With "Gamer," surface-ready, ADD-inflicted writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (2006's "Crank
" and 2009's "Crank: High Voltage
") experience visions of grandeur involving big ideas they only think are savvy. Instead, they are uninspired retreads of every movie ever made about convicts agreeing to face off in death-defying matches for a chance at freedom. 1987's "The Running Man," 2007's "The Condemned
," 2008's "Death Race
," take your pick"Gamer" adds a little twist to the machinations by rendering the competitors mere drones controlled by technology, but it is at this very conceptual level where trouble starts. Derivative, absurd, emotionally hollow and barely coherent, the film asks the viewer to invest in the fates of people who have no free will or say in their actions. It's akin to walking in a room and watching someone else play a video game that is already in mid-stream. Where's the fun in that? By the time it does away with this gimmick, it doesn't matter; even as themselves, the characters are so two-dimensional they might as well be avatars.
The talents of the rugged, usually charismatic Gerard Butler (2009's "The Ugly Truth
") are squandered in a screenplay by Neveldine and Taylor that gives him no nuance or depth to go along with his scenes of ducking and running and shooting. He plays John Tillman, aka Kable, one of many death row inmates who have agreed to be planted in the brain with nanotechnology cells. Controlled by 17-year-old gamer Simon Silverton (Logan Lerman), John is faced with a series of battles in a wildly popular real-world video game called "Slayers." If Simon can keep him from dying, he will be set free. With his beloved daughter in the custody of billionaire creator Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) and his wife Angie (Amber Valletta) a body-controlled prisoner herself in an objectifying game called "Society," John must find a way to convince Simon to cut the strings on him in a bid to break free from the system and save his loved ones.
Stunningly impersonal and underdeveloped, "Gamer" consists of pawns posing as people going through the motions of directors Mark Neveldine's and Brian Taylor's ugly orgy of style over substance. The hand-held camerawork, which can bring immediacy to a film when appropriately used, is prominent enough to overshadow the admittedly silly story. What it can't overcome is the snarky, shallow writing and a supporting ensemble of actors so much better than this movie that it's almost an embarrassment watching them in it. What are John Leguizamo (2008's "The Happening
"), as a fellow prisoner; Alison Lohman (2009's "Drag Me to Hell
"), as a motorcycle-riding member of computer-hacking anti-establishment group Humanz; and Kyra Sedgwick (2007's "The Game Plan
"), as a talk show host, doing in this film? They have little to do, nothing interesting to say, and could have just as easily been filled out by no-name actors. At least then the roles wouldn't have stood out for their deficiencies.
As megalomaniac Ken Castle, Michael C. Hall (2003's "Paycheck
") puts on a southern accent and performs a song and dance to Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" just as the third act should be raising tension levels. At least he's not Terry Crews (2009's "Terminator Salvation
"), whose psychotic prison inmate Hackman breaks into a rendition of "I've Got No Strings" from animated picture "Pinocchio" in the film's most inexplicable oddball moment. Finally, Logan Lerman (2007's "3:10 to Yuma
") is coolly natural as foul-mouthed hotshot game aficionado Simon, and Amber Valletta (2007's "Dead Silence
") gives possibly the best performance while wearing a succession of colorful wigs and skimpy outfits as Angie, forced into degrading herself while fighting on the side to win back custody of her daughter.
The action, which mostly involves Simon controlling John to hide behind cars, shoot at adversaries, and dodge explosions, is clunky and repetitive. There is no control of timing, no excitement rustled up, and not enough connection to John to care about what happens to him. The climax, finding John reaching Ken's compound and facing off against him and his brain-modulated minions, is close to laughable in how anticlimactic it is. Indeed, major villain Ken's comeuppance is so half-hearted and mild-mannered it's hard to believe it has followed ninety minutes of gratuitous violence and nudity. Despite what Neveldine and Taylor may have planned at the onset, "Gamer" has nothing insightful to say about anything. The finished product is flash without sizzle, erraticism without humanity, pomposity without an actual brain. It exits the memory nearly as fast as it arrives, and good riddance.