Rampage (2018)

2019 #61
Brad Peyton | 107 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rampage

A big-budget live-action movie adaptation of a 32-year-old arcade game that I’m pretty sure only old and/or hardcore gamer geeks remember? Was that the wisest moviemaking decision? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being old, but is a PG-13 CGI-fest like this really aimed at that age group? Well, I guess these days it is, so maybe it wasn’t such a poor commissioning decision after all — and it made over $428 million at the box office, so someone knew what they were doing. And, before this year, Rampage was tied for the honour of being the best-reviewed video game adaptation ever made… though as it achieved that with a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 52%, it’s certainly damning with faint praise.

Anyway, I don’t really care about all the video game-y stuff. I’m here because it’s a The Rock movie, and I tend to find his stuff pretty entertaining nowadays (as do many others — I bet he’s a bigger part of that $428 million than “based on a video game” is), and it’s about an ape, a wolf, and a crocodile who get mutated into giants and set about destroying Chicago. I mean, who doesn’t want to see that? (Yes, I know: well-adjusted adults who actually grew up.)

If you think I’m being facetious, nah, that’s the plot; or it’s the climax, anyway, and the rest of the film exists as a way to find a narrative reason for said climax to happen. Naturally, with such a batshit barmy climax as the end goal, the story that gets us there is thoroughly daft also. It involves corporate skullduggery and genetic experimentation and all kinds of stock plot-building stuff like that, but at least it’s all executed with a certain amount of humour. No one is taking this too seriously.

Monkeying around

So it’s a little odd, then, how gruesomely violent and gory it gets, and sometimes kinda unnecessarily cruel with it. But there are no nipples and only one use of “fuck”, so, sure, PG-13! I would describe the gore, but a lot of it is kinda spoilery so I’ll refrain; but the film’s opening shot features a drop of blood floating into a dead guy’s empty eye socket, and later we see people ripped in half, one character falls into the mouth of a monster in slow motion, we see another get beheaded and the head get eaten… Yeah, okay, it’s all ridiculous CG BS, but still.

The Rock is truly the closest thing we have to a genuine Movie Star right now, I think — a guy who can still lead a movie on the strength of his name and likeability alone (look how many original or near-as-dammit-original movies he’s done in the past few years that’ve made bank). He’s got just the right level of charm to keep us engaged and on side without it tipping over into smarminess. He also has a remarkable skill (or at least I think he does) whereby, without breaking character or immediately undermining what’s happening, he lets us know that the story and its antics shouldn’t be taken too seriously because, hey, it’s just an action movie. Or maybe that’s just something I inherently infer from his very presence, considering the kinds of movies he stars in and the fact he always plays more-or-less the same character. Anyway, in this one he convinced me that he had a tight brotherly bond with a giant CGI ape, and consequently made me care about the fate of said collection of pixels, so that’s an achievement in itself.

“Jeff, stop chewing the scenery — that's the CGI's job.”

This time, most of the rest of the lead cast are in on the gag too, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan chewing more scenery than the monsters as a cowboy-ish government agent, and Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy hamming it up as the corporate bitch villain and her halfwit brother. Naomi Harris pops up as The Rock’s love interest cum sidekick, who’s a clever scientist lady and can hold her own in a verbal slanging match with him, but, yeah, is still primarily there to be the love interest.

Rampage is not big and it’s not clever, but it is kinda fun. Although it is actually quite big — that’s kinda the point. But anyway, it’s mostly big dumb fun, and naturally a lot of that looks pretty awesome in 3D. I liked it as a thoroughly ludicrous, brain-off entertainment.

3 out of 5

San Andreas (2015)

2017 #24
Brad Peyton | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

San Andreas

San Andreas is a most amusing movie. It’s not a comedy, just a generic effects-driven disaster movie in exactly the same style Hollywood has been producing for about 20 years.

In its favour it has the surprising likeability of Mr The Rock, Paul Giamatti hamming it up for a paycheque, and the mammarially blessed Alexandra Daddario running around, lazing in a bikini, getting wet, etc. There’s some solid spectacle, including a couple of nice long takes, which is what these movies are all about.

Conversely, it couldn’t be any cheesier if it had been entirely made out of dairy products.

