2009 | Directors and Writers: Neveldine/Taylor
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s envelope-pushing “Crank” and its envelope-shredding sequel “Crank: High Voltage” were a couple of shots of delicious steroids in the action genre’s atrophic arm—movies that didn’t so much defy conventions as they did completely ignore them, and in such an over-the-top fashion that even their ugliest and most morally-reprehensible moments could be seen as deconstructionist farce, even if they weren’t meant that way. The “Crank” films were also refreshingly message-free, making every odd moment a comment on filmmaking tropes themselves instead of an illustration of some trite truism.
But the directors’ follow-up, the ill-designed “Gamer,” reveals much of that frenetic technique as a façade for the story-challenged team. The plot, which dovetails off into multiple dead ends and dull warnings about technology, sears its way uncomfortably through the film’s stylish veneer, throwing brooding Scot Gerard Butler into service as Kable, a future-man in prison for murder, and the unwilling star of a Running Man-esque TV show called “Slayers,” in which cons must live through thirty rounds of real-life warfare for freedom. It’s a simple and familiar premise, with enough arterial spray and off-the-wall obscenity to appeal to misguided teenage ticket buyers across the land, but can what worked so perfectly for the “Crank” movies do the same for a joyless, oppressively-filmed version with a tacked-on moral?
The complications are many: the technology of “Slayers,” as well as its sexually-exploitative precursor “Society,” has its root in questionable nano-development created by goofy-evil trillionaire Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall, TV’s “Dexter”)—technology that allows someone else to control the living body of their “icon.” In this case, that user is 17-year-old Simon (Logan Lerman, “3:10 to Yuma”), who has controlled Kable to 27 victories—an unprecedented number—by the time “Gamer” opens. But Kable wants out, because his wife and daughter are out in the free world somewhere, and because an underground group of tech radicals led by Ludacris want his help, and because Cable and his free-will-erasing invention should probably be stopped, and because of a bunch of other stuff too. Far, far too much other stuff, in fact.
Gamer has too many problems to hash out (how exactly are we to believe that Kable is such a hard case if Simon has been controlling him the whole time?), but the greatest of these is that the movie tries to say something, however muddled, about the meaning of freedom and the fearful future of technology—a thesis overwhelmed by questionable moments of poorly-intended humor and a leading man way too empathetic and caring to be placed amidst such intermittently absurd action. Indeed, many of the movie’s side characters—such as a ring-eyed Milo Ventimiglia (“Heroes”) as a “Society” character named Rick Rape, and a gigantic, latently homoerotic murderer called Hackman (Terry Crews, “Idiocracy”)—feel like leftovers from “Crank: High Voltage,” a film in which they would have fit nicely; in “Gamer,” they’re just two of many square pegs being hammered fruitlessly into the movie’s round holes.
Rating: Two of Five Stars