Shoot-em-up auteurs Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor straddle the line between aping and perfectly executing violent action movies. They spin a wild premise into a rampage that could either be the end-all of bloodbaths or merely a sign of how high (or low) that bar will be in five years. Here, Neveldine and Taylor—or Neveldine/Taylor, as they prefer—top The Running Man by shooting a film about a death game for inmates like an actual video game with jarring bursts of computer static and immersive, frenetic disorientation. Many of the fanboys who should pack in at least late night screenings of Gamer won't have read the recent New York Times profile that describes Neveldine/Tayler as "deeply skeptical of the amoral trash culture they seemingly embody." They just want to know if it's awesome, and to them I say: 'Eh, could be better.'
Billionaire programmer Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) made his fortune with his smash hit Society —an interactive Second Life where players control actual minimum wage humans who wear, say and screw whatever their operator wants. Nine months ago, Americans voted to allow Castle's sequel, Slayers, on the market. This game funds the prison industrial complex by offering convicts a chance to fight for their lives in a kill-or-be-killed brawl where bored teens are controlling their moves. ("It's not murder. It's Slayers." boast billboards mounted everywhere from Times Square to the pyramids of Egypt.) If a living avatar survives 30 battles, they win their freedom. No one has survived even ten—until Kable (Gerard Butler), who's just three battles from escape.
Kable was a murderer when he entered prison, and he's only gotten better since—a tally at the end of his matches shows he regularly scores in the triple digits. His wife (Amber Valletta, one of the last supermodels) is an actress/hooker for Society ; his daughter is a pawn in the foster care system. (The nuclear family re-imagined as game pieces.) And his controller, Simon (Logan Lerman), is a rich 17 year old brat whose main interest in keeping Kable alive is maintaining his internet celebrity, which he measures in videos of girls flashing him their tits.
There's too much chaos here for anyone to register as a character. Butler merely glowers (though he still seems to be having more fun than he did in The Ugly Truth ), and as his wife Valletta is the ne plus ultra of passive hot heroines. Her fur vest and hot pants were picked by a grotesque mouth-breather in his apartment (Neveldine/Taylor pore over his sweaty 400-pound bulk like they're discovering a new planet) and even when Butler makes a rescue attempt, the nanocells in her brain won't let her speak or run for herself. (Though she retains the ability to furrow her brow.)
The only people having fun here are the directors and Michael C. Hall, TV's Dexter and a former Shakespearean actor, who invests his Bill-Gates-if-stoned-and-sociopathic mastermind with the ambition of Iago and the confidence of Othello—qualities he retains even when Neveldine/Taylor have him do a softshoe routine to Sinatra as his minions batter Butler. Despite Neveldine/Taylor's own ambitions, this feels less like a perversion of action flicks and more like the clodding, sincere real thing. But to their credit, they do get a good (if incidental) dig at Sarah Palin's 'Death Panels' when Ludracis, playing the leader of an anti-avatar gang called The Humanz, asks Butler to imagine the next batch of desperate people to fight for our entertainment. Expensive Chemo Treatment Cage Match, anyone?
Cast: Gerard Butler, Michael C. Hall, Amber Valletta, Alison Lohman, John Leguizamo, Kyra Sedgwick, Zoe Bell and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges
Directors/Screenwriters: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
Producers: Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Skip Williamson and Richard S. Wright
Rating: R for frenetic sequences of strong brutal violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and language
Running time: 95 min.
Release date: September 4, 2009