Since 2017, Midwest Film Journal has prided itself on delivering thoughtful commentary on current and classic cinema. No one piece has persisted as powerfully as our 2018 review of Den of Thieves, which we called an “unswervingly painful” waste of 140 minutes.
SEO tells us the piece’s popularity is thanks to its reference of one character’s inscrutable “Peckerwood” tattoo. Instinct tells us otherwise: People really love Gerard Butler.
Disfigured catacomb vocalist. Ripped Spartan warrior. Machine gun preacher. Secretly sweet lothario. Donut-housing cop. Dragon-slaying hero. HMS Devonshire crewman. Angry little leprechaun. Stalwart hunter killer. Geostorm-stopping scientist. Vengeful Egyptian god.
That’s but a small sampling of this Scottish export’s quarter-century run — whose body of work will be highlighted biweekly this month in a retrospective series.
We bring you …The Butler Did It.
Conceding it is a bar cockroaches could clear, Gamer is unquestionably the greatest Gerard Butler film ever made. Mind you, that’s not the same thing as the best film with Gerard Butler. (The man has done a Shakespeare adaptation and thrice voiced a fat, friendly animated Viking.)
No, Gamer is the ne plus ultraviolence of the knucklehead-action subset on which Butler has cornered the market with increasingly widened positions and shit-eating smirks. First off, it runs 85 minutes before the credits roll, chef’s-kiss perfection if ever it existed. It’s also a film in which Butler barely pays attention to his co-stars’ provision of salacious subtext for the carnage but is also at his most believably heroic. Butler is the budget Hugh Jackman. This is his Swordfish.
Similarly to Swordfish, Gamer gives its hero a clear, clean sense of purpose amid the flipping cars and flopping carcasses: Get his family back. The difference? That idea isn’t all that’s going on in its noggin. As audaciously entertaining as it is certifiably putrid, Gamer illustrates what would happen if Stanley Kubrick and Russ Meyer’s minds were merged Malkovich-style in a clash of id and ego. It solidifies Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor — their directorial partnership generally dissolved after this, a pair of Crank films and the superior Ghost Rider film of the two — as underrated aggressor-auteurs in the junk-jolt vein; no one has since pulled off such meaningful sensory overload. Here, Neveldine/Taylor even bring their motion-sickness melee to a montage of air hockey. Gamer is truly Verhoeven-level satire for the Vault generation … and sort of like The Condemned if that film hadn’t been made by a bag of assholes.
Set “some years from this exact moment” with a soundtrack that amusingly spans Marilyn Manson, Sammy Davis Jr., a Pinocchio song, the Bloodhound Gang and nothing else, Gamer envisions a nearby time in which Death Row inmates get a shot at survival to quench public bloodlust. The competitors’ blood is their own. Their maneuvers are not, as they are players inside “Slayers,” an interactive pay-per-view game where they are controlled by bratty, overprivileged teens. (Gamer predicted putrescent pukes like Logan Paul when he was himself in puberty.)
Michael C. Hall plays Ken Castle, the genius-hillbilly billionaire behind “Slayers,” as a cross between Ashton Kutcher and Z-Man from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Castle also controls “Society,” a “Hot Coffee”-like mod of The Sims in which society’s poor get paid by subjecting themselves to the control of greasy, sweat-caked gluttons who often lead them to sexual or violent debasement. When not ruining the planet, Castle sniffs individual potato crisps to determine their freshness or leads a West Side Story-esque sequence where he psychically dictates the participants’ dance moves. Among 21st-century movie villains, Castle is an unsung, unhinged great.
Through Castle’s malevolence, Gamer presents a fully fleshed-out conflation of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and social networking in a feverishly dystopian hell. Although a tonal opposite to Idiocracy, it shares that film’s freak-show spirit and co-star Terry Crews, who plays a reanimated uber-killer that makes the sentence “Look at me, bitch” feel like an 18-syllable death sentence.
