"Some years from this exact moment," we're told at the beginning of the dismal "Gamer," Americans will be lining up to become flesh-and-blood avatars inside violent and lurid video game worlds. The bad news: Participants are likely either to be killed or imprisoned in an environment that looks like a David LaChapelle photo shoot. The good news: These kinds of games would render garbage like "Gamer" obsolete.

"Gamer" actually makes you feel nostalgic for the time when the filmmaking team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (the duo behind the "Crank" movies) didn't feel burdened by the need to conjure up a story line or reflexively comment on American culture. Thought is antithetical to these guys' absurdist, Red Bull action aesthetic.

Not that the boys invest that much thought here. We just know that in the insanely brutal video contest "Slayers," gamers control weapon-wielding human avatars, all of whom are death-row inmates looking for a chance of parole. Survive 30 incomprehensibly filmed "missions" and you can punch your ticket. But our prisons win too, with proceeds from gamers paying for America's overcrowded prison system.

One implacable freedom fighter named Kable (Gerard Butler) is closing in on his 30th mission and a reunion with his wife and kid. But since the wrongly convicted Kable has dirt on the power-mad billionaire behind the technology ("Dexter's" Michael C. Hall, playing Bill Gates by way of Malcolm McDowell), he's not likely to survive -- unless he persuades the teenage brat controlling him to relinquish power.

Kable's wife (Amber Valletta), meanwhile, works days in a Sims-like video game where she's controlled by a morbidly obese, syrup-swigging man who dresses her in hot pants and sends her to raves. Apparently, "some years from this exact moment," Americans' interests are confined to light bondage and gruesome violence with no room in between for the next logical extension of Wii Sports.

It's a deeply cynical and joyless point of view, completely lacking in the winking visual style that made "Crank" worth a look. The one touch of wit -- Hall lip-syncing and dancing to Sammy Davis Jr.'s rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin" before going ballistic on Butler -- is quickly enveloped by an ending that could generously be described as perfunctory. Rarely have the words "game over" come as such sweet relief.





MPAA rating: R for frenetic sequences of strong brutal violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and language

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Playing: In general release

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