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Is Grand Theft Auto IV Actually the Best Popcorn Movie of the Summer?

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Where do you look for something to knock you out of your summer-movie funk? Not The Incredible Hulk, which looks like a giant green beach ball — even with a rage bug up its air hole. And not The Happening, featuring Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher scanning the skies for an airborne virus when the real mystery is how many times M. Night Shyamalan thinks he can go back to the Sixth Sense well.

Time to go interactive. That's right, me the movie critic is actually telling you to switch to video games until Hollywood makes more exciting movies. Spawned by Rockstar Games over three and a half years with a crew that topped 1,000 and a cost that tickled $100 million, Grand Theft Auto IV has been raking it in since its April 29th debut ($500 million in its first week alone; no film or music launch beats that).

Now, after my total immersion in GTA IV on PlayStation 3 (it's also released on Xbox 360), I'm here to tell you why. It's a hell of a game (maybe not the Citizen Kane of the form, like many game reviews claim), and in terms of action, thrills, imagination and innovation, GTA IV has it all over the pablum currently passing for ingenuity at the multiplex. (Note to the moral hand-wringers: Yes, GTA IV is brutal, bloody, debased, debauched and likely to corrupt the innocent after, say, 400 hours of play. But let's keep the innocent out of this.)

And let's keep my game skills out of this as well. This is a review of Grand Theft Auto IV the M-O-V-I-E. And I have to say, it's better than anything I've seen at the multiplex so far this summer, except maybe Iron Man. There's plot development, character depth and moral ambiguity, stuff you don't find in Speed Racer. This open-world game is set in Liberty City, a knockout rendering of New York and its boroughs that's so real you can almost pick up the stench.

Like a really good movie, GTA IV doesn't shoot its wad in the first scene. You'll have to keep your itchy fingers off the controller as the plot is set up. You play the game as Niko Bellic, just off the boat from Eastern Europe and the hard knocks of the Bosnian war. Niko thinks he'll be living large with his cousin Roman. Ha! Roman's been lying through his teeth, living in a dump and working in a cab depot to cover his criminal dealings. Niko, his eyes opened quickly to the so-called American dream, is soon living his own nightmare as a hired killer. The voice work is first-rate, notably by actor Michael Hollick, who brings vocal ruggedness and sly humor to Niko, an immigrant with his own revenge agenda concerning a traitor from his army days. Is America corrupting Niko, or is it the other way around? Play the game and take your choice.

It's a rare video game that enters territory marked by Scorsese and Tarantino. But writers Dan Houser and Rupert Humphries have created the vid version of film noir with dialogue that crackles even in the film's darkest shadows. And they take every shot they can at social satire. That's not a torch being carried by Lady Liberty (the Statue of Happiness here), it's coffee in a cardboard cup. Cellphone addiction is just as prevalent in the GTA IV sandbox — Niko's cell is ever ready to help him complete a mission, whether it's stealing cars, dealing drugs, shagging babes or murder for hire. Billboards fly by hyping America's Next Top Hooker. And there's the Liberty City Gun Club, which wants to amend the Constitution to provide for "more guns."

No way am I trying to make GTA IV look like it's good for you. You can bowl, play pool, shoot darts, ride a roller coaster, smash a motorcycle or crash a speedboat. The ops for close encounters of the violent kind are endless, be they on foot or by vehicle. Each car you steal handles differently. Decide to shoot someone and you can target specific body parts. Civilians and cops go down like crazy. Ditto choppers, with the help of a howitzer. You can pound down cosmos with a coked-up supermodel and drive drunk with the camera weaving all over the place. But be careless of damage to property or Niko's life and limb and it will cost you in terms of completing your mission and winning the game. Actions have consequences. Who'd-a thunk?

And that extends to sex with the ladies of Liberty City. Let a hooker approach Niko in his car ("I'll suck your cock real nice") and you can tell her "get in" or kill her or both — just like James Bond did in Dr. No. I admit I let Niko go off mission to get a lap dance. Don't expect total nudity, but the real surprise is the politeness afterward ("Do you need a tissue, sweetie?").

There are more accessories in GTA IV than you'll find in Sex and the City. You can take Niko shopping, for clothes or weapons. You can side-trip to a comedy club and laugh at Ricky Gervais and Katt Williams. You have your choice of radio stations in your car and over 200 songs (largest number ever for a video game), featuring diverse artists from Smashing Pumpkins and Kanye West to John Coltrane and Philip Glass. What movie is going to top that?

Of course, non-blockbusters — the kind major studios won't trot out till fall — don't need all the bells and whistles. I'll resist to the last, trading human drama for virtual reality. That doesn't mean I didn't wonder for a minute what it would be like to grab a controller and follow the characters in No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood into corners their creators never imagined. What's needed now are creative minds up to the challenge of turning gaming into a revolution in filmmaking. GTA IV deserves major props for extending the potential of storytelling. But who's the ballsy visionary — yes to James (Titanic) Cameron, no-no-no to Michael (Transformers) Bay — capable of raising interactive video to the level of cinematic art? GTA IV qualifies as a wow of a start. It's not this game that spits you out feeling brain-numbed and dead-ended. It's Hollywood. You leave GTA IV — if you ever do — thinking, "So many possibilities."

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Peter Travers

Rolling Stone senior writer Peter Travers has reviewed movies for the magazine for more than 20 years. Send your comments and questions to him here.

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