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If you took The Running Man and updated it to exist in a world that has already seen a remake of Death Race 2000, you'd get something approximating Gamer. It's an unapologetically modern take on the 80s Action Movie genre which has been spiked with the perverse sense of humor belonging to the directing duo of Neveldine/Taylor (Crank).
In a world set "some years from this exact moment", Kable (Gerard Butler) has the misfortune of being a pawn in someone else's game. That someone else is Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), creator of Society and Slayers, two multiplayer games that take user control to a whole new level. In these games, humans control other humans who act as their avatars in the gaming world's environment. While Society is an extension of a Sims-style game with some disturbing implications, the world of Slayers is where things get really interesting. In it, prisoners like Kable battle it out with each other first-person-shooter style. When a prisoner successfully wins 30 battles, he attains his freedom. Of course this is an untested theory since nobody has ever met that goal. As the film opens, Kable has won 27 battles and is just 3 battles away from being reunited with his family. Kable's wife, Angie (Amber Valletta) is compelled to play an actress in Society in order to make ends meet while trying to regain custody of her daughter. When Kable finds out that his family is in danger, he decides to take the game into his own hands. This will require him to collaborate with his human controller, a kid named Simon (Logan Lerman), in some unorthodox ways in order to finally face off with Castle.
It's not surprising to see that Gamer sprang from the same minds that gave us the Crank films. It features a similar sense of visual anarchy although one can tell that some of the content has been toned down just a smidge in order to reach a wider audience. Kable is a standard issue action hero and unlike Chev Chelios, he doesn't seem to have been ripped out of an adult roadrunner cartoon. This could have made the proceedings a bit grim and non-descript but fortunately Michael C. Hall turns in an absolutely bonkers performance as Castle. Hall gives Castle a weird Southern accent while playing the character as a sinister man-child who relishes putting Kable through hell. It's tragic then that he is terribly underused until the big finale. Just so Kable has a nemesis to contend with during the mid-section of the film, we are given the grunting, glistening mountain of a man called Hackman (Terry Crews). Crews bring his typically intimidating physicality to the role, but is failed by the script which reduces him to scowls and constipated growls. There are a few other peripheral characters who merely manage to slow down the proceedings with their subplots. Kyra Sedgwick plays a conniving TV show host who is looking for a scoop on Castle's ventures while Ludacris plays the leader of a rinky-dink rebel group, the Humanz, who intend to stop Castle by destroying his games from within.
Neveldine and Taylor are consciously edgy filmmakers. They try to inject their over-the-top sensibilities into every aspect of Gamer's production with varying results. Why film a long shot when you could strap on roller blades and chase Gerard Butler down streets of ruin? While this makes for a film filled with stunning shots, it also tends to tip over into manic overload especially during some of the action scenes. This however doesn't bother me as much as the tonal mood swings. Unfortunately most of the time, these awkward moments come from Neveldine and Taylor forcing their irreverent and sophomoric sense of humor onto scenes that would benefit from a bit of subtlety. This is fully evident in their handling of Amber Valletta's character. In Society, her character is controlled by a fat slob who just uses her to get his rocks off. This involves putting her in a variety of salacious situations where she is groped, molested and generally man-handled. It's tough enough watching Valletta's pleading eyes during these scenes that border on misogynistic but the clincher comes during the scene where Kable finally reunites with her. It should be a quietly touching moment in the midst of all the insanity but Neveldine / Taylor can't help going in for one more gag. It's cheap, uncalled for and completely ruins the moment. It probably seemed Kewl on the page and made them laugh at their own brilliant wit.
Having just bashed their sense of humor, allow me to eat a few of my words and say that when Neveldine and Taylor's weirdness connects with a willing participant, together they smash scenes out of the park. This unexpected synergy can be seen in the climax when Castle stages a little synchronized dance number with his henchmen for Kable's benefit. It's an incredibly odd scene, goofy and slightly intimidating at the same time. The cherry on top is Michael C. Hall's utter conviction in selling the scene. This just makes me repeat my earlier lament of not having enough Hall in this movie. Gamer isn't the perfect throwback to 80s action that it aspires to be but it's a fun (if perverted) ride thanks to Butler's machismo, Hall's insanity and kinetic action sequences.
The movie was presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Due to the variety of environments covered by this film including those belonging to Society, Slayers and the real world, the look was constantly shifting. From the gritty feel of Slayers to the day-glo colors of Society, the image was always sharp and clear with colors being muted or popping in all the right places.
The English audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. The audio mix is pretty clear with nice separation between channels. The action scenes were sufficiently punchy. The soundtrack for the film was a nice blend of orchestral cues and glitchy electronica which was served well by the mix at hand. Subtitles were available in English and Spanish.
Gamer's release is enhanced by a very nice set of extra features. First up we have an Audio Commentary with Filmmakers and Cast Members. This commentary turned out to be a 95 minute long joke-fest featuring Neveldine and Taylor with Terry Crews and Amber Valletta chiming in from time to time. Fortunately Neveldine and Taylor are funny guys with wryly profane personalities. They bring lightness to the proceedings while imparting small nuggets of technical information along the way. If you're not interested in their stand-up act, then you'll want to watch Inside the Game: Controlling Gamer. This 80 minute long documentary comprehensively covers every aspect of the film's production. Neveldine and Taylor prove to be genial and generous hosts as they freely give credit to their talented and dedicated crew while giving some insight into the difficulties and challenges encountered during Gamer. If you've ever wanted to find out how to make 50 million dollars look like so much more, this documentary is well worth watching. A separate featurette is dedicated to First Person Shooter: The Evolution of RED. This 17 minute long piece covers impressions from the directors on working with the revolutionary RED One digital camera. It alternates between being an advertisement for the camera and an informative look into the evolution of camera tech. Given the stunning, high definition shots produced by this camera, I look forward to its extensive use in the future. To close out the extras we have a Theatrical Trailer for Gamer.
Neveldine and Taylor are bold visual stylists. With Gamer, they attempt to marry their gift for over-the-top chaos with a story that's an update on Arnie's The Running Man. The marriage is successful when it comes to staging first person shooter style action scenes but falls a bit flat where the handling of characters is concerned. Fortunately Michael C. Hall's villain shows up often enough to spike the proceedings with his scenery chewing. A great audio/video presentation along with compelling and informative extras makes this release worth watching. Recommended.