Crews is one of many foes against whom Butler fights as Kable, a convicted murderer currently atop the leaderboard in “Slayers.” He’s a handful of wins away from freedom in a game where losing means dying. Kable is deified in skyscraping advertisements that Butler would never adorn in real life and controlled by Simon (Logan Lerman), who is himself besieged by fangirls with screen names like Stikkimuffin or Kumdumpstaz. Aided by an underground movement, Kable attempts to break free from “Slayers” and Simon’s control. Ostensibly, it’s to topple Castle’s empire but mainly to find his daughter and wife (Amber Valetta), the latter trapped as a sex slave in “Society” beside people with names like Myballshurt, Vaginablender or Rick Rape (Milo Ventimiglia).
Kable is introduced in the way Butler was presumably born into our actual world, barreling forth through a barrage of pyrotechnics. Resembling a leather chair that has been whomped to shit, Kable is trying to reach a save point within “Slayers.” Within seconds, you can tell it’s an ideal archetype for the actor. For what is the real-life Gerard Butler, really, if not a sentient tactical stance to be maneuvered around fictitious battlefields by generals with a vision?
Brief and ill-advised forays into romantic comedy aside, Butler is, and always will be, a foot soldier of fulsome manliness — often deployed on cinematic missions of questionable strategy but occasionally, as he is here, given correct intel. Butler is not the sort of guy who’s going to make some sort of late-career pivot into heretofore unseen subtlety. No, Gerard Butler will do the hero run until his knees give out. He’ll partake in hand-to-hand slugfests until stunt teams can no longer convincingly cover for him. He’ll make films that splatter him in brains without demonstrating they have any of their own.
To that last point, Gamer is the lone exception. There’s no fascistic military bravado. He’s not a burl who baits both sides with a barely-absent brogue. Butler often feels like he’s subconsciously championing the rancid value systems on display in star vehicles like 300 or Den of Thieves. Here, he just can’t comprehend it. It’s less emblematic of Butler’s laziness than his self-recognition of limitations. There is a moment in Gamer where Butler pinches his nose and widens his eyes, overwhelmed nearly to the point of a migraine both by the real acting going on around him and an explanation of the film’s philosophy — which plays out like a debate inside a Call of Duty chat box while explosions envelop your 5.1 headphones. Butler has no time for this shit, unencumbered by burdens of context but mainly unnerved by the switch Neveldine and Taylor have flipped within him that no other director could ever even discover.
“You wanna win, kid?” Kable barks to Simon in a palpable moment of panic when he hears Simon’s voice in his head for the first time. “Turn me loose! Find a way!” Narratively, Kable is insisting Simon surrender his psychic link to let Kable unleash the beast as it were. But you feel a smidgen of existential crisis in Butler, too, as if he’s realizing his best attributes as an actor are themselves so easily automated. Maybe Gamer is the reason Gerard Butler injected himself with bee venom — to remind himself that he is still alive, to loudly insist that damnit, HE IS HIS OWN PERSON, to inject himself with bee venom again even after it made him ill the first time. It’s a terrifying thing for a man to confront his outermost edges of usefulness. No other directors have challenged Butler in that way nor has he ever mustered the gumption to confront it so readily again. Perhaps that’s the reason there has never been — or likely will be — a greater Gerard Butler film than Gamer.
Among the film’s sundry sickening repulsions, one stands out in particular. Kable chugs a half-pint of booze before a “Slayers” match, a seemingly incongruous choice to dull his senses ahead of a potentially fatal battle. But his plan is to vomit and urinate it out into a truck’s ethanol tank, giving the vehicle enough fuel to escape the gaming grid. Piss and purge. Purge and piss. Gamer serves up Gerard Butler in his purest form and suggests no better metaphor for his career — just another always-barbaric, sometimes-satisfying inevitability of human life.
The Butler Did It continues every Monday and Thursday through April. Please check back for future installments.