3 out of 5

The Rock (1996)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #75

Alcatraz.
Only one man has ever broken out.
Now five million lives depend on two men breaking in.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 136 minutes
BBFC: 15 (uncut, 1996) | 15 (cut on video, 1996) | 15 (uncut on video, 2002)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th June 1996
UK Release: 21st June 1996
First Seen: TV, c.2000

Stars
Nicolas Cage (Raising Arizona, National Treasure)
Sean Connery (You Only Live Twice, The Untouchables)
Ed Harris (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind)

Director
Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Transformers)

Screenwriters
David Weisberg (Payoff, Double Jeopardy)
Douglas S. Cook (Holy Matrimony, Criminal)
Mark Rosner (Blanco, Empire City)

Story by
David Weisberg (Holy Matrimony, Criminal)
Douglas S. Cook (Payoff, Double Jeopardy)

The Story
When a rogue US General and his team of Marines occupy Alcatraz, threatening to launch a gas attack on San Francisco unless their demands are met, a field-inexperienced chemical weapons specialist is paired with the only man to ever escape from the prison to break in and prevent the attack.

Our Heroes
Dr Stanley Goodspeed is a mild-mannered vinyl-loving FBI chemist, as unlikely an action movie leading man as… well, Nicolas Cage once was. His new partner is John Mason, a former SAS Captain who’s been imprisoned without charge by the US for decades. He’s also clearly more skilled than both an entire squad of mutinous Marines and, therefore, the entire team of Navy SEALs who initially fail to stop them. That’s the SAS for you.

Our Villain
Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel, a covert ops commander who is seeking recompense for his men who were killed in action but have gone unacknowledged due to the secretive nature of their missions. Fundamentally a good man, driven to less good methods. A particularly effective villain because he’s relatively sympathetic to the audience. Not all the men on his team are so trustworthy, however…

Memorable Quote
Stanley: “You’ve been around a lot of corpses. Is that normal?”
Mason: “What, the feet thing?”
Stanley: “Yeah, the feet thing.”
Mason: “Yeah, it happens.”
Stanley: “Well I’m having a hard time concentrating. Can you do something about it?”
Mason: “Like what, kill him again?”

Memorable Scene
Flarey goodBelieving the mission lost, the military has launched its back-up plan: an airstrike that will destroy the poison gas but also kill everyone on the island. Naturally our heroes manage to complete their mission nonetheless, and as the jets streak across San Francisco Bay, Stanley attempts to signal abort with two green flares. In slow motion, of course.

Making of
The final screenplay actually has many more authors than credited — not unusual for a Hollywood blockbuster, but the uncredited ones are of considerably higher profile. David Weinberg and Douglas Cook penned the original spec script, but Jonathan Hensleigh worked closely with Michael Bay on the final shooting script. When Writers Guild arbitration awarded the credit elsewhere, Bay wrote an open letter calling the process a “sham” and a “travesty”. Others who worked on the screenplay included Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, with British screenwriting team Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais brought in at Connery’s behest to rework his dialogue, though they ended up rewriting everyone else’s too.

Previously on…
There’s a theory that Connery’s character is actually an older James Bond, incarcerated under a pseudonym. Obviously that isn’t actually there in the text, but is kind of a fun idea.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Sound)
1 MTV Movie Award (On-Screen Duo (Sean Connery & Nicolas Cage))
2 MTV Movie Award nominations (Movie, Action Sequence (for the yellow Ferrari’s chase through San Francisco))
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Music)

What the Critics Said
“the movie’s best asset is the old-fashioned, buddy-movie interplay between Cage and Connery — Cage as the frantic, white-collar lab technician who doesn’t like guns, Connery as the weathered, resourceful old pro who’s escaped from three maximum-security prisons and has a one-liner ready for every big, scary guy he kills.” — Gary Thompson, Philadelphia Daily News

Score: 66%

What the Public Say
“The screenplay […] does a sneaky thing on the way to Alcatraz. The two heroes are developed, or at least as much as one can expect for a standard action film. The action is diverted to the streets of San Francisco and a first-rate car chase. After an hour into the running time, the focus switches to the site in the movie’s title. These things are important in that they keep the film from stretching out the time spent on Alcatraz and becoming bloated on unnecessary action scenes. The audience has invested its interest in the heroes and can enjoy the shootouts now that more is on the line.” — Mark Pfeiffer, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema

Verdict

Michael Bay has become a bit of a joke, thanks to his tendency to let his movies get distracted by explosions, special effects, and young women, while not paying enough attention to the screenplay. However, earlier in his career — and sometimes in later years, too — he’s produced enough quality work to suggest he does know what he’s doing… or maybe he’s just lucked out a couple of times. Either way, this is probably the pinnacle of his oeuvre. While it functions well in Bay’s familiar wheelhouse of adrenaline-pumping action-thriller, it’s elevated by a screenplay that offers dialogue which, at times, can be witty and/or intelligent; and, most importantly, which creates sympathetic characters on both sides of the conflict. There aren’t many actioners where you can say “the writing’s the best bit”, are there?

