I just realized I’ve never reviewed anything by Neveldine/Taylor.
Then again, “Crank” and “Crank: High Voltage” weren’t the types of films that Lionsgate went out of their way to show to critics ahead of time, and by the time I saw either of them, the moment had passed. Besides, these don’t feel like films where criticism matters one way or another.
And I’ll be honest… walking out of “Gamer” tonight, I considered just skipping this review altogether, even after I paid for a midnight screening just so I could write about it.
My problem is this: Neveldine/Taylor don’t remotely care about filmmaking or storytelling in a conventional sense, and they don’t care about niggling details like “character” or “coherence,” so reviewing a film of theirs seems like you’re trying to explain cell memory in Mandarin Chinese to a chicken: what’s the goddamn point?
In what must be the ten millionth retread of “The Most Dangerous Game,” filtered through such pop culture reference points as “The Running Man” and “Death Race 2000,” Gerard Butler stars as Kabel, the most popular character of all time in a game called “Slayers.” In the game, real human beings (death row inmates, of course) are used as video game avatars, controlled via a nanotech brain technology by remote players.
In Kabel’s case, his player is a teenage kid named Simon, played by Logan Lerman, who is the title character in next year’s “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief,” and Simon is the closest thing to an audience surrogate in the film. I think it’s quite revealing that Simon comes across as an annoying, shallow little shit who ultimately has no influence on the plot. As a character, he makes no impression aside from how venal and hollow he seems to be.
[more after the jump]
Is that how Neveldine and Taylor see the world? And, more specifically, their audience? Because the movies they’ve made so far strike me as deeply cynical and toxic. These guys make movies like they’re pumped full of chemicals that keep washing over them in different waves. One moment they’re all amped up and coke-happy, the next minute they’re all blurry, like they’re about to peak on an acid trip, and then right after that, the movie starts to lurch and lumber like a drunk looking for someplace to empty his stomach.
There are moments in this film that feel like they’re actually reaching for something like human emotion, but even that seems more reflexive than genuine. “Oh, yeah, here’s where we’ve got to show that Kabel is longing for something. Let’s give him a picture to stare at and we’ll play some slightly sadder music for about four seconds. OKAY! LONG ENOUGH! BLOW SOMETHING UP AND SHOW ME SOME TITS!”
I love action movies. I love it when a film can slam me back into my chair and pin me there with sheer visceral overload. I want to have that experience in an action movie. I didn’t go into “Gamer” looking for something other than a wild, wicked action ride, and even on that level, it’s a complete disappointment. For one thing, the actual in-game material is indifferently executed. For a movie called “Gamer,” built around the premise of a live-action game watched by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, they never bother to actually explain the game or to show it as anything other than chaos and occasional gore. I didn’t need anything elaborate, but it would have been nice to be able to actually follow the action as more than just noise and fury.
I know that Neveldine and Taylor are both so involved in the shooting of their films that they operate the “A” cameras, right there in the middle of things, and I would have thought that would translate into an energy that runs through the entire film. Instead, it just indicates to me that Neveldine and Taylor might want to hire actual cameramen on their next film so they can (A) get footage that is watchable and (B) pay attention to the broad strokes of filmmaking, like making a movie that isn’t just a montage of grotesqueries. Everybody is shot to look like shit in this film, and in some cases, the deliberate funhouse mirror approach to how everyone looks is just nauseating. I’m sure they’d argue that’s the point, but it’s an aesthetic that I find boring. I’m not shocked, I’m not offended, I’m not upset… I’m just bored.
Then again, that’s what happens when I’m faced with empty provocation, and that’s all this is. There are any number of genuinely interesting ideas inherent to the world and the situation that the film offers up, but Neveldine/Taylor never seem to actually engage any of those ideas. They’re too busy pushing to the next scene, the next image, the next explosion, the next set of tits. They certainly aren’t the only people using an aesthetic like this, but I think seeing how they use it here finally helped me understand why I dislike it so much. It feels to me like the movie is so bored with itself that it’s just ladling on the style and the distractions to keep anyone from noticing. This is such a pedestrian execution of a very old and familiar idea that the only way it becomes palatable at all is by going for overkill.
Problem is, there’s nothing interesting in the provocation on display. The “extreme” imagery is, at this point, nothing new and not especially extreme. The riffs on video game culture are shallow at best, totally ignorant at worse. There’s nothing this film says about the mass media or voyeurism that is noteworthy. The technology in the film might as well be magic for all the thought that went into it. In short, it’s like watching Lee Marvin try to shoot the barn in “Cat Ballou.” It should be ridiculously easy to have fun with a concept like this, but the joyless, coarse, bordering-on-hostile way this whole thing is put together just smacks of contempt for not only the audience, but storytelling in general.
It’s a weird cast. Butler has basically nothing to do but glower in the film. Amber Valletta looks, I’m sorry to say, like garbage in the film. Not only do they intentionally dress her as badly as possible, they also light her terribly and shoot her from every bad angle they can figure out. She’s a stunning woman, but you wouldn’t know it from this film. Kyra Sedgwick and Michael C. Hall both play the moral vacuums of the film, one representing media and one representing technology, but their characters are so thinly written that both actors just sort of flounder. The nadir of Michael C. Hall’s performance has to be a lip-synched musical number that strikes me as a bad idea that plays even worse in actual execution. It’s just lunk-headed and unfunny. For all intents and purposes, this is Hall’s bigscreen debut following his acclaimed work in “Six Feet Under” and “Dexter,” and there’s nothing in his entire time onscreen that would indicate that we need to see him on the bigscreen again any time soon. Even stranger are the small appearances by actors like Alison Lohman and John Leguizamo and Milo Ventamiglia, who actually plays a character named Rick Rape. They show up in nothing roles, do nothing for a few minutes, then vanish again.
Even the song choices are so painfully unhip that it makes me wonder why anyone would ever think these guys represent anything like the “cutting edge” right now. Seriously… Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams”? Not once, but twice? I don’t think it makes me sound “old&qu
ot; to say that I find these guys to be spastic, unfocused dolts, the polar opposite of successful stylists.
I just think it indicates that I have some baseline standards I hold any filmmaker to, and these guys fail that test.
“Gamer” opens wide today, and should be gone by next Thursday. Good riddance.
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