Gamer, the third film written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor—who are credited, Madonna-like, as simply “Neveldine/Taylor”—has two tough acts to follow: the alternately loathed and loved Crank movies. With their Jason Statham-fueled action parodies (or were they?), the duo juiced conventional tropes so aggressively that they bypassed over-the-top en route to the delightfully absurd. The trouble with Gamer is that it’s weird, but not weird enough for the long haul. Its familiar premise—death-row inmate must participate in dangerous games to earn his freedom, to the delight of the bloodthirsty public, who watch on pay-per-view—gets twisted nicely by technology: Every move that inmate/hero Gerard Butler makes through the urban war zones of “the game,” called Slayers, is controlled by a spoiled 17-year-old sitting in a visually overwhelming Internet playroom. If Butler and his gamer can win just a few more battles, he’ll go home to his wife and daughter.
But not if a funny, scenery-chewing Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under) has anything to say about it—and he does. Hall is the future’s Bill Gates, designer of the nano-technology that spawned Slayers and its predecessor, Society, a Sims-inspired fantasy-fulfillment program that allows disgustingly fat waffle-eaters to purchase time from real humans and control their every move. (Apparently the public’s fantasies are limited to light bondage, bad wigs, and raves. Heroes’ Milo Ventimiglia makes a brief cameo as “Rick Rape.”) After realizing that Hall will never keep his promise, Butler makes a daring escape in one of the only Gamer scenes that rivals any of Crank’s: He chugs a bottle of vodka, then pukes and urinates it into a gas tank in order to fuel his getaway vehicle.
Eventually, Gamer just goes off the rails—or rather, onto very familiar rails. A dance number set to Sammy Davis Jr.’s version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” offers a glimmer of hope that old action-movie clichés won’t triumph, but they eventually prove too powerful. A dastardly villain with dubious/stupid motivation battles a wrongly convicted family man whom he could have killed a hundred times during the movie with the touch of a button. Based on what comes before it—queasily ingratiating action sequences, a couple of really smart jabs at the media—it’s clear that Neveldine and Taylor could have come up with something deeper, darker, and better for their third act. Instead, they lean on the easy cheat codes of conventionality, somehow forgetting they’re better at exploding them.