Behold! The action movie renaissance is upon us! A new generation of disaffected male youths who love 300 have made Gerard Butler the Schwarzenegger/Stallone du jour, and opened the door for films worthy of just such a ham-fisted hero. This truly is a return to the glory days of 80s action films. It’s been a long dry journey through the desert, but finally men can go to the theater for masculine catharsis again. The trailer and premise of this film had ‘stinker’ written all over it, but damn if I wasn’t proven completely wrong. Is it also the most honest cultural commentary of the year?
In the near future, billionaire Ken Castle has made his fortunes the old-fashioned way, exploiting the poor and helpless. First with the Sims/Second Life equivalent, Society, which allows people to control other actual people in a pitch-perfect candy-colored environment. The follow up is Slayers, a death row death match that is a common enough narrative tool by now. Of course, death row inmates get a free pass with 30 matches, and innocent bystander prisoners are allowed to go if they survive one match. The mind control that allows players to control the combatants is a nanomachine that replaces brain cells, called Nanex. Ken Castle is a (surprise) deranged lunatic, played really well by the talented Michael C. Hall.
Of course, we all know that a death row death match isn’t complete without a warrior framed for murder fighting to get back to his family on the outside. Gerard Butler lends his machismo to play John Tillman a.k.a. Kable in the mayhem. Butler is big and stupid and an action star. He is the genuine article, an action star replacement for the legends of yore. Under the control of gangly teen Simon (played by Logan Lerman) he pwns the competition. Simon is the most accurate description of the young American white male that I have seen rendered on film. He is misogynistic (playfully tagging women as ‘cumdumpstaz’ in online chat), amoral, and flippant. He has no character arc, no moral development, he just doesn’t care. At least the movie is honest.
The plot is really irrelevant; of course Kable must fight his way to his family on the outside, and, to be honest, the movie has no proper finale. The first two acts are all golden before giving way to some awful green screen in front of the northern lights. The first two acts are awesome displays of undisguised violence, full of random death and unnecessary computer glitch graphics. The mayhem is awesome, and the meaning and aim of the game is never fully explained, although it involves some kind of save point. Simply put, the action is top-notch, the filming equal parts experiment and trusty clichÃ©. The choreography of a few key scenes is impressive, with SUVs flying and flipping in slow motion while tracer fire stitches a tattoo through the air.
In prison life John Leguizamo plays a good creep, and Terry Crews plays one of the best bad guys in recent memory in the form of Hackman. Weaponry is all conventional with the addition of some target-seeking bullets that are rendered well. Ludacris is here in a small role as computer hacker by way of revolutionary. He is as smooth as ever, and his small ventures into film will probably give way to a respectable career. I think his great talent is saying ridiculous shit with a completely straight face and somber tone.
Life in jail isn’t the only concern for poor Kable. Unfortunately, Kable’s wife had to take a job playing Society to make ends meet, with her husband in jail and all. Her controller is a morbidly obese, wheelchair-bound bisexual who degrades her with promiscuous outfits and raunchy sex. The camera lingers over pallid sweaty fat flesh, dank and disgusting apartment, lurid eyes and whispering perverted utterances. Maybe he is some sort of reflection of the audience, or maybe he is just there to illicit repulsion. He is pretty notable, but the whole film has something unique going for it. What is very surprising is that everyone brings their best to the table, from the bit parts to the main characters.
Gamer is written by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, a neo-Tarantino grouping responsible for the Crank films. This movie is a big step up for them, and they will probably be the studios’ new poster child for selling tickets until a hundred-million-dollar flop destroys their careers, but wait, ten years later they come back stronger than ever on a wave of fan nostalgia. Just a guess, but I think these guys are on the right track, delivering the goods in every department, and winning favor from fans and studio suits alike.
In parting, the poster for this movie shows Gerard Butler’s face with a crack in the center, the face of the young teenager Simon peering through. This is the message of the movie distilled into a single image, the young teenage male idealizing being a muscled hyper-masculine killing machine, fed on a diet of sex and violence through constant media saturation. Anyway, that is the image the young man wants to project onto the world, like the wheelchair bound fat man playing out his feminine fantasies. There is some lesson here about the perceived world versus hard reality, but I just want to see shit blow up.