By Preston Wilder
This is a public service announcement: Cyprus Film Days – our best annual film fiesta, by far – starts on Friday in Nicosia and Limassol, and demands your attention. I’ll be writing about it next Sunday but the programme, especially in Nicosia, is very front-loaded: almost all the best-known titles – Lucky, Duty, The Florida Project – screen on the opening Friday and Saturday so don’t delay, visit the website right now (cyprusfilmdays.com) and work out your schedule.
We now return you to Rampage: Total Chaos, a film whose misguidedness may be gleaned by the fact that its utterly brilliant title isn’t even the real title. It’s simply Rampage in the US, apparently because it’s based on a videogame franchise of that name – which seems a very lame, pedantic reason to truncate such an excellent title, but there you go. All blockbusters should be called ‘Total Chaos’ in my opinion, their attraction being increasingly down to the fact that they’re so chaotic: something like Kong: Skull Island – which this film resembles, especially when giant animals are battling helicopters – was a mess of disparate elements slung together but the messiness was what made it fun, allowing for zany jokes and over-the-top performances (by the likes of Sam Jackson and John C Reilly) in the interstices between the predictable plot.
Self-deprecation is the key here; that’s why Dwayne Johnson (still and forever known as The Rock, from his old wrestling moniker) has become such a huge star, along with the equally amiable – and bald – Jason Statham and Vin Diesel. All these actors operate on a good-natured scepticism about the material in which they find themselves, pre-empting criticism and prodding the audience to lower its standards. Johnson’s previous film, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, was an exercise in taking the mickey (the star’s beefy body was actually an avatar, inhabited by a geeky teenager) and a wonderfully entertaining comedy. Rampage, alas, isn’t so good-humoured, a tale of mutant beasts attacking Chicago that lacks colourful characters and seems designed, alarmingly enough, to be taken seriously.
Even the monsters are charmless. There’s a crocodile that’s grown to the size of a building – but it doesn’t look like a 60-foot crocodile, it just looks like some lizard-shaped thing with big teeth; it lacks personality. Rampage tries for the busy CGI mayhem of a video game, when it could be invoking the naïve storybook art of an old monster movie. Also in the mix are a giant wolf and a gorilla named George, who’s best pals with primatologist Dwayne; the ape’s personality has changed, from friendly to aggressive (the result of a genetic experiment gone wrong, masterminded by a couple of rich, evil siblings), making for the film’s only poignant note – though it does try for pathos, adding a flashback where our hero saves baby George from poachers and also giving Dwayne’s sidekick (Naomie Harris) a back-story with a sick brother.
Pathos isn’t fun, though; it slows the film down, if anything. Everything’s a little stodgy here, even the comic relief: Jeffrey Dean Morgan with a Tommy Lee Jones drawl as a “cowboy” who joins Team Dwayne, or a made-for-the-trailer bit where our hero cries “You mess with my friends, you mess with me, motherf–” before being conveniently cut off. (Compare Reilly as the blithely unhinged hermit/castaway in Skull Island, and the difference is clear.) Director Brad Peyton previously made San Andreas with The Rock, and he works in the same red-blooded vein here. Buildings topple at the climax, raising ghosts of 9/11, extras (and a few major characters) get eaten whole; the film might’ve been called ‘Rampage: Awesome Action’. Still, that’s not the same as ‘Total Chaos’.
Oddly enough, its most fascinating aspect is entirely coincidental – or maybe not entirely, since movies are always a reflection of the times when they were made, but it’s still intriguing that “unchecked aggression” is such a prominent theme here. The animals turn into killing machines; the government’s response is to bring out the Army, which responds (ineffectually, of course) with an onslaught of heavy weaponry. Rampage: Total Chaos is a silly film – but it’s still a bit unnerving to watch in the middle of so much real-life belligerence and sabre-rattling, much of it on our doorstep.
If we do end up in a Russo-American proxy war (or not even proxy) we should probably send for Dwayne Johnson, a kinder gentler action hero who can soothe wild beasts – “I know you’re scared,” he tells the fierce gorilla – and only uses his enormous strength when absolutely necessary. “That’s exactly what I didn’t want to happen!” he sighs, having been forced against his will to beat up a couple of henchmen. Ultimately, Rampage may be most effective not as a big-screen version of a video game, but a funhouse-mirror version of real life. Or, as I like to call it, ‘real life: total chaos’.
DIRECTED BY Brad Peyton
STARRING Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman
SCI FI ACTION
US 2018 107 mins