With their Crank films, writer/director team Mark Neveldine and Brain Taylor have so perfected a sort of Platonic ideal of what a gonzo-coke-addled-ADHD-spazzed-out action film should be, that it is impossible to even conceive of what they could do as a follow up. How can you go further over the top when you’ve gone flying full speed off the mountain into the abyss and taken the whole mountain with you? How much further can you blow up action filmmaking convention when you’ve perfected a style of sustained explosion that levels and incinerates everything in its path?
A relatively calm come down that can only really disappoint, Gamer should have been, by all rights, the apotheosis of the Neveldine/Taylor “style”. Given how closely they seek to replicate the absurdity and furious pell-mell action of video games, a film about gaming and set in a world that has become partially overrun by a video game alternate reality should have been a slam dunk. Yet by trying to constrain their nihilistic ebullience into conventional genre tropes, Neveldine and Taylor actually end up jettisoning the hyperstylization that set them apart from other hacks trucking in C-level action fare.
Set in the not so distant future, Gamer presents a world saturated by interactive entertainments, in which players pay to control actual human being in restricted semi-virtual environments. The brain child of a hopped up, drawling evil genius named Castle, played with scenery chewing elan by Michael C Hall, the games involve some sort of mind/body control in which the participants are injected with some neurotoxin that changes the genes in their brain to allow remote sensors to… blah blah blah. Let’s just say that it’s the first on a steady, slippery slope slide into total mind control of the human race.
The first game rolled out by Castle is “Society”, a blatant Sims/Second Life knock off, except perhaps a bit more garish and oversexed. But the real runaway success is “Slayers”, a weekly televised shoot ‘em up in which the participants are all gamer controlled death row convicts who are given the chance to be set free – if the person controlling them can get their “slayer” through 30 rounds of ultraviolent mayhem intact.
Gerard Butler plays Kable, who is the most popular and successful of these slayers – so successful, that he is in position to win his 30th session and earn his freedom. But not if Castle can help it! Turns out that Kable was wrongly convicted of first degree murder, and has dirt on Castle, that would bring down the latter’s empire and greatly impeded his chances for world domination.
To add to his trouble, Kable has a wife and child on the outside, both of whom are in peril at the hands of Castle as well (Kable’s wife actually finds herself sucked into the sex slave trade of the “Society” game). So he’s got a lot to fight (and survive) for. At the same time, a rogue group of technophobic terrorists called the “Humanz” are trying to extract Kable themselves, and use him to their own ends, to disrupt and bring down Castle’s empire.
If all of it sounds a bit familiar, well, that’s because it draws liberally from other, better films that have done this before (The Running Man; also, the recent, quite enjoyable remake of Death Race). While superficially constructed to appeal to video game enthusiasts, both by the subject matter, and by the constant video-interface overlay to the main action sequences, thematically Gamer seems to be offering petulant critiques of the same audience it is trying to court. It never goes into anything in depth, though, skirting around issues of free will, socially isolating technologies, and the ruination of attention spans, in favor of constant action and forward momentum.
All of which would be fine… if we ever got a sense that Gamer was going anywhere. Instead, it is too hesitant and fragmented to really amount to anything. At a lean 88 minutes, it has little time to establish character or create any sort of dramatic gravitas. This wouldn’t be a problem if Neveldine and Taylor stuck to the cartoonish exaggeration of Crank, but they want us to care that Kable survives, and that his wife and daughter are saved, and that Castle is brought down, and… well, none of it is ever earned. Cut up into thirds, the main action sets of the film (fighting in “Slayers”; escape; hunt down bad guy) never quite gel together, seeming to exist in isolation from each other.
The overarching problem, though, is that Neveldine and Taylor waffle on their main strengths. Gamer is crazy, but never crazy enough. It’s outrageous and disgusting at points, but never becomes the giddy grotesquerie of their other films. Whereas in Crank they actively appropriated, devoured and regurgitated 20 years worth of action films and ultra violent video games into one unholy, gleeful mess, that was as much a straight up action film as it was a parody of all actions films ever made, here they seem content to play it by the book and make exactly the totally straightforward standard action film that they had tried to make obsolete with Crank.
Gamer is pedestrian in every possible way – the characters are rote and two dimensional, the action is crisp, clear and well defined (which I would usually champion, though not in this instance), and the sides are perfectly black and white (all Michael C. Hall is lacking is a stove pipe hat and a twirly mustache). When the old school, blocky 8-bit “Game Over” screen pops up at the conclusion of the fuss, it seems almost like a fitting, ironic comment on Neveldine and Taylor’s potential career longevity.
Gamer shoots its way onto DVD with a couple of decent extras. The best, and longest (nearly as long as the film itself), is a making of featurette broken into three segments, that covers the entire production, from the top down. Casting gets a 25-minutes segment (though is sadly short on interviews with Michael C. Hall), and as always, is mostly interviews of crew bloviating over the cast, and how each person was perfect and exactly as envisaged (though Neveldine and Taylor revealed, rather shockingly, that they had initially considered Gerard Butler for Crank over Jason Statham, which never would have worked).
The remaining two segments mostly revolve around technical and budgetary concerns, mostly how to get the biggest bang for the budget they have. (While Gamer’s budget is several degrees larger than those for the Crank films, it’s still rather modest, by studio standards). Neveldine and Taylor are small geniuses of getting the most out of the least of what they have, and seem to have finely perfected the sort of guerilla filmmaking shock tactics they began with Crank. I don’t know long this will sustain them, or that there’s actually much more of an appetite for what they do, but their style is invigorating and infectious.
Their commentary track (along with several cast members, though minus the main stars) is fun and again somewhat technical in spots, but actually makes watching the film much more agreeable (which I guess isn’t a good thing). A final feature on a new tricked out digital camera made by Red Digital Cinema, which was heavily used in the film, is impressive for gearheads, but is little more than a 20-minute commercial for the Red Digital company.