Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 24, 2017

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2009) Part 2

3. Gamer

“Crank” opened the door for Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. That film's success made Liongates and Lakeshore Entertainment eager to collaborate with the directors again. The two were given a bigger budget, going towards making a bigger sort of action movie. The result would be “Gamer,” a film that paired them with another big action star of the moment. This would slightly backfire, as the film appeared indistinct from any number of other Gerald Butler features. The result would be a movie that opened to audience indifference, failing to recoup its 50 million dollar budget. Yet some have defended "Gamer," suggesting that the film is worth a second look.

In the near future, a new type of video game has taken the world by storm. Billionaire inventor Ken Castle has introduced a new type of gaming. His first success, “Society,” allowed players to live out their wildest sexual fantasies. His second, “Slayers,” is a brutal first person shooter. The big difference is that the players aren't operating computerized avatars. They are controlling real people. The characters in “Slayers” are criminals on death row, controlled by nanites implanted in their brains. And the most popular slayer is Kable. Yet Kable, real name John Tillman, has a mind and soul. He hopes to survive the game and be reunited with his wife and daughter. When a group of hackers attempt to disrupt Castle's operation, Kable gets his chance to escape.

That Neveldine/Taylor's next movie would be explicitly about video games is fitting. “Crank” was inspired by several video games, combining the free-wheeling chaos of “Grand Theft Auto” with the heart-stopping intensity of “Berzerk.” “Gamer” doesn't merely reference classic video games. Instead, it attempts to deconstruct video game troupes. The film asks the questions: Would your feelings about video games change if they starred real people, instead of digital creations? It's a valid question worth asking, considering the evergreen appeal of ultra-violent video games. Yet “Gamer” doesn't go much deeper than that, assuming a sharp premise is enough.

“Gamer's” vision of the future is fairly implausible. There's no way games like “Slayers” or “Society,” or even the technology that makes them possible, would ever be legal. Yet “Gamer' is prescient in some ways. The player who operates Kable is a seventeen year old kid named Simon. His gaming skills have made him a celebrity, who gets sexual advances from adoring female fans. In 2009, somebody getting this famous for playing a video game seemed unlikely. In 2017, we live in a world where Pewdiepie makes millions of dollars and YouTube “Let's Players” are more influential on young people than most celebrities. That Simon is mostly a simpering bro might be a commentary on the attitudes such a level of fame might bring. Or it could just be how Neveldine and Taylor write most of their characters.

“Gamer's” social commentary is, for the most part, too vague. “Slayers” is shown to be so popular that people watch competitions all over the world, that massive billboards cover skyscrapers. This isn't too far off from reality, considering the worldwide success of “Halo” and “Call of Duty.” Yet “Gamer” never ask why people like intensely violent video games like that. Nor does it question what that says about our culture. Its criticism of how massive corporations take over and direct society is only glanced at. Some of “Gamer's” criticisms are especially shallow. Like how it depicts one avid player of “Society” as a morbidly obese pervert who lives in a dark room, starring at monitors, and rolling around on a Rascal scooter. You'd think the massive popularity of the kinds of video games “Gamer” is poking fun at would dispel such stereotypes.

As social commentary, “Gamer” isn't especially profound. But what about as an action movie? In that regard, “Gamer” seems a little too eager to recreate the grim, gritty, gunmetal world of “Gears of War” and “Modern Warfare.” Gray is the predominant color of “Gamer's” world. The action scenes are oppressively grimy. The movie quickly becomes a series of stern shoot-outs in indistinct, blandly colored environments. We're talking abandoned factories, abandoned warehouses, abandoned city blocks, and an area covered with concrete meridians. If the actions scenes were more interesting, maybe the bland color palette wouldn't be a problem. Instead, the action scenes are overly shaky and difficult to follow.

That so much of “Gamer” is so unpleasant to look at is a bummer. On occasion, the film shows an interesting, colorful side. I mean literally colorful, at times. One scene takes place in a day-glo sex club, with neon colors decorating the nude or semi-nude bodies. Other times, Neveldine/Taylor show the energetic direction that characterized the “Crank” movies. The sequence that introduces us to the “Society” game has the camera drastically spinning around the players. To let us know this world is all about sex, there's even a tracking shot of a big ass shoved into a pair of tiny shorts. The editing is brisk, the images flashing on-screen quickly but with a sense of purpose. It's the best part of the movie.