#76 will be… just a jump to the left…

Hercules: Extended Cut (2014)

2016 #10
Brett Ratner | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English

The answer to the question, “Hey, remember Brett Ratner? Whatever happened to him?”,* Hercules stars Dwayne Johnson in full The Rock mode as the eponymous demigod. In this comic book adaptation, we’re introduced to Hercules at a point in his life after the famous labours but before he’d passed into legend, when he’s just a mercenary… or maybe he’s always just been a mercenary, and the legends are a tall tale to help him and his band of warriors sell their wares. Their latest mission is to defend a kingdom from a vicious warlord, but all may not be as it seems…

A belated entry into the swords-and-sandals-and-epic-CG-action subgenre that Gladiator started, and which begot the likes of Troy and 300 a decade or more ago, Hercules is much closer to the latter than the former pair. It’s cheesy as heck, but passably exciting when the action kicks in, and also frequently funny (intentionally so, I should add), making it decently entertaining in a brain-off lazy-weekend-evening kind of way.

Johnson has the physique for Hercules, obviously, but the role as written doesn’t play to his real talents, which lie at the more comedic or knowing end of the action spectrum. It’s not his fault the part is the boring heroic lead and everyone else gets to have all the fun, though. Quality Brits like John Hurt, Ian McShane, Peter Mullan, and Rufus Sewell add not so much class as skill, knowing just how much to ham it up to sell their characters while maintaining the light-ish tone. Elsewhere, warrioress Ingrid Bolsø Berdal is the spitting image of (a younger) Nicole Kidman.

This extended cut wasn’t included on the UK Blu-ray, so no BBFC rating (it’s about a 15), but it is available on Netflix over here (it’s not listed as the extended cut, but it is). It’s no great shakes, though, adding only a couple of minutes. That’s made up of three short scenes, another half-a-dozen additional lines of dialogue, a couple of extra seconds of action, and some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it CG blood (full details here). An entire subplot about a traitorous scout was excised from the theatrical cut with the deletion of just three lines — a wise cut because, as the simplicity of its removal might suggest, it’s not so much half-arsed as sixteenth-arsed.

Hercules is not quite good enough to earn 4 stars, but if you’re in the mood for a fantasy-ish swords-and-sandals adventure which doesn’t offer anything challenging but is moderately entertaining and doesn’t outstay its welcome, you could do much worse.

3 out of 5

* You may recall that there were two competing Hercules movies released in 2014. The other, even-more-forgotten one is the answer to the question, “Hey, remember Renny Harlin? Whatever happened to him?” ^

Pain & Gain (2013)

2015 #47
Michael Bay | 124 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Pain and GainFor his first non-sci-fi movie in a decade, divisive action director Michael Bay channels Tarantino (kinda) for this based-on-a-true-story crime comedy. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg and Anthony “The Falcon” Mackie star as a gang of dimwitted Florida bodybuilders who come up with a ‘foolproof’ plan to rob a rich gym client.

That comparison to Tarantino is lifted from Now TV’s description of the film, and I don’t quite agree with it. Pain & Gain is certainly a comedic crime movie, the kind of thing Tarantino was known for before he got diverted into genre B-movie homage/parodies, but it doesn’t feel like a Tarantino movie — which, considering the innumerable films that do rip-off his ’90s style (even today), is only a good thing. I wouldn’t say Bay’s movie feels wholly unique or original, but I don’t think it’s Tarantino he’s riffing off.

Nonetheless, the film’s best asset is its humour, much of it derived from dialogue. Proceedings take a little while to warm up, with some character backstory flashbacks that aren’t always necessary and seem to befuddle the narrative, but once it settles down into the crime spree, it’s consistently hilarious. Bay has pitched the tone exactly right, playing it straight but with an OTT edge that betrays awareness of the ludicrousness of it all. Towards the end, when events have reached a point of total ridiculousness, he throws up an onscreen caption to announce, “This is still a true story.” That’s witty. (Though, ironically, it appears during one of the few bits the filmmakers did actually make up!)

