The movie is, essentially, the bastard love child of a raunchy, possibly drug-fueled threesome between The Fugitive, The Running Man, and The Matrix which Hackers had a grand old time videotaping and posting to Youporn.com. It is fast, and dark, gritty imagery, spliced together with super shiny Sims eye candy. The games themselves, and the society in which the film is grounded, are very tongue in cheek send-ups of our contemporary culture. Really, the games are just the Sims, and every 1st person shooter EVER, writ large. There are a lot of relatively big names in this (in addition to the scrumptious Mr. Butler): Kyra Sedgwick, Ludacris, John Leguizamo*, Keith David**, Michael C. Hall***, and Amber Valletta. That, my friends, is, how you say… a big old waste of casting budget. Seriously. Too many familiar faces with too little character development.
In the film, the conceit is that Butler, death row inmate John “Kable” Tilman, whom we know from the beginning probably is innocent of, or justified in, the killing for which he was imprisoned****, is a Real Life video game character, being controlled by a 17 year old rich kid, in a Real Life shooter game. Like gladiators, these characters, “Kable” and his fellow inmates, are fighting to the death, hoping to win their release by surviving 30 battles in the “Slayers” videogame. A familiar concept, acceptably executed. A bunch of nonsense neurological hackers vamping commences, Butler makes an improbable escape using regurgitated liquor and piss, and reunites with Amber Valletta, who plays his vacant, uninteresting, and one dimensional wifey. Yawn. Butler and Valletta have zero chemistry, and her character is so underdeveloped she’s a nonentity, even AFTER Butler’s Tilman gets her brain hacked to free her from the Big Bad’s programming. Blank. Fucking. Slate.
One final thought on casting: the little girl playing Tilman’s daughter? Even blanker than Valletta. She’s a cipher. I kept thinking they were setting up a twist ending, and she was going to murder her parents as they drove off into HEA, but no. Just a really, really bad child actor. Check. Cute, but about as engaging and emotive as a box of rocks. And because both of Tilman’s family members were completely uninteresting, I was not particularly invested in, or interested by, their inevitable happy family reunion. “Yawn. Is Gerry ever going to be taking off his shirt?”
(mmm. I needed that...)
The final scenes of the film occur in the mansion of digital puppet master Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) and include an actual honest to god song-and-dance number performed by Castle and his burly murdering man puppets. I laughed. So fucking hard. The number has no place in the movie (or at least, is MUCH too long), but it’s funny. Really, the tone of the entire movie undergoes a major shift at this point, and one can almost see the writer, crew and director just collectively throwing up their hands and yelling “bugger it, how much sense does any of this actually have to make?”
My biggest problem with the movie comes at the end. It’s the final showdown and Castle has reactivated Tilman’s puppet programming. Again, a really common movie trope, hero against baddie against self. Can the big mean crazy Castle force Tilman to kill his own daughter? Himself? Well, of course not. The predictability isn’t what bothered me. I don’t expect a lot of originality in shoot ‘em up action films. What pissed me off is that in the final showdown, Tilman succeeds ONLY because he has been taken over again by the 17 year old gamer, who, through his shiny new Tilman puppet, foils Castle’s plans and knifes the madman in the gut. Tilman loses all autonomy and personal utility, and it pisses me off, and robs the hero of his victory. It cheapens the whole thing that the ultimate world-saving gesture isn’t actually Tilman’s, but the gamer brat’s, through Tilman. Unsatisfying. Deeply unsatisfying, and unnecessary.
*who is WASTED in this. I kept waiting for his character to do something important or interesting, or at least for his arc to be completed or explained, but… no. Wasted.
**as a… lawyer? Maybe? He’s not really a big name, but I’ve loved him since "Gargoyles", so he’s a “big” name to me.
***is he ever cast as anything other than a total psychotic? No? Carrying on then...
****the heroes in these kind of films are never guilty. They are ALWAYS wrongly accused. This is such a common trope that any suspense or question on this score is completely dispelled without any work or craft on the part of writers. We expect it, and it barely need ever be explained in these kind of films.