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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Moonlight

Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali

Director: Barry Jenkins

Writer: Barry Jenkins


Moonlight is such a complex and conceptual film that I hardly know how to even begin describing it. To say that this is a coming-of-age story about the life of a gay, black, working-class boy barely even scratches the surface. On a broader level the film is about what it means to be black and gay in America today and depicts such socially relevant issues as drug abuse, incarceration and schoolboy violence, but to call this movie a comment on the world we live in undermines the personal and artistic elements at work. In many ways this movie is more about the mood and tone and the individual moments that play out in the successive chapters. It is a character study, a social commentary, and an abstract exploration of art and emotion. The film is a beautiful, intimate personal tale telling the real-life story of a young man’s struggle for identity and it is also a visual poem, spoken through light, music, and expressions. It is all of those things and more and is without question one of the best films of 2016.

Told in three chapters, each entitled with his given name at the time, Moonlight tells the story of a poor, sexually conflicted African-American boy living in Florida with Paula (Naomie Harris), his drug addicted mother. First we see him as Little (Alex Hibbert), a withdrawn ten-year-old getting picked on by bullies. It is at this age that he befriends Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe), who provide him with advice and comfort to help him navigate through his turbulent life. In the second chapter he is Chiron (Ashton Sanders), an introverted teenager whose abuse at the hands of the bullies has become more unbearable and violent. His childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a cocky womaniser, is his greatest source of comfort at this time but is also a source of emotional and sexual confusion for him. Finally, as a young adult in chapter three, we see him as Black (Trevante Rhodes), a bulked up drug dealer living in Atlanta. Having seemingly left his past behind him, a phone call from a grown-up Kevin (André Holland) brings it all flooding back.

The defining theme of Moonlight seems to me to be identity. Throughout his childhood, adolescence and adulthood, Chiron is trying to figure out his place in the world and is tormented by conflicting ideas of sexuality and masculinity. As a kid, before he’s even old enough to understand the concept of homosexuality, the other boys sense something ‘different’ and ‘soft’ about him and punish him for it. As a teenager, as his confused desires start to manifest themselves, the bullying intensifies. Although Chiron is able to explore his sexuality in one of the film’s most delicate scenes, he is still at a vulnerable age where he lacks the support or the confidence to accept the way he is. Thus, when he is later taught in the harshest, most brutal way that the way he feels is contrary to what a man is ‘supposed’ to be, it’s a lesson he takes to heart. The next time we see him, his fear, rage, and self-loathing, have driven him to shape himself into the supposed archetype of African-American masculinity. He is a macho, physically dominant, violent man who has suppressed the part of himself that defies what he has been taught represents manhood.

Equally painful and agonising is his complicated relationship with his abusive, drug-addicted mother. As her addiction grows and her desperation increases, so does her son’s suffering increase. The drug trade in this area is controlled by Juan and Paula is one of his best customers. So when Juan starts to look out for Chiron, inviting him over for meals, teaching him valuable skills and lessons, and just spending time with him, their bond is sullied by the awareness that Juan is partly to blame for Chiron’s wretched home life. To view Juan as simply a surrogate-father is to simplify his character. He is a well-meaning man who sees something good in Chiron and wants to help him, but he is also a questionable role model whose influence and relationship with the young boy has as much of a toxic affect on Chiron (not only as evidenced by his mother but also by Chiron’s career as an adult) as much as a comforting one. This is only one of the ways in which Jenkins is able to bring humanity to a character and challenge what could very easily have been a stereotype

The story with its characters is fascinating and compelling enough, but the poetry of it all comes from the artistry Jenkins brings. Through sensual camera movements, rich and radiant colours and a subtle yet expressive score, the film creates a breathtaking, dream-like atmosphere. The chapters thus feel less like narratives and more like evocations, justifying the time-jumping structure the film adopts. The screenplay as well is marvellous, both in what it says and leaves unsaid. This is aided by the astounding performances provided by the ensemble, from Ali’s strong charisma to Harris’ desolate naturalism to the wonderfully expressive turns by each of the actors playing Chiron. As a character Chiron is shy, quiet, and unassuming, so it is a testament to Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes that we get such a comprehensive picture of his inner-turmoil. Whether it’s the knowing gaze of a child who finally understands the relationship between his mother and his father-figure, the nervous glance between two young men who feel an undeniable yet taboo attraction between them, and most of all in the final scenes, the film is filled with silences that speak volumes.

There is so much to say about Moonlight and I have no doubt it is a film that will be studied for decades to come. Moonlight is a landmark in both LGBTQ and racial cinema and yet its themes are so universal and so resonant that any attempt to categorise it would prove inadequate. The film is just too challenging and open-ended. Moonlight is simply a great film, one of the true masterpieces of the 21st century. It is a film of profound pain and sadness but also of beauty and affection. By the end, after years of pain, torment and suffering, Chiron finally attains a greater understanding of himself and of the world and may very well have found a future of hope and freedom. Moonlight is an utterly heartrending, moving film that provides a thoughtful, mesmerising window into Chiron’s very soul and consciousness. Watching his growth, progress and struggle is a deeply poignant and heartbreaking experience that only the finest, most ingenious works of art can create.

★★★★★