While the writing/directing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor devised a fast-paced thrill ride with ‘Crank’ and an over-the-line shockfest with ‘Crank: High Voltage,’ they seem to be straddling the line with ‘Gamer.’ Loads of action abound, and not a minute goes by without something, anything, blowing up, but there’s a sense of frivolity mixed with sleaze that the film just can’t escape from. I’m sure this is what Neveldine & Taylor were going for. Anyone who sat through ‘Crank: High Voltage’ knows the duo has absolutely no aversion to pushing the envelope of taste. Unfortunately, while half of ‘Gamer’ provides some slam-bang fun, there’s another part that moves away from entertainment and back into shock territory.
Set in the future, though “not too distant” as most seemingly intelligent sci-fi/actioners will set themselves nowadays, ‘Gamer’ centers on “Slayers,” a game/pay-per-view event that has swept the nation. Prison inmates are given an opportunity for release from their life sentences. They go onto battlefields, deserted city streets, and any other arenas the games creator/owner, Ken Castle, played by Michael C. Hall, can devise. There, they battle through the area, trying to come out alive on the other end. Only one catch. They are not in control of their own bodies. At-home-players who shell out ample amounts of dollars are able to control the prisoners, making every move for them.
One prisoner, in particular, is only four games away from surviving the 30 it takes for release. Kable, played by Gerard Butler, is the only inmate in the history of “Slayers” to have come as close as he is. Played by a 17-year-old kid, Kable tears through his opponents, coming out virtually unscathed in every match. As a prisoner, Kable is John Tillman, a man who just wants to get home to his wife and daughter. Unfortunately for Tillman, Castle has other intentions than just letting him breeze through his final matches.
There’s room for social commentary in ‘Gamer.’ The game itself acts as a mass-scale, multi-player online game a la “World of Warcraft,” with millions of people choosing to live the lives of other people. “Society,” an early conception from Castle, acts more like real-life “Sims” than real-life “Gears of War,” and the scenes involving the people who live in and live through the game “Society” offer some of the more interesting scenarios in ‘Gamer.’ Neveldine and Taylor, however, aren’t too concerned with social commentary. They seem more the types of guys who would play “Society,” not sit on the outside voicing their opinions on the people that do. Therefore, all ‘Gamer’ has to offer is wall-to-wall action, scintillating depravities, and enough quick editing to make mid-90s Oliver Stone look like David Lean in comparison.
But, that’s all well and good if that’s your thing. What it does have to offer, ‘Gamer’ does right. The first half of the film, the battle sequences, in particular, is loaded with high-octane action that will leave any action-seeker craving more. The usage of camera as the view jumps from the action to what Kable’s player is seeing and back to the action is very well crafted, as well. A lot of thought went into the battle sequences to keep any of them from falling flat. You have to enjoy the action on strictly surface level alone, though. Thinking too hard about the rules of the game or certain, gaping plot holes may cause nosebleeds. Don’t think about it too much, and you’ll certainly have no issues getting into the idea of snowplow trucks running people over and various ways to break one person’s neck. All the elements Neveldine and Taylor use in their action set pieces are used for the sheer entertainment value of it all, and, in that, much of ‘Gamer’ succeeds.
The action, however, doesn’t hold up throughout the film. Much of it dies down in the film’s latter half, as Kable begins the search for his wife and daughter. Much of this is helped by Butler, who never shies away from giving his all in a performance. Whether he is stepping into the part of the Phantom of the Opera or playing off a wacky Jodie Foster in ‘Nim’s Island,’ Butler always seems to take his roles seriously, and that fact alone helps much of what his character is doing in ‘Gamer.’ It is unfortunate, though, that, while you realize he has obstacles to overcome in the film, the true villain, Castle, steps away from the picture for a rather large segment of film. More Michael C. Hall never hurts anything, but here, even with his Cracker Barrel accent and slimy demeanor, his absence becomes ever more noticeable as the film’s second half progresses. Terry Crews steps in for a bit as the central antagonist, and he tries his best with what he has to work with. It’s just not enough, however.
There really isn’t much to say about a subplot involving a revolutionary group called HUMANZ. It’s necessary to the plot, and it provides a few noticeable performances by Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges and Alison Lohman. However, you can’t help but think the plot could have benefited from a rewrite around this group. The groups is a deus ex machina, only serving a slight purpose to move the screenplay forward and forgotten about once its duty is done. Not only does it serve very little purpose in the grand scheme of things, it makes the comparisons between ‘Gamer’ and ‘Running Man’ all the more obvious.
More could have been done with the dichotomy between Kable and his player, too. They never share screen time together, and only converse in one or two scenes. So much more could have been explored in this relationship, particularly since the player, played well by Logan Lerman, isn’t a one-note character. Like most others playing “Society” and “Slayers” in the world of ‘Gamer,’ he’s sleazy and has very little interest in others, but something builds in the character. Of all the characters in the film, he is the one who goes through the most transformation. This is hardly explored, and more scenes between he and Kable would have done wonders for the overall package.
Amidst the mindless violence and garish, sexual imagery (Neveldine & Taylor seem to use shots of bare breasts and dialogue about porn stars as commas), there are some interesting elements to the film. References here and there about Pinocchio are always welcome within a film about losing one’s physical control. Even if it isn’t all that deep, it causes you to crack a smile hearing Crews sing a few lines of “I’ve Got No Strings.” So, too, does a scene late in the film revolving around Hall leading a group of security guards in a song-and-dance sequence of Sammy Davis Jr.’s recording of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” That scene, while probably having a lot of moviegoers rolling their eyes, is a blast to watch, and it isn’t long before the action kicks in again.
‘Gamer’ is an up and down ride, a wooden rollercoaster to ‘Crank’s virtual reality tour of never-ending intensity. It’s highs offer some fierce action even if it’s nothing we haven’t seen a dozen times before. Unfortunately, the lows in ‘Gamer’ don’t have much to offer, either, and the film ends up being like some cheap, plywood set piece. It entertains. It blows up. It’s swept away and forgotten about. It’s fun while you’re on it, but, once the ride is over, it’s nothing you want to race yourself to the back of the line to ride again.