September 10, 2009

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Gamer (R)
Gerard Butler plays the first-person through which others are the shooter in Gamer, a movie that is more or less Death Race but with a supped-up multi-player version of Doom replacing the cars.

I almost recommend this movie and it’s for one reason: Near the end of the movie — SPOILER ALERT — Michael C. Hall (who is either best known as David Fisher the undertaker or Dexter Morgan the serial killer depending on whether you have HBO or Showtime), here playing a nutty technology genius named Ken Castle, performs a little dance to a skee-bop-a-doobie-snap-snap-style bit of beatnik jazz with a chorus line of faceless henchmen dancing behind him. Apropos of basically nothing. It’s almost worth the price of admission just to see something this weird in a wide-release movie.

Otherwise, you have Death Race with computers. Kable (Butler) is the guy on death row even though we suspect that he doesn’t really belong. The private business that now funds the prisons uses death row prisoners and others in the system to play the hunters and the hunted in a video game called Slayers. Instead of a full-contact car race, Kable’s chance for freedom comes from surviving a battlefield full of explosions and gunfire. He’s sent into the fray with weapons of his own but the catch is that while he can die he isn’t the one who can fight — he’s being “played” by a video game player manipulating his mind and actions. Slayers is so popular that people pay to watch the bouts where these real-life avatars kill and get killed. If Kable survives 30 of these bouts, he can win his freedom — though, of course, nobody’s ever done it.

The game is the second from Castle — the first was Society, a game that has people controlling real-life human avatars in a landscape that is almost pure orgy. Both Slayers and Society are made possible by nano-cell-computer-thingies that turn the brains of those injected into hard drives able to receive and respond (whether the person likes it or not) to commands.

How could that possibly go wrong?

Kable has a wife (Amber Valletta), of course, to give us someone rooting for him on the outside and someone to save when needed. There’s an anti-Castle group of hackers (Alison Lohman, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). There’s a hyper-ambitious talk show host (Kyra Sedgwick) who wants to interview Castle and Kable, who is so similar in tone to the lady warden in Death Race that it took looking it up on IMDB to be absolutely certain it was Joan Allen who played that part and not Sedgwick herself.

Gamer is derivative, sure, and explodey, but it turned out to be moderately more entertaining than its shaky-cam Saving Private Ryan-on-speed first few scenes made it appear. This hasn’t helped to resuscitate Gerard Butler, who since 300 has just seemed ill-used in most of his films, but it certainly is fun to see what delightful touch of flamboyant strangeness Hall can bring to a role. C

Rated R for frenetic sequences of strong brutal violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and language. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor and written by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, Gamer is an hour and 45 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate and Lakeshore International.