Before we get into the meat of this, I just want to say I’m a huge fan of the Grand Theft Auto games. The most recent instalment, Grand Theft Auto V, sits comfortably in my top 5 games of all-time, and contains what is easily the most vibrant and realistic open world gamers have ever seen. The success of the franchise is palpable, be it down to its constant innovation and border-pushing or just downright controversy, something developers Rockstar Games thrive in. With each and every release, there is something supposedly outrageous about the GTA in question, but this time the roles are reversed: The Gamechangers is arguably just as controversial as the games it is based upon. Produced by the BBC without permission from Rockstar, the latter have discredited the film, saying that it poorly represents events, and the film even opens by saying that some events have been dramatised. With that in mind, let’s see if The Gamechangers is a film worthy of telling the tale of one of gaming’s behemoths – Grand Theft Auto.
The Gamechangers stars Daniel Radcliffe as Sam Houser, the president of Rockstar Games, just as 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is released. It’s of course a resounding success, which leads Sam and his brother Dan (Ian Kier Attard) immediately beginning work on the successor, San Andreas. The studio want the game within two years, and with a mountain of work to do thanks to Sam’s aspirations, relationships begin to strain inside Rockstar. On top of this, notorious laywer Jack Thompson (Bill Paxton) tries to sue the company, saying that the GTA games pollute the minds of children, after a teenager kills four police officers shortly after playing the game. Houser has to juggle the stress of San Andreas and the court case, with his life slowly falling apart around him.
First off, I thought the plot of The Gamechangers was alright. Whether or not it is entirely accurate to the real-life events aside, it tells an interesting and surprisingly tense tale of the dark underbelly of the gaming industry. Unlike most video game films such as Pixels or Hitman: Agent 47, it takes a wholly unique approach of going for a much more dramatic and grounded feel, which I can only compare with Fincher’s sublime film The Social Network. It was so fascinating to see behind-the-scenes on some of my favourite games and thanks to a number of easter eggs, it definitely has something for the fans. That said, there were quite a number of issues with the plot. It feels very unbalanced, with the stories of Houser working on San Andreas and Thompson working on his court case running parallel to each other, but oddly, they only crossover within the last 15 minutes or so. The biggest issue is that the plots only intersect clumsily, and in reality, they really shouldn’t. The reason they meet is due to the ‘Hot Coffee’ mod in San Andreas, which Thompson gets a lot of public attention for, although he had absolutely nothing to do with it. If the film was like a jigsaw puzzle, it would be the one that looks great on the box, but has too many pieces missing to be worthwhile. There are also a few plotlines that feel superfluous throughout, most notably the plot with Jack’s son being picked on at school, which although highlights the fact that Thompson is disliked for combating violent games, is nothing new since the public reaction to him is very clear anyway. The other fact is that the two plotlines just aren’t equal at all: Houser’s story of making San Andreas and the subsequent heat from it is so much more interesting than Thompson’s, which mainly consists of him plodding around his house playing golf. When Thompson was on the screen, all I wanted was to see Houser’s story. Another large issue is the film’s pacing. The first and third acts are pretty interesting and advance the story nicely, but the middle definitely drags and feels tiresome and same-y. The ending itself is downright appalling too, due to it being wholly unsatisfying and downright confusing. A film’s ending is the final taste viewers get, and unfortunately this one left me feeling sour.
That said, characterisation is less of a problem. As mentioned, I’m not comparing this to real life since I simply don’t know enough, but from what I saw of the characters I was enthralled. Daniel Radcliffe is absolutely mesmerising as Sam Houser, with such a layered performance that allows his character to change throughout the film. He’s got a bunch of personality quirks, such as his love for gangster movies like Scarface or his idolisation of film producer Don Simpson, so when his character starts to lose his marbles towards the end of the film, it is that much more thrilling to watch. Bill Paxton is also pretty good but unfortunately has a lot less to work with due to the constraints the script puts upon him, but his performance was convincing and I loved the way he too started to lose some screws towards the end. There’s not much to say about supporting characters since none of them really stand out, but there were no performances that ruined the film at all.
From a technical aspect, I was pleasantly surprised with The Gamechangers. Director Owen Harris does a good job, with a number of nice choices being made such as the interesting set design, pretty cinematography and good use of music, as well as tight and interesting editing akin to Gone Girl. The production values are great for a TV movie, and it has a near-cinema quality despite costing considerably less than your average Hollywood feature.
Overall, I can’t pretend that I’m a bit disappointed with The Gamechangers. I went in expecting a film in the style of The Social Network, and although it does try to be that, an unbalanced plot and general mediocrity from most of the cast lets it down. Radcliffe and Paxton are great and it’s got lovely production values, but a series as prestigious as Grand Theft Auto definitely deserves better than this.