STUDIO: Lionsgate Home Entertainment
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
- Cast and Filmmakers Commentary
- “Inside the Game” Making-of Documentary
- “First Person Shooter: The Evolution of Red” Featurette
Running Man meets Death Race 2000 meets about a dozen other sci-fi movies, by way of the many video games that have ripped them off.
Starring Gerard Butler, Amber Valletta, Michael C. Hall, Terry Crews, and Kyra Sedgwick, written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.
It’s an unspecified point in the near future, and video games have reached a whole new level of popularity and immersiveness thanks to the development of nanotechnology that allows gamers to control other real, live, flesh and blood humans. Developed by a former military man named Ken Castle (Hall), the technology was first implemented in a Sims/Second Life style game called Society, which offers a paycheck to anyone willing to subject him or herself to being controlled by someone else. Castle’s massively popular new creation is Slayers, a Call of Duty-esque combat game. This time the controllable characters are death row inmates who volunteer for the game in the hope of making it through 30 rounds and being granted their freedom. Gerard Butler stars as Kable, the most successful player to date, who desperately wants to be reunited with his wife (Valletta) and child on the outside and has a secret past that Castle wants to keep secret at all costs. With the help of an underground resistance group Kable sets out to escape from captivity and bring down Castle and his empire.
The Crank films seemed to announce the arrival of a team of insanely inventive, manic new feature filmmakers in the form of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. With their juvenile, politically incorrect sensibility and hyperactive short attention span sensory overload style, the adventures of Chev Chelios aren’t for everyone, but I think it’s undeniable that Neveldine and Taylor are creative, talented guys. But to what extent? Though it’s technically their third film as directors, Gamer is sort of the pair’s tricky sophomore album; their first time doing something (arguably) outside of the bizarre universe of Crank, and thus a test. Do they have range? Can their style work in other contexts? Are they really insane geniuses or one-trick ponies (albeit with a really wild, entertaining trick)?
I’m pretty sure this is just an old Pink Floyd album cover. Hipgnosis better lawyer up.
Gamer isn’t any kind of career-killing disaster, and even reaffirms some of the duo’s strengths, but it does remove some of the luster by also illuminating their weaknesses. The Crank films are driven entirely by energy and crazy ideas, not plot or character. They’re ADHD streams of consciousness fueled by years of video games, music videos, crazy shit from YouTube, and a healthy dose of outré cinema. Gamer has some of that energy and inventiveness but really falters in trying to take serious stabs at narrative and emotion.
The story is an unfocused mishmash of largely underdeveloped ideas borrowed from a dozen other sci-fi and action films. Exposition comes in awkward dumps between meandering stretches, and important characters and information are sloppily thrown in late in the film. The characters are uniformly flat, which isn’t as much of a problem when your movie is basically a living cartoon, but becomes an obstacle when viewers are supposed to care about them and what they’re doing in at least a semi-serious way.
“No, I don’t have a goddamn multipass. And who the hell is Korben Dallas?”
And then there’s the central theme of the movie, a warning about technology’s potential to dehumanize. It’s an idea that’s already been discussed to death by every high school pothead, amateur philosopher, and sci-fi geek, as well as plenty of other, better films, books, songs, and so on. That’s not to say it should be retired from art altogether, But doing something new and smart with it seems to be another skill that falls outside of Neveldine and Taylor’s wheelhouse.
Clearly to them all of that was secondary to making a kick-ass action movie, and that might have even been okay, but here’s the thing: serious action isn’t really their forte either. Again, look at the Crank films: the action mostly comes in short bursts, and if you break the more protracted action scenes down they’re basically just people standing around shooting at each other. Neveldine and Taylor are very much from the modern school of using a lot of fast cutting and camera movement to create excitement. There isn’t a focus on choreography or the sense of space, time, or flow you get from the masters. Crank makes up for that by being colorful and having ample bits of weirdness and humor going on during the action scenes. Since those elements are toned down in Gamer, the action scenes lack punch. It’s a lot of Gerard Butler running through generic, grey warehouses and urban warzones shooting guys that pop out in front of him. There are exciting moments, but overall the action is too generic to drive the film.
Terry Crews auditioned for the titular role in the new American Godzilla. I say hire him, that way you don’t need a suit. Or miniature cities.
But as I said at the beginning, it’s not all bad. The movie looks great, and there are still some inventive, exciting camera moves and shot choices. Although there’s nothing at the level of immersion or detail that films like Blade Runner or Children of Men have, Neveldine and Taylor create a cool looking future world. There’s a ample violence and some fun kills on display. And when the film does get to cut loose and get a little strange or funny, it really livens things up.
A lot of that comes in the form of the delightfully big, scenery chewing performances of Michael C. Hall and Terry Crews, both clearly relishing the chance to go over the top. Crews, playing a ringer brought into the game to take down Gerard Butler’s character, is a complete maniac, a blend of snarling menace and gleeful insanity perfectly exemplified by a scene in which he gives demented a cappella performance of “I’ve Got No Strings” from Pinocchio. Hall, meanwhile, is the perfect cocky, sleazy weirdo of an antagonist, with odd mannerisms and his own unhinged song and dance number in the film’s climax (Yes, that’s right, there’s a brief musical number here, complete with death row prisoner backup dancers. That’s the Neveldine and Taylor we’ve come to know and love!). Hall’s sheer charisma even makes up for his vague, inconsistent attempt at a southern accent.
“Kyra Sedgwick is great as The Closer. And by that I mean that I think of her when I climax”
“It just hit me… I’m basically a slightly more attractive version of the main character from Strangers With Candy!”
Unfortunately the film’s other lead performances are bland and forgettable, Chief among them is Butler, whose presence really is about on par with a generic, disposable video game character, despite having characteristics and a backstory that are meant to make you root for and sympathize with him. But it’s in stuff like the aforementioned villains, and other little bits like an unabashedly harsh caricature of the stereotypical shut-in video game obsessive, where the twisted genius of Neveldine and Taylor does shine through. One mediocre film out of three, especially when the other two are Crank and Crank 2, is hardly enough for me to write these guys off, but hopefully whatever they do next will be something that plays more to their strengths (I know the consensus right now is that it’s not happening, but please god let that be Crank 3).
The highlight of the special features is a fun, laid back commentary track with Neveldine, Taylor, Crews, and Valletta. While it’s not a super informative track, the directors come off as fairly smart, funny, likable guys, As evidenced by some self-deprecating jokes about stuff in the film that doesn’t make sense, they don’t take things too seriously, but it’s also clear that they’re passionate about what they do and really enjoy it. Crews just seems like a down to earth, cool guy, and a bit of a secret nerd (multiple shout outs to John Carpenter, Enter the Dragon, and the arcade game Defender), which is neat. Valletta doesn’t have as much to say but she’s game for the guys’ antics. The three part making-of is surprisingly in depth and illuminating, on one hand showing how creative and involved these guys get with their run and gun, heavily practical approach to action filmmaking, but on the other hand also revealing that they did tone down some of their trademark craziness and make some creative compromises because of the film’s bigger budget and higher profile. The final feature, about shooting the film on Red cameras, feels a bit too much like a promo for the company, but is appropriate considering these guys are on the cutting edge of digital filmmaking.
Just so you know, I could’ve made this entire review nothing but screegrabs of Terry Crews being awesome. P-P-P-P-P-P-POWER!