The Good: Decent acting, Moments of concept, Stylish presentation.
The Bad: Unoriginal concept, Characters we don't care about, Moral implications.
The Basics: Not truly all that imaginative (or even interesting), Gamer explores a violent prison game in the near future and follows one criminal's impending freedom while making a bolder statement on the viewers.
For those who follow my regular reviews, I'm making no note of "violence" in the "good" or "bad" sections about the film, Gamer because it is, quite simply That Kind Of Film. Complaining about the violence in Gamer is like complaining about car chases in a Jason Statham film. That there was the closest I come to a clever segue in complaining about Gamer, the 2009's first big Fall action flick for adults who want mindless entertainment. The biggest complaint I had after enduring a screening of this ninety-five minute "shoot-em up" flick was that it did not take long before all I was was bored with the film. My boredom came from an easily-identifiable source: I've seen this movie before. Gamer is a mildly clever twist on Death Race and given that that was a remake, Gamer becomes pretty unoriginal upon reflection. But more than that, Gamer is disturbing because while it might attempt to lampoon the entertainment complex by showing how degenerate a society may become through its entertainment, the way it is directed has the viewer experience the thrill of that moral decay.
This ought to have been unsurprising for me considering that Gamer was written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the team that brought us the one-trick pony Crank and its mind-numbingly pointless sequel earlier last year (which even I could not muster up the enthusiasm to go see!). Neveldine and Taylor play on the same basic instincts with Gamer, a near-future flick that involves tough men with guns, big explosions and pointless nudity. But, again, what are we complaining about, we pretty much figured this going in!
Incarcerated and working as part of a "work release" program, Kable is a player in a game where he is a character in a live-action video game. Along with other convicted criminals, he is plugged into a Gamer's console and he responds to commands to take out adversaries, in this case other convicts. Told he will be set free after thirty victories, Kable begins to become convinced that the system itself is corrupt. As the popularity surrounding Kable grows, pressure is put on Ken Castle, the designer of the system, to keep the ratings high and the system working. When Castle's system is hacked by a group of humans (Humanz) who sense that the system is not above board, Castle begins to hunt for them.
As Kable gets closer to the thirty victories, the system itself seems to be against him and with contacts from Humanz and his controller on the outside, Kable begins to piece together a conspiracy to keep the gaming system intact and popular regardless of whether or not Kable lives or dies! As the menace grows, Kable tries to work with the sympathetic forces to expose the corruption of Castle and the game and free his wife from the counterpart game, Society.
Gamer, to be fair, often feels fresher than it actually is and the directors do occasionally unexpected things like throw in a literal song and dance (this is less surprising when one knows that Michael C. Hall, who plays Castle, has a dance and theater background). But for the most part, Gamer is undermined because exactly what we suspect will happen does. This includes, rather annoyingly, moments where the mind-control technology of the gaming system is sublimated to sheer human will and we are meant to feel like human will can trump anything. Unfortunately, in this context, the idea is more problematic. Kable is supposed to be at the mercy of his player, Simon, and even the idea of Kable being able to speak without Simon controlling it becomes problematic for the concept. After all, if Kable truly has the will to take on the system all along, how did he get so far with Simon controlling him?
This leads to an unnecessary and often-pointless plot involving the reasons Kable was incarcerated and the state of his family on the outside. Here the film more-than borrows from Death Race and given how often uninspired that movie was, it is unsurprising how the whole conspiracy story unravels. As a result, Gamer is a movie that has multiple personalities, even if both are monolithic. One half of the film is a pointless, violent action-adventure film wherein a man responds to controls from a player to blow apart other human beings (who just happen to be death row inmates). The other half of the movie is a mystery involving Kable's family and the institutions which arose to create the game "Slayers."
Gamer is stripped of any real social commentary or social relevancy, though, because Ken Castle is a somewhat monolithic villain. There is something not right about the entrepreneur from the beginning and the movie spends more time looking at him and his issues than it does at exploring one of the basic questions the film implies. If death row criminals are set free after thirty wins - which involve killing, maiming and generally violent behavior - what is the penal system doing to society? The idea that video games are bad for people is a metaphor in hyperbole in Gamer, but the idea that in addition to raising a new generation of psychopaths (the gamers who devalue human life by playing with death row inmates) our society becomes content within a quarter decade to let out the current generation's psychopaths for doing exactly what got them incarcerated to begin with is utterly ridiculous. As a result, this becomes a movie one can only watch with their brain firmly in the off position (though there are plenty of explosions and bright lights for those who do!). And with the nudity, gratuitous murders and explosions, the viewer becomes essentially the characters who are lampooned for being slovenly controllers.
The acting in Gamer is fair, with most of the performers simply playing to their strengths. Michael C. Hall uses his theater background and ability to vocalize in dialect well and Kyra Sedgwick shows up and plays essentially the same way she does in The Closer. Even Ludacris (Chris Bridges) is surprisingly sedate in this movie and playing along the lines of other characters he has in the past. Of course everyone in Gamer looks Hollywood beautiful in either obvious or "ruggedly good-looking" ways.
Gerard Butler once again plays a warrior and here his performance is entirely within what is expected of him and it is hard to be empathetic with his character because Kable is a bad guy on some level. Butler plays the role as the archetypal action hero and lets the dialogue make for any character ambiguities, but on screen, he is tough, moves well and he carries the action scenes. Even so, he has no more depth here than he did in, for example, The Bounty Hunter (click here for that review!)
Still, there is nothing remarkable about Gamer and this became very easy to pass up in theaters. Now on DVD, Gamer features surprisingly sparse, but predictable, bonus features. There is a commentary track which neglects much of the film's actual commentary as well as two featurettes on the making of the movie and the film's trailer.
None of this makes the movie more worth watching.
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© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.