal on earth to disappear?” asks a conservationist late in Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson's propulsive ivory-trade doc. That simple question cuts to the heart in ways that much of this showy, desperately dramatic pseudo-thriller doesn't. The title is a giveaway: The Ivory Game suggests the kind of globetrotting paperback adventure that Larry King might blurb as “a helluva read!” before it gets adapted into a big-budget studio feature.
The music pounds, pulses, seizes your ears to demand you get how tense everything is. Ladkani and Davidson offer up sweeping aerial shots of SUVs surging down African two-lanes, then glass-and-gold reflection-scapes of Hong Kong skyscrapers glinting above the South China Sea. “You cannot trust anyone,” a white anti-poaching investigator tells us as he and the camera stalk down a dark Hong Kong alley. An aproned worker rocks in a hammock as we hear those words, and it stings that a film as nobly intended as The Ivory Game has gone all-in on Hollywood filmmaking, right down to the demonization of what George Lucas called — in a story conference for Raiders of the Lost Ark — “third-world local sleazos.”
There are only something like 500,000 elephants left in the world, and one gets killed — we’re told — every 15 minutes, but the filmmakers seem to believe that the only way to get us to care is to juice their doc with performance-enhancing Bourne suspense. But the material is suspenseful already: Investigative teams infiltrate the Chinese shops that sell illegal ivory, and the Vietnamese wholesalers ship it into China, where most of the world's illegal ivory is sold.
There are also raids on the homes of poachers, night patrols with the rangers protecting elephants in Tanzania, a bristling confrontation between rangers and poacher-sympathizing farmers whose crops the herds have trampled. In Hong Kong, one ivory merchant spots the investigators' hidden camera, and rather than let the footage play out or allow the principals to tell us what happened and how they handled this, the filmmakers crank up the tense music and cut to the skyline for a long moment, goosing real life to play like a TV drama's season finale.
The complexities of the global ivory trade emerge only vaguely — they’re treated as a backdrop to suspense, here, rather than the film's subject. The specifics we get are fascinating: A poacher scores about $250 for killing an elephant, which works out to $7 a kilo for ivory that will fetch $3,000 a kilo in China. The filmmakers show a poacher, under arrest, having the economics of this explained to him, but they never investigate what financial circumstances might have led him to such terrible work. Sergey Yastrzhembskiy’s competing doc Ivory: A Crime Story — a shakily translated import playing in theaters on the coasts the same week that The Ivory Game premieres — shows us the poachers as criminals but not as generic movie “bad guys.”
That film points out that, along with the ivory, an elephant yields its killers 700 kilos of meat. “As long as people in Africa remain hungry,” the narrator states, “it won't be possible to ask of respect [sic] for the elephant population.” Then, terrifyingly, Yastrzhembskiy shows a poacher being beaten by rangers in a Tanzania preserve. Ivory: A Crime Story is unstinting in its footage of man-vs.-animal and man-vs.-man brutality, while the anxious-for-eyeballs The Ivory Game eschews actual violence — or dispiriting complexity. The nastiest it gets is husked pachyderm carcasses, dried and rotting on the savannah.
The Ivory Game has a compelling hero, though. Chief among its crusading investigators is Hongxiang Huang, a steely young Chinese activist/reporter who introduces himself by announcing straight-up that he's not playing by the usual script: “In the past, it's always the white people who are the good guys, the local black people who are the bad guys and the Chinese people who are the extremely bad guys.” To that end, he travels the world, going undercover as a potential ivory purchaser, playing the dealers' assumptions about Chinese men against them. Those assumptions about China's ivory-lust are so pervasive that, in Ivory: A Crime Story, Yastrzhembskiy's narrator uncharitably declares of that country's 1.4 billion citizens, “The only people trying to save the face of China are Chinese celebrities and sports stars.”
So The Ivory Game is often pushily compelling. If it settled down and trusted viewers, it would stand as a stronger documentary. But this is more a work of activism than journalism. Perhaps candying it up like this, gel-capping the real world so it goes down easily, will help convince more viewers to get to the end of it. The narrative is loosely arranged around the hunt for Shetani, “the Devil,” the notorious leader of a poaching syndicate. We see officials studying bullets pulled from elephant carcasses, CSI-style, and then witness true armed encounters as Shetani's men get arrested. Of course you'll see the big fish get hooked before the end — a crowd-pleasing suspense thriller doesn't introduce a villain if that villain won't get bested.
That arrest gives the filmmakers an excuse to wrap their story on a hopeful note, a real Hollywood ending of busted bad guys, but it's immediately undercut by pre-credits titles reminding us of the global scope of the ivory trade. Reducing a complex international scandal to fit the narrative of another bring-down-the-villain thriller suggests that incidental heroics are the solution, rather than economic development that curtails the allure of poaching or concerted pressure on Beijing to kill the import trade once and for all.