Gerard Butler as Kable
Amber Valletta as Angie
Michael C. Hall as Ken Castle
Kyra Sedgwick as Gina Parker Smith
Logan Lerman as Simon
Alison Lohman as Trace
Terry Crews as Hackman
Ramsey Moore as Gorge
Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as Humanz Brother
Aaron Yoo as Humanz Dude
Jonathan Chase as Geek Leader
Dan Callahan as Backup Geek
Brighid Fleming as Delia
Johnny Whitworth as Scotch
Keith Jardine as Mean Slayer
Michael Weston as Producer
Joseph D. Reitman as Board OP
John de Lancie as Chief of Staff
Milo Ventimiglia as Rick Rape
Zoe Bell as Sandra
John Leguizamo as Freek
Noel Gugliemi as Upgrade Guard
Henry Hayashi as Razorblade
Keith David as Agent Keith
Directed by Neveldine/Taylor
Either “Gamer” is the height of two filmmakers achieving their vision of a future world overrun by society’s desire for sex and violence… or Neveldine & Taylor have finally attained a level of crazy previously only displayed in Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales.”
It’s the near future, the violent interactive video game called “Slayers” is hugely popular, mainly because its star player Kable (Gerard Butler), a death row inmate, constantly puts himself on the front lines to run a gauntlet of deadly tests in order to fight his way to freedom. His goal is to reunite with his wife (Amber Valletta) and daughter and find out who initially framed him for murder. The creator of the game, Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), knows that he can’t let Kable win, so he stacks the odds against him, until the activist group Humanz frees Kable from the game and lets him loose in the real world.
It’s not hard to understand the general premise of this high concept sci-fi actioneer from the filmmaking duo of Neveldine & Taylor, who have seemingly dropped their first names since making “Crank” to form a tighter working bond ala Hammer & Tongs, Frick & Frack or the most appropriate to the viewing of their third feature film… Sado & Masochism. (Yes, that was a joke.)
It’s hard not to be wowed by the opening of some of the world’s most famous landmarks covered in advertising for “Slayers” and a few minutes later, we’re seeing Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), the creator of the game being interviewed by Kyra Sedgwick’s talk show host, answering any and all of the questions the viewer might have about the basics of the two game platforms he created. Both of them use living people as game avatars, using implants to put them into different situations that the gamers at home can control. “Slayers” is a hugely popular spectator sport featuring Death Row convicts fighting out to the death in precarious environments–survive 30 games and you’re free–but billions of others also play a Second Life or Sims-like game called “Society,” where you can either be an “actor” or be a player, the latter whom force their living avatars to play out their every lurid fantasy with others in that environment. Kable’s wife has become an “actor” in that game – we’re never given a reason why she would submit to such degradation and indignities by her slug-like controller, so we assume it’s to take her mind off losing her husband.
This is a movie that you really hope to like because you can tell that Neveldine & Taylor have a lot of interesting and innovative ideas, and their first foray into science fiction plays like a cross between a prison movie and a war movie before ultimately revealing itself as a revenge thriller. As much as “Gamer” tries to declare itself as a post-modern high concept movie, the premise never seems completely thought through. For example the reasoning for people taking part in the game–“they like to have someone else in control”–makes no sense whatsoever when you see what the avatars go through. On top of that, the premise is played out in such post-modern film idea, it is so derivative of so many other films from “Running Man” to “Rollerball” to “The Condemned,” and it has just as much credibility of ever happening as any of those movies. Knowing the general structure for previous war, prison or revenge thrillers it’s fairly predictable to know where things are going.
There’s no denying Butler is rugged enough to pull off a tough guyrole like this without challenging himself much, but it’s just as obvious that Billy Bob Thornton could have played Michael C. Hall’s role without batting an eye. Hall’s ridiculous Southern drawl and cocky swagger adds little to his overly-eccentric performance, which is pretty much par for the movie. When Terry Crews’ vicious killer sings a tune from “Pinocchio,” you can let it slide but when the big final confrontation begins with an entire musical number with Hall doing jazz hands, the movie has pretty much lost anyone who has stuck with it so far. (The filmmakers also seem to have a thing for breakdancing, something we see various avatars do throughout the movie.) Amber Valletta gets shafted even worse than anyone else, almost literally, as she’s forced to parade around in skimpy body-hugging shorts as an avatar while her Jabba-like controller drools on his semi-naked body as he puts her in degrading situations. Ugh.
For all the extra efforts by N&T to assemble a diverse cast, the most amazingly dreadful performance comes from Alison Lohman, who generally seems bored, giving a flat, lifeless line delivery that makes you want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her awake. (After seeing this, it’s amazing that Sam Raimi got so much out of her for “Drag Me to Hell” because this is par for the course with Ms. Lohman.)
Otherwise, their admirable attempts at creating the look and feel of a realistic high-tech video game do work although there are a few times where all of the whacked-out fast-paced visuals make the movie as unwatchable as “Domino” or Jonas Akerlund’s “Spun.” While there are more than a few impressive set pieces with motocross bikes and explosions, there are noticeable spots in the movie where they skimped on the cost for the sake of a gag. That erratic nature of the production values are hard to overlook.
When they have nothing else to show, they throw in a lot of swearing or gory violence or sex. The sad fact is that they’re basically tapping into the basest desires of the testosterone set, their target audience, so can we truly hold it against them? As a fan of the innovation they displayed in “Crank,” it’s almost insulting to think they might deliberately skimp on the character development to focus more on filling every scene with lots of shooting, explosions, blood splatter and topless women making out. Any intelligence or thought that went into developing the central premise is lost as the movie constantly aims for the lowest common denominator, rather than anyone with a brain who might want to think about the more serious implications of this society. When they start reusing gags from “Crank,” one might start to wonder whether N&T are more than one-trick ponies forced to fall back on old tricks when they realize the main story isn’t working as planned
The Bottom Line:
There’s absolutely no question that some will find this movie entertaining–others might even consider it semi-intelligent at least compared to normal action-thrillers–but “Gamer” is nothing more than the meeting of Hollywood “What if” high concept with two young filmmakers’ idea of what young males want to see at the movies. Maybe they’re right, but we should pray to whatever higher powers there may be that that they’re not. Ultimately, they’ve made a video game movie that leaves out the most important part–the ability to control the characters and take them in more interesting directions.