Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: Gamer—the most recent film from Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (a.k.a. “Neveldine/Taylor”), the junk-teurs responsible for the Crank movies—was given the standard treatment for studio embarrassments: a mid-January release, no advance screenings for critics, an MPAA warning that watching it might lead to dysentery. And though critics, including yours truly, were relatively kind to the adrenalized mischief of Crank and Crank: High Voltage, they were by and large much less forgiving of Gamer, which finds Neveldine/Taylor opening up to brainy(ish), dystopian science-fiction action. The New York Times’ Jeannette Catsoulis called it “a futuristic vomitorium of bosoms and bullets.” (You’re going to have to work harder making it sound unappealing, Ms. Catsoulis.) Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, in a “D” review, dismissed it as a “headache-inducing techno-violent mishmash.” And even our own Josh Modell, Neveldine/Taylor superfan and author of a notorious “A-“ review of Crank: High Voltage, was severely disappointed, saying its creators “lean on the easy cheat codes of conventionality, somehow forgetting they’re better at exploding them.”
Curiosity factor: Though I don’t share Josh’s enthusiasm for Crank: High Voltage—it’s often ugly and tiresome, during the stretches when it isn’t exhilarating—I appreciate their willingness to push the action genre to vulgar, cartoonish extremes. They’re ahead of the curve in recognizing how the plasticity of CGI has turned shoot-’em-ups into physics-defying videogames, and at their best, their movies are the height of avant-garbage, punkish experiments in upending convention. They also have a talent for coming up with enjoyably batty high-concept stories, like a hero who needs to keep his heart rate up (Crank) or stay electrically charged (Crank: High Voltage) in order to stay alive, or a clique of medical students who murder people in creative ways and challenge each other to get the autopsy right (Pathology). I genuinely like the Crank movies, I listed Pathology as my Guilty Pleasure in our Year In Film 2008 piece, and the premise for Gamer seemed suitably insane. Surely this was another case of snooty no-fun-niks not getting it, right?
The viewing experience: Alas, Josh had it exactly right: Gamer has a few inspired flourishes, but it’s more a case of Neveldine/Taylor playing by the rules than calling them into question. Where the Crank movies were smart-dumb, thriving on their keen awareness (and the audience’s mindfulness) of gleeful stupidity, Gamer is dumb-smart, a foolhardy attempt to insert social commentary into a scenario that’s too flagrantly ridiculous and exploitative to support it. Lifting ideas whole cloth from movies like The Running Man and The Matrix—albeit with a grimy, spazzy visual incoherence that’s identifiably their own—Neveldine/Taylor move to condemn the invasiveness of digital culture, and they’re just serious enough to get themselves into trouble.
How serious? Gamer opens with Marilyn Manson’s cover of The Eurythmics’ single “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),” so there’s that. There’s also Gerard Butler, whose bad taste in movie roles has become as reliable as the grim scowl he wears throughout them. Butler stars as Kable, a future-world Death Row inmate who’s the main attraction of a videogame called Slayers that allows users to control real humans in real-world gaming environments. Should he survive 30 “sessions” of blasting his way past throngs of heavily armed adversaries—and his user, Simon (Logan Lerman), seems skilled enough to do it—Kable will be granted his freedom. The existence of Slayers raises lots of questions over how it works and how it’s tolerated in polite society, and for answers, I’ll turn it over to the game’s monomaniacal creator, Ken Castle (Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, having perhaps too good a time), who’s rich enough to turn a rare talk-show appearance into a pay-per-view event:
It will surprise no one who has seen the “paradise” promised by Richard Dawson in The Running Man that Castle runs a rigged game and has no intention of releasing Kable or his abducted wife (Amber Valletta) and daughter. Nevertheless, Kable is determined to break free of the game and hunt down Castle, and he gets some help from “The Humanz,” a rebel group that’s tapped into Castle’s digital environment. (Don’t call it a matrix.) Where does the boundary between the online gaming world and the real world lie? Beats the shit out of Neveldine and Taylor, who evidently haven’t thought it through. In the meantime, they hope you’ll too distracted by the frenetic action and third-person-shooter-style headshots to notice.
Ironically, Neveldine/Taylor blow right past a more interesting movie before even getting to the premise of Slayers. Slayers is just the more extreme follow-up to Castle’s original breakthrough, Society, a Sims/Second Life-like interactive game where real people volunteer to become virtual players that gamers can control. The film doesn’t spend much time in Society—and would spend even less if Kable’s wife weren’t a Society refugee—but Neveldine/Taylor have much clearer opportunities in that universe for satirical jabs at online interaction, and for plumbing the depths of human perversion. Then again, the best image they can manage of a Society player is a sweaty, obese guy dipping waffles in syrup with his shirt off. So it seems likely that they’d mishandle a kinky comedy about Society as much as they botch the bloody dystopia of Slayers.
But the Neveldine/Taylor magic isn’t entirely absent from Gamer. When they break away from Kable’s noble quest for liberation, they allow themselves to let loose some of the bizarre flourishes that elevated the Crank movies to high trash. Hall hams it up a little too self-consciously as Castle—the superfluous Southern accent was a mistake—but check out this sequence, where he and his black-booted minions greet Kable with a choreographed dance number set to Sammy Davis Jr.’s rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Suddenly and gloriously, Gamer morphs into a futuristic West Side Story:
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Very little. When it isn’t baldly derivative, Gamer is relentlessly unpleasant and visually illiterate, with Butler’s humorless performance as Kable setting the tone. Neveldine/Taylor have a big hook and some bigger (albeit borrowed) ideas, but the juvenile fun of the Crank movies has mostly evaporated, and what little remains is predominantly smug. It’s a Sammy Davis Jr. cover away from creative oblivion.