The audience gets played in “Gamer.” This latest eye-scraper from writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor is as hopped up as their “Crank” pics, but with dour Gerard Butler as a soldier commandeered by a teenage gamer, it’s considerably less interactive. Joystick jockeys will recognize the hyperrealist urban-combat simulation from their own couch-potato calls of duty, and may well appreciate it as authentic; others will recoil from the helmers’ typically crass preference for ultraviolent sensation over the slightest trace of narrative, humor or humanity. Lionsgate’s virtual-reality number should score among gamers on opening weekend and garner extra points in ancillary.
Set “some years from this exact moment,” per an early title card, “Gamer” tries and fails to earn credit for slightly exaggerating the commingled nature of videogames and movies, violence and entertainment, incarceration and exploitation.
Plucked from death row to serve as warring avatar for a worldwide pay-per-view audience, Kable (Butler) carries a computer chip in his skull, courtesy of billionaire virtual-reality mastermind Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall, “Dexter”), who calls his latest hybrid entertainment “Slayers.” As Neveldine/Taylor (as the duo are billed) cannot yet jack into the viewer’s brain, or conjure anything that remotely resembles satire, they’re content to pummel the audience with pureed images of battlefield gore and pass it off as next-generation cinema.
With three battles left before he can be freed from his digital enslavement, the monosyllabic Kable endeavors to persuade Simon (Logan Lerman), the 17-year-old who controls his every move, to disconnect from the game and let him slay opponents on his own. This would potentially allow Kable to reunite with his wife, Angie (Amber Valletta), who’s stuck, scantily clad, in Castle’s other bestselling game, “Society,” which is dubbed as the “ultimate sin environment” — a description that applies equally to “Gamer” itself.
Literally playing an action figure, bulky Butler doesn’t deliver a performance so much as a workout routine; the best that can be said for him here is that he shows endurance. Other, better actors are similarly underutilized, including Alison Lohman as a dreadlocks-sporting freedom fighter, and Kyra Sedgwick as a sleazy talkshow host who’s dragged into service in the war against Hall’s megalomaniacal Castle. Near the end, Hall has one attention-getting scene wherein he does a softshoe tap to a Sammy Davis Jr. number. It’s the closest “Gamer” comes to comedy, but, alas, it isn’t funny — and, in any case, it belongs in another movie.
Notwithstanding some visual quotations from Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator,” there’s little to distinguish the film from a random assembly of Xbox carnage. Neveldine/Taylor’s post-production crew subjects the helmers’ footage to split-second cutting, strobe effects and all other manner of digital futzing, to no effect but the viewer’s growing desire to play “Call of Duty 4” — or “Pac-Man” — instead.