Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 04/03/10 10:00:00

"Would you like a little satire with your ultraviolence?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the ADD-impaired writer-directors behind the controversy-courting "Crank" and "Crank: High Voltage," exploitative, hyperkinetic, hyperactive, ultra-violent action-thrillers starring action star Jason Statham (and the justly forgotten medical thriller "Pathology"), are back with "Gamer," a science-fiction/action/thriller that simultaneously satirizes and exploits video game and media-saturated culture. It’s fast (clocking in at just over 90 minutes, with credits), furious action scenes edited into borderline incoherency), cheap (shot on a $12 million budget on Red-One cameras in New Mexico, with Neveldine and Taylor doubling as camera operators), and out-of-control.

Set in a dystopian near future, Gamer centers Kable (Gerard Butler), a reality star on an internationally televised, live-streamed program called “Slayers.” In “Slayers,” Kable, a death-row inmate, competes with other death-row inmates, to reach certain goals or “save points,” inflicting death, dismemberment, and destruction along the way. Any Slayer who completes (and survives) 30 games obtains his freedom. Kable has gotten closer than any other player. Thanks to advanced brain-replacing-, -enhancing technology, off-field operators control Kable and the other Slayers. Kable’s controller, the 17-year old Simon (Logan Lerman), has become a celebrity too.

Slayers’ billionaire creator, Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), also produces another reality program, “Society.” Controllers in Society guide their flesh-and-blood avatars through a range of hedonistic pleasures (and sometimes degradation). Kable’s wife, Angie (Amber Valletta), works as an avatar in Society, degrading herself on a daily basis to earn a living. Not surprisingly, both Kable and Angie are pure-of-heart characters (yes, that cliché again). Kable only wants to complete 30 games, win his freedom, and rejoin Angie and his young daughter. Threatened by Kable’s success and popularity, Castle inserts a new “character,” Hackman (Terry Crews), within Slayers to defeat (and kill) Kable.

Minutes into Gamer, it’s obvious Neveldine and Taylor have watched (and studied) their sports-themed dystopias (e.g., Rollerball, Death Race 2000, Running Man), updating plot elements to better fit our video game-obsessed, media-saturated world. The framed character, close-ended game, and duplicitous host takes its cues from Running Man. The popular, anti-establishment anti-hero takes its cues from Rollerball and Death Race 2000 (and last year’s remake starring Jason Statham), while the goal of 30 games (which no one’s reached), and death-as-entertainment bears a passing resemblance to a prescient, 1965 science-fiction film, The 10th Victim. Living and acting virtually through avatars, of course, can be traced back to The Matrix and its sequels.

It’s another, less favorably remembered dystopian science-fiction/action film, Johnny Mnemonic (like The Matrix starring Keanu Reeves) that Neveldine and Taylor take their other cues. With Castle as the rapacious capitalist, an underground group, the “Humanz,” have formed to expose Castle’s presumably diabolical plans (he’s evil, after all). The group consists of three members, a Brother (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges), a Dude (Aaron Yoo), and Trace (Alison Lohman), with Simon a potential ally (why Simon would consider allying himself with them remains one of Gamer’s motivational mysteries). Near-future dystopian satires aren’t complete, of course, without a ratings-obsessed talk show personality, Gina Parker Smith (Kyra Sedgwick), whose sympathies seem to be constant flux.

If you’re familiar with Neveldine and Taylor’s previous films, Gamer’s pell-mell pacing, rapid-fire pacing, and short bursts of exposition won’t come as a surprise. Whatever critique of video gaming culture, the media (and media saturation), and corporate capitalism Neveldine and Taylor may want to impart to their audience (who are, paradoxically the subject of their satire) it’s also secondary to their primary aim of delivering hard “R”-rated action, which they do, excessively and gleefully. Neveldine and Taylor literally cram Gamer with brutal, exploitative violence, crude sexual humor (a Neveldine and Taylor sub-specialty), ample amounts of gratuitous nudity, and vulgar language.

As cultural and social satire, "Gamer" isn’t particular deep or profound. As an action film, "Gamer" is excessive and exploitative, an attempt to critique our use and abuse of violence, real and fictional, for entertainment while also providing ample amounts of violence, an approach that worked 22 years ago for "RoboCop," when it was seen, rightly or wrongly, as subversive, especially for a Hollywood-financed film, but now feels coldly cynical, an attempt by Neveldine and Taylor to be taken seriously by critics and academics eager to justify "Gamer" as more than a guilty pleasure (it’s not).

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