Adept at comedyBay is aided by leads who are surprisingly adept at comedy. Johnson is the best thing in it, consistently hilarious as his conscience battles former addictions and newfound religious convictions. I noted down some of his best lines to quote in the review, but they lose something without his delivery.

I suppose there is a question of whether this tone really is appropriate: as these are real-life events, should we be finding them so funny? It is kind of tasteless. I suppose you could parlay that into a discussion about the comedic crime sub-genre on the whole: is it okay to laugh at this kind of behaviour so long as it’s been dreamt up in the mind of some (wannabe-)auteur, but as soon as someone actually did it for real, a film of those events has crossed the line. Is that a sound argument? If you’re going to find a fictionalised account of the real-life version abhorrent, shouldn’t we similarly find the wholly-fictional version similarly poor? It’s a moral quandary I don’t really have an answer for because, when all is said and done, what the real guys did was horrendous, but the way they went about it was ludicrous and is almost unavoidably darkly funny in the re-telling. I certainly laughed.

Gaining painAfter he’s become so sidetracked making the awful Transformers movies, it’s easy to forget that Bay was once a quality action filmmaker. His works may not have class, but they had style and panache befitting the genre — The Rock, in particular, is a ’90s action classic. Pain & Gain isn’t exactly a return to form because it’s not the same kind of movie, but it is the first Bay movie for at least a decade that’s really worth your time.

4 out of 5

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

aka G.I. Joe: Retaliation – Extended Action Edition

2014 #1
Jon M. Chu | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12*

G.I. Joe: RetaliationThe follow-up to 2009’s Team America-esque toy adaptation G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra seemed to be better received than the first. Presumably that’s just by comparison, because this is not a good movie.

I do agree that, on the whole, it’s not as stupid… just about. I mean, it’s not unremittingly laughably bad, at least. Well, mostly — it’s full of dumb-ass plotting. Like, what are North Korea doing at a nuclear arms conference in the US? How do you use a weapon that relies on gravity in space? Would the entire world really set off all their nukes just because the US President did? And so on. At least there are a handful of good action bits, especially some physics-defying ludicrousness in the Himalayas that I truly wish was in a better film so I could see it again sometime.

Retaliation wants to have its cake and eat it by being both a sequel (character and plot points launch out of the first one) and a fresh movie for newcomers (some characters have disappeared, some are dispatched in-movie, those that survive may as well be new for all their depth). Unfortunately it doesn’t work: it feels disjointed from the first film (a stated desire to make it less sci-fi and more real-world sees to that), but there’s too much carried over for it to feel standalone.

That desire to be real-world works at times — at one point, in spite of their silly name, the Joes do seem like a real military. But the SF/F is never far away; Outré ninjasindeed, a band of outré ninjas are introduced almost as soon as our heroes, and they set off on an OTT plotline simultaneously. As the film wears on, it disappears further and further into fantasy; and not “version of our world” fantasy, but “kids’ Saturday morning cartoon” fantasy. The plot suggests the violence etc should be slightly toned down and the whole affair should have a PG, or even a U. Much like the first film, then.

The intercutting of several storylines doesn’t work. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a multi-pronged narrative, but Retaliation skips between them almost at random, sometimes mid-sequence, as if it’s restless or doesn’t know how to balance the sequences correctly. Inexperienced director? Writers? Editor(s)? It means things get thumb-twiddlingly boring as it plods through the middle act(s).

Talking of the direction, watching the Blu-ray’s making-of suggests it was executives from toy company Hasbro who were really in charge of the film. Director Jon Chu came from the Justin Bieber movie, of all things, and was a suggestion of Paramount. There’s some guff about how he showed promise or something, but I suspect the real answer is, “he was eager and would do whatever he was told”.

The Rock and Not The RockElsewhere in that making-of, the guys from Hasbro talk about how they wanted to ensure the characters were distinct, not just Generic Soldiers. Failed that, then. It’s fortunate that most of the Joes are massacred because the only stand-outs are The Rock (because he’s The Rock), Channing Tatum (because he was in the first one), and Adrianne Palicki (because she’s the only girl). Even once D.J. Cotrona’s Flint (and I had to IMDb both of those names) is one of just three Joes left, his only distinguishing features are that he’s Not The Rock and Not The Girl. He is, to use a phrase borrowed from the Hasbro guys, a Generic Soldier. “Oops.”

Retaliation isn’t as bad as The Rise of Cobra. If that sounds like damning with faint praise then, yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing. It sails as close to the 1-star breeze as a 2-star film can.

