"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 globetrotting adventure. 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 an Indiana Jones story conference -- "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: There are investigative teams infiltrating the Chinese shops that sell illegal ivory, raids on the homes of poachers, night patrols with the rangers protecting elephants in Tanzania, a bristling confrontation between rangers and poacher-sympathizing farmers. The complexities of the global ivory trade emerge only vaguely -- they're treated as a backdrop to thrills, rather than the film's subject.