Letter From The Editor - Issue 64 - August 2018

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2018

Rampage

Animals and mineral

On bad coaching, dull monsters, awkward cowboys, and the persistent misuse of The Rock

Rampage
Warner Bros.
Director: Brad Peyton
Screenplay: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel, based on the Midway video-game franchise
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jason Liles, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Demetrius Grosse, Joe Manganiello and Marley Shelton
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 47 minutes / 2.39:1
April 13, 2018
(out of four)

Look, any version of Rampage that didn't climax with a giant Dwayne The Rock Johnson fighting the giant monkey, the giant wolf and the giant crocodile was doomed to fail. This is a movie that needs a self-help guru. Don't you understand your potential, Rampage? Don't you realize what you could be?

Apparently not. Rampage does manage to feel much more like a traditional monster movie or science-gone-wrong actioner than a video-game adaptation, so kudos on solving that conundrum. Yet director Brad Peyton somehow manages the trick of making super-sized, genetically mutated versions of a crocodile, an albino gorilla, and a flying wolf thoroughly boring. That takes rare skill.

The poor track record of video-game adaptations notwithstanding, this is not a movie that sounds altogether unpromising on paper. Watching it reminds me of what it feels like to watch a basketball team with an odd combination of unique talents, coached by someone who doesn't know what to do with them. One of those teams that has no consistent style of play or discernible offensive system. Good coaching is, in part, about using your pieces the right way, finding the most creative ways to use the skill sets you have, putting guys in the best position to succeed. There's a certain alchemy to it, but a good team forges an identity of its own.

For Rampage, Peyton has been granted a unique set of pieces to play with. He has the star - and not just any star, but a physical miracle whose effortless charisma practically has its own gravitational pull. If there's anyone you can revolve a big goofy action spectacle around, it's Johnson. And if he's handicapped at all by the inescapable fact of his own physique and star power, that's offset by his chameleonic co-star Naomie Harris. She's the kind of endlessly valuable performer who can so effortlessly pull off both the anxiety, bitterness, desperation and guilt of Moonlight's drug-addict mother and the seductive regality of Skyfall's Moneypenny; the grounded authenticity and unassuming brilliance of her A Cock and Bull Story character and the conviction and physical ferocity of 28 Days Later's righteous badass.

Peyton's role players are formidable enough - a tag team of Malin Akerman (who's done her best work in comedy) and Jake Lacy (best known for playing affable nice-guy types), plus a couple of enforcers in Joe Manganiello and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He's got three giant creatures with virtually limitless capabilities to play with. He's got cities and jungles. He's got a wildlife reserve and a secret government agency. He's got the sea, the ground, the air, and The Rock. And yet somehow none of them are shown in their best light - all either underused or misused. He's a bad coach who doesn't know how to use the roster that was put together for him. Which is to say he's the same abominable filmmaker who made Incarnate and San Andreas. How anyone can take this concept, these creatures, and these celebrity faces and bodies and make a movie that doesn't have a single memorable image is beyond me.

Hell, the movie begins in outer space, with a cataclysmic event aboard a space station, and it involves a rodent of unusual size floating around chasing Marley Shelton in zero-G. And still: nuthin. (The space station contains canisters of an experimental, off-the-books pathogen designed to rewrite genetic code. Three canisters crash-land at different spots on Earth, one each in San Diego, Wyoming and the Everglades. That they all coincidentally wound up in the United States is just another sign of the movie's lack of ambition. You've got the budget for globetrotting, people. Globetrot!)

I'd be curious to know what the filmmakers think this movie actually is. Beyond the logline, I mean. Beyond "big dumb fun summer blockbuster." Beyond "The Rock fights monsters" (which, for the most part, he doesn't). (Which, to go back to my very first point, is a flaw in and of itself.) Rampage is a big dumb summer blockbuster that has very little personality beyond that. It's so down-the-middle it's almost depressing. It's too blatantly insipid to be taken with the emotional sincerity it too often reaches for, but neither does it know how to exploit the giddy extremes of its premise. From time to time you get the sense - in some barely discernible way that's been blurred or buried - that it wants to be a big goofy self-aware oversized B-movie in the vein of Pacific Rim or Tremors. But it too often tries to stretch into dramatic territory it hasn't earned, and its comic tone is far too timid to ever push the film in a more delirious direction.

