Friday, July 13, 2018

Flaming Creatures: RAMPAGE and SKYSCRAPER

Dwayne (formerly "The Rock") Johnson is one of our most visible movie stars, cranking out a new major motion picture at a rate of about one a quarter. He's always in the press on a charm offensive, tweeting encouraging platitudes and doing-it-for-the-fans openness, and flirting with politics while never taking any strong party stances. (That he seems to stand for truth, justice, and the American way is enough for most, I suppose.) But there's just one hidden-in-plain-sight secret. He generally can't carry a movie on his own. Oh, sure, you're never disappointed he turns up in a movie. He's charming, likable, physically powerful, and capable of both soulful glower and cheeky self-aware winks. He's our best movie star who is only a value-added proposition, best when added to a plot in motion and surrounded by a cast loaded up with excess personality. Make him a Fast and Furious frenemy. Make him a memorable supporting character in an auteur's passion project (Southland Tales, Pain & Gain). Make him the cornerstone of a high-concept ensemble comedy (Baywatch, Jumanji). Make him half of a two-handler buddy comedy (Central Intelligence). Make his Hercules work with Ian McShane. Make him prickly sidekick to a Disney princess (Moana) or the star attraction in a deep-bench disaster movie (San Andreas). All decent choices. I like his screen presence. He's hard-working and generally picks fun projects. But his last couple movies he's been the solo star, standing in a CG debris field and left totally adrift in the boredom. They give him basically nothing to play, and he brings nothing to them

Rampage, loosely based on an arcade game, finds him best friends with a gorilla. It's not too weird, seeing as he works for the zoo and all. Anyway, there's some mad science experiment gone wrong, which causes the giant ape to get even giant-er, which only makes him madder. He goes King Kong across the continent, and Johnson flees after him, hoping to tell the military that the big guy means no harm. Although, really? Eventually, the mutated giant critter meets up with other victims of the corporate science plot run amuck: a giant flying wolf and an enormous crocodile. They converge on downtown Chicago, where Johnson, a scientist (Naomie Harris) chirping exposition, and a swaggering government agent (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) speaking nearly exclusively in deep-fried Southern profanities run around until the explosions stop. There's really not much to it, aside from the acres of property damage and untold thousands trampled underfoot. But at least Johnson gets to hug his gorilla again. It's from Brad Peyton, who whirled up the effects for the almost satisfying San Andreas and pretty agreeable Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Here it's just loud, charmless, ugly sequences that bury any sense of understandable suspense or rooting interest. The Rock's mere presence next to this calamity is not foundation enough to care. I entertained myself imagining the movie told from the monsters' points of view and wondering who to contact about writing the novelization in that style. 

At least Skyscraper has the good sense to have some believable dangers, namely the totally understandable and relatable fear of falling from the 96th floor of a skyscraper. (The name is fitting in that way, even if I'd rather it be used for a Frederick Wiseman documentary so that this big budget explosion could have something more appropriately pulpy to go by.) The movie is written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. You might recall his earlier films Dodgeball and We're the Millers (plus Central Intelligence). You might be surprised to learn this action thriller about a high-tech super-skyscraper -- the tallest in the world, a breathless backstory newscast tells us -- lit on fire by a group of nasty ne'er-do-wells has not a single laugh, and tries for almost none along the way anyway. It's a grim rescue-the-family massacre, as the terrorists mercilessly machine-gun hundreds of police officers, security personnel, and passerby on their way to control the fire systems and wreak havoc on the once-gleaming tower. The goal is to steal a flash drive, because of course it is, fitting the Die Hard plus Towering Inferno math that somehow adds up to half the movie either of those were. Even as Johnson (playing an ex-military security expert caught in the plot) desperately charges into the danger to save his wife (Neve Campbell, who gets a few good looks and kicks) and children (adorable moppets McKenna Roberts and Noah Cottrell) are hurrying and scurrying about the flaming building, and the billionaire owner (Chin Han) hides in his panic room, the movie kicks up only a modicum of suspense. Dangle a man out a dizzyingly high window by his prosthetic leg, and, gee, I'm only human. Of course the stomach lurches at such a spectacle. But the plotting is so rote, the characters so thin, and the action sequences so meagerly imagined, that there's nothing but a crushing sense that we're not so much eager for how they'll get out of this mess, but are simply waiting it out. It's just another calamity with a screenplay not even close to as solid as The Rock. 

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