With their first two features, “Crank” and “Crank: High Voltage,” the directing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor succeeded in creating a kinetic brand of all-sensation-all-the-time post-narrative filmmaking. Michael Bay may get the money and the occasional grudging critical respect for his 3-hour farragoes, but Neveldine/Taylor make hyperactive cinematic freakouts that are both fun to watch and, on their own terms at least, logically cohesive.
That’s not so much the case with “Gamer,” however; where the “Crank” movies stripped everything down to the basic “Jason Statham IS the bus from ‘Speed’” premise, this latest one piles on more and more plot in a tale of a near-future where everyone is obsessed with playing videogames morning, noon and night. Given how much the two “Crank” films borrowed from the first-person shooter aesthetic, it feels a little too on-the-nose for these filmmakers to straightforwardly exploit and comment upon videogame culture here.
Gerard Butler stars as Kable, the star of a hot new videogame called “Slayers.” The premise of the game is that players at home are controlling flesh-and-blood individuals, death-row convicts who have had revolutionary nano-tech injected into their brains that makes them respond to commands given by the controller. Any participant who can survive 30 missions is granted freedom, but no one has come close — until Kable.
“Slayers” is the creation of eccentric programming genius Castle (Michael C. Hall), who previously revolutionized the industry with a game called “Society,” a “Sims”-like experience that again used real people as stand-ins for the people playing at home. Castle uses the proceeds from the two games to underwrite the nation’s prison system but, naturally, he’s got more ambitious and more nefarious plans in mind. And Kable knows too much about it, making it unlikely that he’ll survive his 30th mission.
Where Neveldine/Taylor lose their way is by trying to marry their no-shot-lasts-longer-than-five-seconds style with overstuffed storytelling; along the way we also meet an ambitious talk-show host, a renegade band of anti-Castle hackers (that seems straight out of “The Matrix”), Kable’s teenage controller and a vicious killer who has been unleashed into “Slayers” with no one commanding him in the hopes of taking down Kable once and for all. (I’m not saying who plays these various characters; one of the pleasures of “Gamer” is the bevy of familiar faces that pops up in random roles throughout. Try to keep from peeking at the IMDB page beforehand if you’re going to go.)
The film’s climax has a scatter-shot, we’ll-try-anything aspect that just feels desperate; say what you want about the amped-up loopiness of the “Crank” films, but at least they kept an eye on the prize. Not even an out-of-nowhere pre-melée dance number — which allows Hall to show off his Broadway-musical chops while lip-synching Sammy Davis, Jr.’s version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — makes the cluttered third act work.
Knowing Neveldine/Taylor’s work so far, I certainly didn’t expect “Gamer” to play by the usual cinematic rules. Sadly, the film also doesn’t work by these directors’ singular set of standards. I’ll still be looking forward to what they do next, but “Gamer” qualifies as their first real misstep. Time to hit the Reset button.
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