Peyton's Rampage has too much money and too little courage to be William Castle, too little wit to be Joe Dante, too little skill to pull off even a sub-Spielbergian big-budget spectacle, and too little personality for all of the above. This is post-Independence Day Roland Emmerich but without even that bare minimum of style and craft. It's two hours of nothing held together by the thin promise that any minute now, something really cool might happen. It never does.

You can tell how little it's doing, how low it's aiming, by the way it half-asses even what few distinguishable ideas squeak through. Take the bad guys, for example. The bad guys are a brother-and-sister duo of Claire and Brett Wyden (Akerman and Lacy, respectively), CEO and lapdog of Energyne, respectively. They're clearly intended as a comical pairing - like the kind of villain duo that would show up in a 1980s family comedy about orphaned children who accidentally uncover a corporate conspiracy and then get chased and kidnaped before finally being saved by the precocious family dog who bites the bad guy in the ass just as the cops show up at the warehouse. Or something. But Peyton never really knows how (or if) to push the duo's latent over-the-top qualities. Akerman (and her extremely convincing wig) just comes across as a typical ruthless corporate suit (and anyone who's seen Akerman in Childrens Hospital, for starters, knows she's being wasted as a bland straight-man), while Lacy is permanently beset by panic and flop sweat.

Elsewhere, we have Harvey Russell, a government agent who shows up out of nowhere and claims jurisdiction over the whole "giant mutated animals" situation. Harvey is a cowboy type, which we can tell by the accent, and the awkward attempts at cocky Southern charm, and the shiny belt buckle he proudly sports, and the marble-plated gun that he wears in his front holster, and the fact that he calls other people "amigo." You get the distinct feeling the producers had a wishlist of Josh Brolin, Kurt Russell and Don Johnson, and just wound up having to settle for Jeffrey Dean Morgan. So it goes.

And finally there's Johnson as Davis Okoye, a charismatic primatologist who never hangs out with other people, politely turns down all sexual advances, spends all his free time in the wildlife preserve communicating with gorillas, used to be a hardcore Special Forces officer, and is definitely a character that makes a ton of sense and whose combination of characteristics was well thought-out.

The first animal to mutate is George, an albino gorilla that Davis has been working with at the preserve since his infancy. (The gorilla's infancy, not The Rock's.) The film clearly intends the relationship between Davis and George to be our emotional foundation, except it never takes the time to establish it, let alone build on it. We get one modest scene at the beginning where the two establish their rapport; the next time we see George, he's already been infected, and the plot starts chugging along while continuing to pretend it has to re-emphasize the barely-there bond between the two characters every five minutes. For the number of times Davis stands up to authority figures to protect his friend, or talks about how much he cares for his friend, maybe we could have spent a bit of time actually getting to see that friendship develop or evolve. George is essentially supposed to be a co-star, but winds up being nothing but a plot device.

Rampage is another example of the continued squandering of Dwayne Johnson. He's always had the potential to be this grand mixture of Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise, and instead he's wound up being ... I don't know, a more durable Brendan Fraser? With a bit of post-First Blood Stallone thrown in? A lot of it has to do with the fact that he keeps working with directors like Peyton (three collaborations and counting, with a fourth already announced) instead of filmmakers who have the imagination to do his skill and his star power justice. There's a scene in this movie in which Johnson's character tells a couple of guards in play-by-play detail how he's going to beat them up and escape, and then of course proceeds to do exactly what he promised. It's a pale imitation of a really great (and much more amusingly elaborate and absurd) Schwarzenegger scene from True Lies, which just serves as a reminder that Dwayne Johnson badly needs a James Cameron. This shit right here isn't cutting it.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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