2 out of 5

G.I. Joe: Retaliation featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.

* The extended cut is unrated in the US. The theatrical cut was PG-13, and I rather imagine this would be too. ^

Get Smart (2008)

2010 #65
Peter Segal | 110 mins | Blu-ray | PG-13 / 12

Get Smart, as you likely know, was a TV series in the ’60s, which makes one wonder how it’s taken so long to get to the big screen. I guess it didn’t have the same fanbase or perceived relaunchability that led to an endless array of big-screen versions of ’60s/’70s series in the last decade or two — Mission: Impossible, Starsky & Hutch, Dukes of Hazzard — indeed, with the likes of Miami Vice and The A-Team, these big-screen-remakes are now moving on into the ’80s. Is Get Smart too late for the party?

Well, not really, because what does it matter which decade it came from — this isn’t a continuation, it’s a modern-day relaunch with current stars (or ‘stars’, if you prefer) and a modern sensibility. Though, in fact, Get Smart acknowledges its roots with a series of relatively low-key references that won’t bother anyone who’s never seen the series (like me) but I’m sure are pleasing for those who have. It also suggests it is a continuation of the series in some ways, despite the main character sharing a name with the series’ lead… but look, it’s just a comedy, let’s not think about that too much.

Get Smart, ’00s-style, is mostly quite good fun. Not all the jokes hit home, but enough do to keep it amusing — which is better than some comedies manage. Even after three Austin Powers films it seems there’s enough left to do with the spy genre to keep a comedy rolling along, even if Mike Myers’ once-popular efforts occasionally pop to mind while watching. And to make sure things don’t get dull, there’s a few action sequences that are surprisingly decent too, considering this is still primarily a comedy.

Some of this is powered by a talented cast: Carrell is Carrell, which is great if you like him, fine if you don’t mind him, and probably a problem if you dislike him; but Anne Hathaway and Alan Arkin manage to lift the material more than is necessarily necessary. Dwayne Johnson also shows he’s remarkably good at a humorous role, which is a little unexpected. How has a former WWE wrestler, whose first acting role had more screen time for his piss-poor CGI double than himself, turned out a half-decent career? The world is indeed full of wonders. As the villain, however, Terence Stamp is ineffectually wooden at every turn. Oh well.

What really makes the film inherently likeable, however, is how nice it is. You’d expect Carrell to be the looked-down-upon wannabe-agent bumbling loser, promoted when there’s literally no one else and still a constant failure, only succeeding (if he does) through fluke. But no — he passes the necessary tests, but isn’t promoted because he’s too good at his current job; when he does get the promotion, he shows an aptitude for spying, fighting, and all other skills, and the other characters acknowledge this. They respect him, in fact, both at the beginning and later as an agent — again, you’d expect Johnson’s character to be the smarmy big shot who either ignores or specifically brings down a character like Carrell’s, but instead he’s one of his biggest supporters. (That he turns out to have been A Bad Guy All Along, Gasp! is beside the point.) The office bullies don’t actually have any power at all and are frequently brought down to size. It makes a nice change from the stock sitcom clumsy-hero-who-eventually-comes-good with irritating-and-condescending-higher-ups on the side, the pedestrian and unenjoyable fallback of too many comedy writers.

Still, Get Smart isn’t without striking flaws. The subplot about a mole in CONTROL (alluded to above) is atrociously handled, not least the ultimate reveal. Perhaps director Peter Segal realised it was pretty easy to guess who it would be and just assumed the audience would be ahead of the story, but that ignores the fact that the other characters barely react to one of their best friends being unmasked as a traitor. It’s all a bit “curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal”, only without a smidgen of the humour that one-liner provided.

But the opening half-hour or so is the film’s biggest flaw. By the time the mole plot is resolved you can almost let it slide, but being faced with a weak opening is more of a problem. Some moments in it work, but there’s the odd jump in storytelling (Max comes across the destroyed CONTROL so suddenly I assumed we were about to discover it was a dream or simulation), or an extended period with either no or too-familiar gags. Once it gets properly underway things continually pick up, but it’s asking a little too much from not necessarily sympathetic viewers.

Still, despite early flaws and the occasional shortage of genuine laughs, Get Smart is redeemed by a proficient cast and generally likeable screenplay. It’s not exactly a great comedy, but it is a pretty good one. Comparing it to the scores I’ve given other comedies recently, that bumps it up to:

4 out of 5