Lionsgate // 2009 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino // January 19th, 2010
In the near future, you don't live to play...you'll play to live.
The directing duo of Neveldine/Taylor (that would be Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor) kicked down the door of first-film expectations with an adrenaline rush called Crank. The film was a videogame metaphor about a man who was destined to die unless he could keep his life bar full. With Gamer, the pair takes videogames from conceit to reality.
Sometime in the not-too-distant-but-just-distant-enough future, death row inmates will compete in a real life videogame called "Slayers." If an inmate can survive 30 rounds of war zone immersion, he'll be set free. The only catch is the inmates are merely surrogates; they're controlled by teen gamers who think of this whole event as nothing more than the next Call of Duty game.
Kable (Gerard Butler, 300), Slayers's most popular inmate, is just four "save points" away from winning his freedom...if the show's creator allows it.
Gamer is a film that's simultaneously criticizing and targeting its audience: videogamers. It predicts a future where violence and sex are so glorified that the only thing that can sate society's collective id is seeing convicts kill each other for sport. In this future, videogamers are either upper class brats or disgusting slobs, neither of which have any sense of morality. Neveldine and Taylor aren't the first to put forward this idea, of course -- remember The Running Man and Death Race 2000? Well, you probably won't be surprised to hear that those two movies are far better.
In the future, where exposition seems to be a part of every nightly newscast, buildings are covered with poorly Photshopped billboards and exploding fire text. Pay-per-view is still a reliable business model. Everyone uses Minority Report-style computers. Second Life and World of Warcraft have been replaced by remote controlled humans who look like they were dressed in a Spencers. Amidst all this chaos is the leading convict-slave-superstar: Kable. He's well on his way to winning his freedom, and everyone's super excited about it.
Unfortunately, just giving a character a wife and splicing in some quick flashbacks to imply some sort of frame-up or mystery doesn't make him three-dimensional. Kable, played adequately by Gerard Butler, is just another gruff action hero out to get his wife back. That's fine, especially in a movie that's supposed to be a throwback to the good old days of action flicks, except that the action is indecipherable.
Neveldine and Taylor have the potential to among the most creative action directors in the industry -- they operate the camera on rollerblades, swing it from the ceiling, and employ any number of interesting angles and pans -- except that their films are edited with the pace of a hummingbird heart. Gamer's primary selling point is the action, but the film instantly becomes a mess of explosions, quick zooms, video glitches, and slow motion. I understand that they were trying to recreate something like the Gears of War games on XBox 360, but what's missing is a cohesive point of view. The film is an assault on the eyes.
When the camera isn't flipping sideways or getting rocked by exploding trucks, it finds time to rest on the faces of a solid cast. Butler is a great action hero when he's not toiling in romantic comedies. He's got a strong demeanor and acting skills that go beyond his ability to yell. His foil, the evil tech geek Ken Castle, is played as a zany villain by Michael C. Hall (Dexter). Castle is like a goofy, Americanized bad guy in a Japanese-made beat 'em up: he's got a twangy Southern accent, is drunk on power, and finds time to do a karaoke dance routine during the film's climax. Filling out the cast are some decent performances by Ludacris, who runs the underground resistance to the games; Logan Lerman (3:10 to Yuma), the 17-year-old controlling Kable; Terry Crews (Everybody Hates Chris), a monstrous assassin; Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer), a nosey entertainment reporter; and Amber Valletta (Hitch), Kable's wife-turned-avatar. The film also has some pretty strange cameos, including John Leguizamo (Land of the Dead), Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes), James Roday and Maggie Lawson (both from Psych).
Gamer may have failed to level-up in the story department, but it looks extremely good on a technical level. Most of the effects and stunts were done practically, and the HUD overlays during the game footage are believable enough (although way too confusing for any actual videogamer to use). Part of the reason the film looks so good is Neveldine and Taylor's use of the Red camera system. It's a new, inexpensive yet cutting edge HD camera that's just starting to break into Hollywood. This film is one of the first to use it, and the picture quality is excellent. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio, as opposed to full-on widescreen, fit with the film's videogame aesthetics; this mixed with an interesting and varied soundtrack makes for a strong standard def DVD release.
The disc also comes with almost two hours of featurettes, including a three-part documentary called "Inside the Game." The doc focuses on the cast, the production, and the post-production of the film in surprisingly general detail. You learn how much everyone liked each other, and how brilliant this directing pair can be, but I felt like I should have walked away with a lot more information after a 90-minute documentary. Perhaps more interesting is the 17-minute video "First Person Shooter: The Evolution of Red," which takes a more detailed look at the HD cameras used in the film. Also included on the disc is a commentary track with Neveldine and Taylor, along with actors Amber Valletta, Alison Lohman, and Terry Crews. It's a fun track to listen to, with a nice mix of humor and insight into the film.
Gamer isn't a complete disaster, especially if you're in the mood for some cheesy action and you can't find your copy of Running Man; however, its flat characters, headache-inducing editing style, and over the top immaturity make it hard to recommend to anyone but the hardest of hardcore gamers. This directing/writing pair has a lot of potential, but Gamer is a step back from the Crank franchise.
Guilty of fragging my eyes.
Review content copyright © 2010 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R