A colleague of mine once observed that the very manner by which Chev Chelios had to keep himself alive in the Crank films respectively represented the approach that writing/directing team Neveldine/Taylor took for each of them, which is to say that Crank 1 was all about keeping our hearts racing and Crank 2 was all about shocking us as an audience. It's a simple, literal assessment that nonetheless cleared up why yours truly was a fan of the first and yet let down by the second -- I'd rather be excited than appalled any day.
And at the intersection of 'thrill' and 'shock' is precisely where N/T's latest, Gamer, falls, and it succeeds considerably more when it's shooting for the former than when it's reveling in the latter.
"Some years from this exact moment," the future of entertainment consists of tuning in for the latest episode of "Slayers," in which death-row inmates serve as real-life avatars for anonymous users out on a rubble-strewn battlefield. If they last thirty missions, they would theoretically earn a pardon; naturally, no one's been so fortunate so far. But coming in close is Kable (Gerard Butler), under the thumb of cocksure teen superstar Simon (Logan Lerman) and under the threat of show runner Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), a Southern-fried megalomaniac who had his reasons for putting Kable in the game and has his reasons for taking him out...
Yes, you're right, it does sound quite a bit like The Running Man, not to mention last year's Death Race remake (with its all-felons, no-civilians policy), and no, concerns about the responsibility of violent entertainment and the consequences of living and killing vicariously -- let alone being controlled by others -- are not priority one. Neveldine and Taylor are more interested in having excess meet excess, by having Castle's previous program, "Society," be a place where the desperate, like Kable's wife (Amber Valletta), can whore themselves out to virtual deviants who want a taste of anything while being anyone.
Like 'em or not, N/T have established themselves three films in as action auteurs who know their genre well, although they can admittedly let their proudly disorienting aesthetic and sleazier touches get the better of genuine excitement and thrills. The world of "Slayers" is a convincingly frantic environment, full of bangs and booms, but when Kable and others start to work on breaking the rules of the game, things become a great deal more interesting (his strategy for fueling an uncovered vehicle is unique, to say the least). However, given enough time, there will turn up a gratuitous shot or two of an obese man pawing himself as he seduces other men in the guise of women in "Society." It's a gratuitous implication of this particular future, one worthy of maybe an insert shot in a montage, not an entire subplot as is the case here.
But how else can you expect to excuse the sight of a character named Rick Rape (played by Milo Ventimiglia, one of many Pathology alums to pop up) dry-humping a stone-faced Ms. Valletta? And in what other movie are you going to see an impromptu musical number set to "I've Got You Under My Skin" turn into a burly brawl of sorts? That last part is an indulgence on behalf of Hall's cackling baddie, which doesn't make it any less an indulgence on part of the filmmakers. To be proudly amoral or even a little surreal is one thing; to willfully welcome the logical extremes of the unleashed id seems like more overkill than the actual overkill.
Butler and Valletta nimbly balance the slight differences between acting as they are and acting as they're told, when not playing up the simplistic melodrama that is their plight. Lerman is a suitably brash teen; Alison Lohman and rapper Ludacris are feasible freedom fighters; Kyra Sedgwick plays a TV host overdue for a change of heart regarding the morality of her favorite show (a transformation wholly expected and yet surprisingly swift in its execution); and there are scant appearances by Keith David, John Leguizamo and Terry Crews beyond that.
Gamer is at times striking, and at others silly, and and yet at others sickening, but never too stupid, at least not compared to so much else flash and pop peddled to the masses these days. Whether you want 'em or not, Neveldine and Taylor brings their concepts to brash life; the day, though, when they learn to value the subversive over the sensational will be the day that we all win.