The most remarkable thing about the comedy Tag, about a group of middle-aged men who have been playing a high-stakes game of tiggy for 30 years, is that it's based on a true story.
Journalist Russell Adams wrote in a 2013 Wall Street Journal story about the history of 10 childhood friends from Spokane, Washington who had signed a legal agreement codifying the rules of a game of tag that would go live every year for the entire month of February.
In the movie spawned by that article (and others by Adams), the five men who manage to keep their childhood game going despite age, geography, and such boring adult circumstances as jobs, illness, marriage and children are Hoagie (Ed Helms), Chilli (Jake Johnson), Sable (Hannibal Buress), Callahan (Jon Hamm) and Jerry (Jeremy Renner).
For these men, nothing is off limits: not state lines, weddings, funerals or delivery rooms. While girls weren't allowed to play when they were growing up, the women in their lives are now involved too, especially Hoagie's overzealous wife Anna (Isla Fisher), who will do anything to help her man avoid being "it".
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who has two best actor Oscar nominations to his name, Renner confesses he was originally underwhelmed with the premise of the story.
"I didn't care for a bunch of old men playing tag, I thought that was ridiculous," says the actor best-known for The Hurt Locker, The Bourne Legacy and the Avengers movies. "But then I got the script and read the article and saw home videos and started getting really excited.
"I came to realise that for them, this game just means they're expressing their affection for each other, and I love the idea that it's a celebration of the youthful spirit in all of us."
Fisher took her comedic role very seriously – so much so that she claims she based her depiction of Anna on Joe Pesci's character in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. "I thought, 'that's a unique female comedy character that fits into this world'," she says. "She has a very passionate relationship with her husband and she'll do anything for him."
Fisher reveals the original tag players and their wives came to visit the set and spent an evening with the cast, regaling them with stories.
"The women have so many great stories too," she says. One of them, immortalised in Adams' story with a tale of tearing her knee ligament after being startled by a tagger hidden in the boot of her car, told her what came next. "She went out drinking with her husband and the friend who tagged him and just put her leg on the bar all night and didn't go to the hospital until the next day," she chuckles.
Another woman, she says, "used to rat out her own husband, so she would literally tell the other guys when she saw them coming, 'Mike's at Applebee's [restaurant]!' It's really interesting how involved the women are in the game now."
Helms says spending time with the real tag players made a big impression on all of them. "Seeing them and their friendship and how happy they were and how they stayed together as friends through this game, it was really inspiring for the whole cast to feel that energy and feed off it," he says.
The notion that friendship is really at the heart of this bizarre decades-long ritual was highlighted in an anecdote recorded by Adams. In it, Brian Konesky recalled spending two days hiding in the bushes outside his friend's apartment before finally conceding defeat and accepting he would be "it" for another year. But any sense of victory the friend, who had skipped town for the weekend, might have felt was undermined by regret. "I felt bad," Chris Ammann says. "I think I would have sacrificed getting tagged just to spend some time with him."
Fun though it has been, bringing a story like this to a wider audience doesn't come without risks, as Helms knows only too well.
"After The Hangover, everybody wanted to buy me drinks and get me drunk to party with them," he says. "If a lot of people see this film, it could be a real problem with people running up to us at airports, hitting us and saying 'you're it' and running away. That could be crazy."
Tag is on general release
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