Another aspect that was crucial to the “Crank” series was its sick sense of humor. Sadly, that's something else that “Gamer” lacks. Occasionally, we get a sliver of humor from Kable's relationship with the kid that controls him or the over-the-top shenanigans of Ken Castle. Mostly, “Gamer” is all doom and gloom... Except for one sequence. Kable's wife works as an actor in Society, allowing players to inflict their sexual fantasies on her. After entering a club, she encounters a character calling himself Rick Rape. That's Milo Ventimiglia in a leather/spandex jumpsuit. Ventimiglia's performance is gloriously over-the-top, as he sweats, screams, and snaps his spandex. The scene is short-lived but so bizarrely sleazy that it lingers in the memory.

Nobody seems to like Gerald Butler's movies but, for some reason, most of them make money hand over fists. Butler has, occasionally, shown a macho charisma that at least hints at a reason for his popularity. There's none of that in “Gamer.” Butler barely speaks for the first half-hour. He mostly just grunts, leaps over objects, and murders his enemies. The character is totally directed by the plot and shows practically no personality. There's pretty much no reason to care about Kable. Butler stares with a psychotic glare but does nothing else to stretch his acting muscles. This is either a brilliant commentary on the intentional lack of personality most FPS protagonist have or a bad performance. I'll let you guess which one it actually is.

If the lead character is a total void, “Gamer” at least presents some entertaining villains. Michael C. Hall appears as Castle. Hall sports a ridiculous Southern accent. However, he hams it up to an amusing degree. Hall's Castle is so obviously evil, a totally amoral businessman that enjoys screwing over the world, that you wonder how the character was ever successful. But it is fun to watch. When it's decided that Kable must die, a slayer without a player is sent after him. Terry Crews fills this part. Crews is great at comedy but he's terrifying in “Gamer.” He's a physically intimidating character, muscled and massive. He casually murders his foes, washing their blood off his hands without thinking about it. Crews' sweaty, determined desire to murder Gerald Butler makes him a villain that seems genuinely dangerous.

There are a number of interesting actors in the supporting parts. Logan Lerman, still best known as Percy Jackson, doesn't sell his redemptive arc very well but is good at playing a snot-nosed asshole. Kyra Sedgwick appears as a hypocritical television interviewer. The character's morality seems to shift from scene to scene but Sedgwick is fittingly oozy as a gladhanding fame-seeker. John Leguizamo has a small role as one of the inmates forced to act as NPCs in the game. Sadly, Leguizamo exits the film before he has a chance to really become interesting. Keith David and Zoe Bell show up for bit parts and are sadly wasted. I like all of these people but can't say the same for Amber Valleta as Kable's wife. Valleta is a little too vacant eyed and shares zero chemistry with Butler. The film should've made Alison Lohamn's resistance fighter his love interest instead, as Lohman is far more interesting in her few scenes than Valleta is in the entire movie.

Once Kable escapes the game, “Gamer” blusters through a series of increasingly uninteresting action sequences. After Butler piles up even more of a body count, it's time for the showdown with the bad guy. What follows is an invigorating sequence where Michael C. Hall dances to “I've Got You Under My Skin,” along with a bunch of mindless drones. Butler then goes insane and brutally dispatches these henchmen with his bare hands. It's an impressively unexpected sequence and would've made a fine climax for the film. Sadly, “Gamer” goes on for about another ten minutes, dragging the audience towards an underwhelming confrontation between bloody hero and psychotic villain. That also, for some reason, involves basketball.

“Gamer” is also less original than it claims to be. Elements are clearly picked from “Rollerball,” “The Running Man,” and “Battle Royale,” all of which are superior films. I'm not sure what you'd blame “Gamer” flopping at the box office on. Maybe the September release date was to blame. Maybe people were sick of Gerald Butler. Or maybe the studio tried to sell a movie critical of video gaming culture to video gamers. Or maybe “Gamer” was just too much of an overly grim snooze to hook even undiscriminating action fans. “Gamer” needed to be either smarter, attacking its targets with a clearer head, or dumber, by embracing the absurdity of its premise. [Grade: C]

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