Rampage

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Jake Lacy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Joe Manganiello

Director: Brad Peyton

Writers: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykiel


There is a fine line between a dumb movie done well and a dumb movie done badly. This isn’t quite the same as a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of movie, where the entertainment value is there in spite of the movie’s faults. This rather refers to those movies that know full well how inherently stupid their concepts are and that decide to embrace them wholeheartedly. This isn’t a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card though, just because a movie is dumb and knows it doesn’t mean it gets to be lazy, awful or insulting. It is instead a licence to get creative, have some fun, and turn a silly idea into something unique, watchable, and entertaining. That’s how we get movies like Face/Off and Snakes on a Plane; movies that nobody would consider ‘great’, but are just so damn fun to watch. They’re the cinematic equivalent of fast food. You know that it’s trash, but it still tastes good.

There is, however, a standard. Even though what I want from this movie more than anything else is to watch giant mutant monsters beat the shit out of each other (I’m only human after all), I still expect it hold my interest at least on a visceral level, to display some kind of personality in its characters and style, and to demonstrate some degree of competence and effort. There is a difference between a dumb movie that indulges its own ridiculousness and a movie that falls victim to it (e.g. Batman & Robin and Wild, Wild West). In the pantheon of dumb modern Hollywood monster movies, Rampage falls somewhere between Pacific Rim and the 1998 Godzilla. It doesn’t have the creativity and heart of the former but it does possess the charm and thrill that the latter lacked. It also never tries to be more than it is, meaning that it lacks the poetry of the 2014 Godzilla but it does escape the political incoherence of Kong: Skull Island. It is the comfortable middle ground that makes for a fun, campy movie which never bores or frustrates, but which also never surprises or astonishes.

Rampage features Dwayne Johnson as Davis Okoye, a Dwayne-Johnson-ish ex-soldier turned primatologist. He works at San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary where he finds that he prefers the company of animals to people. His best friend is George the albino gorilla, whom Davis rescued from poachers and has since raised and taught to communicate through sign language. After an experiment in a space laboratory goes awry and leads to the station’s destruction, samples of the pathogen being developed fall to Earth with the debris and infect three animals: a Florida crocodile, a grey wolf in the Rocky Mountains, and George. This causes all three to mutate and become more aggressive. As Davis tries to understand why George is growing larger and lashing out, he is approached by Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomi Harris), a genetic engineer who worked on this project for Energyne until she was dismissed for objecting to their plans to develop the pathogen as a biological weapon. The diabolical CEO of Energyne Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman) and her nitwit brother Brett (Jake Lacy), realising what has happened, decide to lure the three creatures to Chicago by emitting a signal from their headquarters so that they might capture one of them. Chaos ensues.

To say this is not the cleverest of plots would be charitable. The scheme hatched by the two nefarious corporate villains, one of whom we’re supposed to believe is actually quite competent and cunning, is beyond stupid. This is a ‘hold my beer and watch this’ kind of stupid we’re talking about. It’s an ‘invade Russia in the middle of winter’ kind of stupid. It’s a ‘their mothers are both called Martha’ kind of stupid. But the movie is perfectly aware of the idiocy of their scheme and more or less hopes that we’ll roll with it and accept the Wydens for the cartoon villains that they are. Anyway the three beasts are drawn by the signal and make for Chicago, leaving behind a trail of destruction as they go. All attempts to combat and contain the, including a guerrilla operation led by pro commando Burke (Joe Manganiello) fail. Instead it is up to Davis, Kate, and government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to reach George and try to save him.

The most appealing thing about this movie is how perfectly content it is to be nothing more and nothing less than a monster-buddy movie starring The Rock and a giant ape. Johnson, one of the few honest-to-god movie stars working in Hollywood today, is his usual charming, badass self and he gets to share his screen time with a CGI gorilla played by Jason Liles with whom he forms a surprisingly likeable duo. There is a clear sense of affection and familiarity in their hand-signed back-and-forths as they reminisce on shared experiences and tell dirty jokes. In fact George, by virtue of having a fully formed personality, is much more human than many of the human characters. Davis certainly hasn’t got very much character beyond that which Johnson naturally brings to all his roles. Still, that’s all you need if all you want is to watch Dwayne Johnson and King Kong battle a giant CGI wolf and alligator. The action is exactly what you want it to be, pitting three larger-than-life monsters in an epic battle royale complete with toppling buildings and explosions and throwing a larger-than-life action star in for good measure.

