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Passport Cinema: Gamer

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There's an unwritten rule dictating that 95% of all films based off of video games will inevitably suck. In the case of France's Gamer, that rule also extends to movies about video games. That's unfortunate, because this is a world that could lend itself brilliantly to cinematic interpretations, yet the few movies that do take a chance end up going down the tubes. The problem is that filmmakers haven't quite found a way to approach the material, and if they keep churning out more underwhelming fare like Gamer, it's going to stay that way for a long time.

Tony (Saïd Taghmaoui, Vantage Point) is a small-time hood who dreams of ditching his life of petty crime. Stuck collecting cash for a seedy loan shark (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), Tony would much rather be perfecting his gaming skills. After leading the cops on a high-speed pursuit, he's going to have eight months to do just that, sent to the slammer with only his cellmate and a console for company. But during his imprisonment, Tony's mind formulates a crackerjack concept for a video game, one that's destined to be a hit. With a motley crew of friends and programmers behind him, he eventually cranks out a demo that impresses a big-time publisher (Arielle Dombasle). But when Tony realizes she has no intentions of giving him credit for the game, he and his pals quickly devise a plan to dish out some well-earned revenge.

Gamer is either very trusting of its viewers or very condescending towards them. The film's creators have a way of expecting most of the story to be taken at face value. Instead of seeing what's so great about Tony's game or being allowed to feel his passion ourselves, we're flat-out told what to think. Despite the script's best intentions, it often feels pretty patronizing, mostly because it knows nowhere near as much about its subject as it thinks it does. At best, Gamer displays a casual understanding of gaming, the sort of half-hearted acknowledgment that tends to give this world a bad reputation. But it's not so much that the characters play too many games; if anything, they don't play enough. Tony himself engages in maybe two or three bouts with other opponents, yet we're supposed to accept him as some video game maestro. Likewise, the scant couple times we actually get to see his so-called revolutionary game, it's a computer-generated nightmare that wouldn't make it past the drawing board, let alone be a bona fide smash.

But let's put aside the gaming aspect of Gamer and look at it as a movie in the simplest terms. Its story is nothing new, as the underdog fighting to get what's coming to him is a premise that's fueled many a motion picture in its time. It's a hard formula to mess up, but Gamer finds a way, primarily by serving up a pretty unlikable protagonist. I know I'm supposed to cheer on Tony, but it's hard to care for him when he deliberately antagonizes gangsters, cheats on his girlfriend, and acts like an all-around nimrod who deserves what he gets. Plus, the film breezes by its numerous crises so fast, hardly anything that happens is of real consequence. If there's a saving grace to Gamer, it's that the cast and crew put a healthy amount of energy into their efforts. Instead of trudging along, weighed down by convention, everyone seems to be having a good time here. Taghmoui is decent as a regular (albeit dim-witted) schmoe, and the film itself moves along at a fast pace accompanied by an infectious techno beat.

Still, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, Gamer knows no more about real gaming than a tea leaf knows the history of the East India company. It works as a quick and ultimately harmless diversion, but if you're expecting this to be an in-depth look into gamer culture, you'd be better off hitting your reset button.

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About A.J. Hakari