The boys behind the Crank franchise, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (or Neveldine/Taylor as they bill themselves), are back with Gamer—perhaps the most deliriously demented film of the year. I say that with honest admiration for the deliriously demented. The trailer tried to downplay its outrageousness and strangeness—making it seem more like a dumb action movie and less like a Crank movie. Don’t be fooled. While Gerard Butler’s Kable is a somewhat less ridiculous figure than Jason Statham’s Crank hero and there’s less sexuality (or at least a different kind), this is very much in the same frenetic, assault-on-good-taste-and-the-senses mold. Dismissing Gamer as absurd (as at least one critic has done) is to completely miss the point.
Now, I’ve told you up-front that Gamer is like the Crank pictures, so when you find out that it’s not the clone of last year’s Death Race (as Gamer’s trailer tries to make it look like), don’t complain to me. Yes, there are aspects of the film’s “Slayer” battles that look a lot like Death Race (though they actually look more like video-game renderings of the action scenes at the end of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2008 City of Men—with viscera and bad taste added). And the premise of criminals winning their freedom by competing in death matches is not dissimilar.
Then again, neither is the premise dissimilar to Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man (1987)—right down to the wrongly convicted man angle. The social-critique aspects are also present, but the satire is retooled for the video-game generation and Gamer—being a Neveldine/Taylor film—is all about style and frenetic and increasingly preposterous action. How preposterous is the action? Well, without giving too much away—since the charms (assuming you see them that way) of these fellows’ work lie in discovering that for yourself—here is a movie in which a pint of vodka fuels an ethanol-powered vehicle used in a lengthy high-speed prison break. What is truly astonishing isn’t that improbability, but how Kable gets the vodka into the gas tank. And that I won’t tell you—but it’s almost enough to prepare you for … no, I won’t tell you that either, but keep the name Cole Porter in your mind.
The story of the film has it that computer genius Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall, TV’s Dexter) has hooked the world on two video games. One—the seemingly more benign of the two—is called “Society” and consists of playing characters in a hyper-sexualized, utterly sleazy world. In other words, it’s a lot like a Neveldine/Taylor movie come to life. The trick is that the gamers are controlling real people, who through some hocus-pocus nanotechnology, have altered brains that place them at the whim of their gamer controllers. The other game, “Slayer,” involves the same concept applied to death-row inmates fighting to the death—or to winning 30 games and their freedom. The lesser casualties are given over to lower-grade criminals who are freed if they survive a smaller number of matches. Given the carnage level, their chances of survival are slightly lower than a Star Trek extra in a red suit.
“Slayer” also works as a viewer spectacle. Both the key on-screen players and the gamers who play them are celebrities. Top of the heap is Kable and his 17-year-old controller, Simon (the actual 17-year-old Logan Lerman, 3:10 to Yuma). But there’s trouble afoot because Kable is nearing the magical 30—something Castle won’t let happen, partly because Kable knows the damning truth about Castle. Throw in an underground organization called Humanz out to stop Castle, Kable’s backstory, Kable’s “Society” wife (Amber Valletta, Dead Silence), a dubious talk-show host (Kyra Sedgwick, TV’s The Closer), an imperiled daughter—plus, lots of explosions, shootings, stabbings, blood and guts, fights and nudity—and filter it all through the peculiar Neveldine/Taylor style and you have Gamer. That’s a for-better-or-worse proposition, depending on how you feel about the duo’s previous films.
There is a slight difference this round in that Gamer—unlike the Crank movies—clearly has something on its mind. Though the film is first and foremost engaging, indefensible rubbish, it’s also meant as an indictment of the manner in which the disconnect between actual human interaction and the interactions that increasingly take place behind computer monitors can be viewed as the systematic desensitization of the human race. If that makes some viewers uncomfortable, I suspect that’s intentional, and that gains the movie a little—not a lot—of weight to all its outrageous splattery shenanigans. Rated R for frenetic sequences of strong brutal violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and language.