Those who came for the fireworks though will find that they have to be patient in the scenes that come in between. Some scenes deal with the budding romance between Davis and Dr. Kate which, despite Harris’ best efforts, feels as hollow and obligatory as it is. There is one moment where Kate shares the details of her backstory, which is supposed to draw parallels between herself and Davis in his attempt to rescue a loved one, but the emotional depth they’re going for feels far too forced and flat in a film that relishes in its mostly empty spectacle. The Wydens meanwhile are both paper-thin villains and although the movie is perfectly aware of that, their sheer transparency and incompetence make them rather tiresome. Still I like that the movie is under no illusion over what walking, talking clichés they are to the point that the corny comic book dialogue they’re given almost feels natural in their straight-faced deliveries. “There’s a reason we did our research on a space station” says one, “and it wasn’t for the betterment of humanity”. The one human character who nails that perfect balance of being goofy and enjoyable is Morgan’s Agent Russell. He brings so much eccentricity, swagger and charisma to what should have been a forgettable, generic character that you cannot help but be fascinated by the guy.

Rampage is the movie that it is and the movie that it promises to be. You can either take it or leave it. It is the perfect example of a dumb movie that knows exactly how dumb it is and that never apologises for it. However the inevitable downside of watching a movie that is exactly what you expect it to be, even if what you expect is exactly what you want, is that the movie will never surprise you or challenge you. Rampage unfolds and ends more or less how you think it will and, while getting there is fun enough, it doesn’t blow you away the way that a great action movie should. It’s fine if all you want is to switch your brain off for a couple of hours but this isn’t a movie that will capture your imagination and take you somewhere you’ve never been before. Again, it’s like fast food. It’s cheap, it’s adequate, and it’s convenient. Rampage gives you your fill and as soon you’re done you move on.

★★★

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San Andreas

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue

Director: Brad Peyton

Writer: Carlton Cuse


This is the kind of film I usually find difficult to review because I’m never sure what to say about them. I walked into San Andreas expecting to see a mildly entertaining blockbuster with decent visuals but very little in the way of characters and story and that is exactly what I got. I have little more to say about it beyond that because this film did very little for me. In all honesty I’ve barely even thought about it since watching it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I disliked it. I think that San Andreas is fine for what it is and will please any viewer looking for a simple summer blockbuster to entertain them for a couple of hours. I did watch the film in IMAX (the first such occasion for me) and certainly found the visuals to be impressive. However I didn’t really feel that the film was any sort of an experience for me in the way that a more dynamic and technically realised film such as Gravity might have been. All the same I have a review to write and a word count to meet so I’ll attempt to discuss this film in greater depth and provide more of an idea of what one can expect from it.

The film follows Ray (Dwayne Johnson), a helicopter-rescue pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department whose personal life is falling apart. His wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is leaving him, his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is about to head off for college, and he is haunted by his own guilt for a traumatising event in his past. Meanwhile the seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) makes a groundbreaking discovery in earthquake prediction only to discover that the San Andreas Fault is about to experience an earthquake of catastrophic proportions. When the earthquake hits Ray sets out to save his wife and daughter from the destruction while they attempt to stay alive long enough for him to reach them.

This film hits all of the usual notes commonly associated with disaster films. It contains so many of the tropes and clichés we’ve all come to expect from them that within 15 minutes I was completely convinced that I was watching a Roland Emmerich film (seriously, I was frantically scanning the credits trying to find his name). Like many of its predecessors San Andreas is rife with massive feats of earthly destruction while one-note main characters are able to survive by the virtue of being main characters. The film contains many examples of characters running for their lives while the ground literally crumbles right behind them, convenient coincidences and instances of pure luck that allow the main characters to survive and nameless, faceless people indiscriminately falling victim to the devastation of the earthquake in order to provide the film with a body count. Thus what this film provides should be thrilling and entertaining enough to satisfy its audience. The real problem is that of engagement and investment. The characters simply aren’t very interesting or relatable and rooting for them seems redundant since we already know that they’re going to survive.

The visuals in this film are stunning and anyone who enjoys mass destruction in their films will not be disappointed. It is over the top, like so many other films in this genre are, but is not excessively so nor does it strain the audience’s suspension of disbelief beyond reason in the way that I felt 2012 did. San Andreas knows what kind of film it wants to be and, for the most part, fulfils its purpose. Every now and then it attempts (and fails) to throw in some character development but is otherwise a safe, generic action film. The one aspect that I felt really stood out was Paul Giamatti who gave a very decent performance and was really able to sell the film’s Hollywood ‘science’. Of all the characters in the film his is the only one that I actually remember displaying a personality. Dwayne Johnson also does a good job of doing what he does best, being Dwayne Johnson.

There really isn’t much else to say about San Andreas. Anyone who walks into this film expecting to see anything more than a standard action film will be disappointed. This film aspires only to entertain and thrill its audience for a couple of hours, nothing more and nothing less. In that department it does well enough. Anyone willing to suspend their disbelief and not think too much while watching this film should find it sufficient. Applying logic or rational thought to this film could lead one to ask how many innocent people died as a result of Dwayne Johnson’s character abandoning his duties to save his family, a question that has no place in this film. This film is thrilling, mindless and safe and that’s just the way it likes it. I’ve given the film quite a low rating because it didn’t do very much for me, but this film will definitely have an audience and they should like it just fine.

★★