Amber Valletta

Amber Valletta (Lionsgate)

When did Gerard Butler hire Jason Statham's agent? When did the star of 300, Friend of Guy (Ritchie, of RocknRolla), savior of Katherine Heigl (The Ugly Truth), need to do B-movies built on video-game cliches, conventions and stereotypes?

Gamer, a movie abandoned on Labor Day weekend, has Butler playing a convict trapped in a "real life" video game in which the players shoot their way through levels until they're killed. Or they make it through 30 "missions," and are freed.

Doesn't that sound like Statham to you, or WWE wrestler-actor fare?

Butler puts his game face on for Gamer, playing a man unjustly convicted of murder, determined to escape his doom in this weekly worldwide telecast of the game Slayers, where he is the heroic "first person shooter" named Kable. His real name is Tilman.

Tilman needs to survive, but he's trapped in the "moves" made by a famous and soul-deadened teen gamer (Logan Lerman) with a knack for pulling the game trigger faster than his competitors. Tilman is under the thumb of game guru Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), who is using this "opiate of the masses" to rule the world. Or so the HUMANZ, say. They're a rebellion against Castle and Slayers, hacking into telecasts. Ludacris delivers their messages about what Castle is REALLY up to.

Meanwhile, Tilman's wife (Amber Valletta) can't find their child because she's taken a job as a "Sims" actor, playing the alter ego/avatar of cretinous junk-foood junky recluses (a video-gamer cliche) who want to pretend to be her or sexually assault her in that simulated "sims" world of nerdy teens, violent punks and women who bare their breasts for every social reject who walks up to them in the gamescape.

Oh, and Kyra Sedgwick is a TV chat-show hostess who wants to get to the bottom of this story. That's a lot to digitize into a movie that's basically Death Race or The Condemned, with really cool interfaces and graphics. Very little room for acting (Butler is merely a presence here) or emotions or anything of real interest.

The Crank co-directors, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, only find the wit that those movies had in a couple of musical moments. Hackman (burly funny-scary guy Terry Crews) is sent into the game to kill Kable. He has no game player behind him, no puppeteer pulling his strings. So Neveldine and Taylor got Lionsgate to pay Disney for the rights to Crews singing a sadistic "There are no strings on meeee."

And Castle, in a demented "evil villain" flourish, leads a gang of robotic henchmen in a Sammy Davis Jr. song and soft-shoe that makes you wish the rest of the movie had gone this way -- demented, over-the-top, not serious.

When you set your sights on mimicking and commenting on a first-person-shooter game where the body-count and the score are all you're really interested in, you've set your sights too low. This was never going to be much, but it could have been more than this.   Gamer One of five stars Cast: Gerard Butler, Amber Valletta, Michael C. Hall, Ludacris, Logan Lerman, Kyra Sedgwick Directors: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes Industry rating: R for frenetic sequences of strong brutal violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and language.