RAMPAGE (2018) – Giant Monster Tale Keeps Things Light

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I am not a fan of movies based on video games.

However, I do enjoy movies about giant monsters, and in general I find Dwayne Johnson to be an amiable screen presence.  So, while I expected very little from RAMPAGE (2018), a giant monster adventure loosely based on the classic arcade video game, I certainly wasn’t dreading it.

RAMPAGE opens in space with an experiment gone wrong. A scientist attempts to return to Earth but her ship burns up upon re-entering the atmosphere.  However, capsules containing an experimental genetic pathogen which causes its subjects to grow and mutate into unstoppable aggressors survive the flight and crash to the ground where they are ingested by a gorilla, a wolf, and a crocodile.

The albino gorilla, named George, lives in a zoo and is cared for by a zoologist named Davis (Dwayne Johnson).  When George suddenly grows and becomes aggressive, Davis tries to protect his prize gorilla, who also happens to be his friend. Have I said yet that this one is silly at times?  Well, there. I said it.

Enter Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) who used to work for the company that created the rogue DNA.  Yep, once more, the bad guy in the film is yet another— repeat after me– evil company!— this time led by the ice-cold Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her goofy brother Brett (Jake Lacy). Kate tried to expose the evil company for what it was, but was jailed for her efforts.  Worse yet, she blames the death of her brother on Wyden’s faulty research. As a result, Kate wants to take Wyden down, and she and Davis join forces because she tells him that if he wants to save George, Wyden has the answers.

But not so fast! Enter shadowy government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who wants to stop the monsters, Davis’ and Kate’s rogue efforts, and the Wydens. He sure has his hands full.

And all three giant monsters are stomping towards Chicago, drawn there by a signal set up by Claire Wyden to bring them there so she can reclaim her research and save her company. What. A. Stupid. Plan.

Yes, everyone’s heading to Chicago, for one big climactic— rampage!

But don’t expect a horrific monstrous finale because RAMPAGE keeps things light. The best thing I can say about RAMPAGE is that it tries to have fun throughout, and for the most part, it is a fun movie.  It’s also a rather silly movie and as such doesn’t do its giant monster tale many favors.

Director Brad Peyton, who also directed Dwayne Johnson in the earthquake melodrama SAN ANDREAS (2015), keeps the action safe and tame. The best action sequence is the final one, when all three monsters converge in Chicago. Before that, there are a few okay scenes, like the hunt for the wolf, and the sequence where George wakes up on the plane, but really nothing all that spectacular.  That being said, I enjoyed RAMPAGE more than SAN ANDREAS.

The screenplay by four writers, Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel is a mixed bag. In general, it does a good job telling its monster story and moves it along nicely towards it climactic showdown in Chicago. But a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Most of Dwayne Johnson’s lines don’t work.  His one liners come off as “Arnold Schwarzenegger-lite.”

And the friendship story between Davis and George made me want to gag. It’s sappier than a maple tree. As such, the rampaging George is more akin to Mighty Joe Young than King Kong.

The monsters are also a mixed bag. The close-ups of George look pretty good, but the giant Wolf and Crocodile didn’t really impress me. Yet another example of underwhelming CGI effects.

Dwayne Johnson does his thing, and per usual, he’s entertaining throughout. He makes Davis a likable character who’s easy to root for. And seriously, there aren’t too many actors on the planet who could share a scene with three gigantic CGI monsters, take part in their physical rampage, and look believable doing it.

Naomie Harris, so memorable as Moneypenny in the new James Bond movies, as well as having notable roles in a bunch of other films, including MOONLIGHT (2016) and OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016), to name just a couple, doesn’t fare as well here in RAMPAGE. Her character, Dr. Kate Caldwell, in spite of her dramatic desire for revenge against the Wyden company, is reduced to being Dwayne Johnson’s sidekick and eventual love interest.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as government agent Harvey Russell does his best Negan shtick, the character he plays on THE WALKING DEAD, only this time he’s one of the good guys rather than the villain. Morgan gives the liveliest performance in the movie.

Malin Akerman, who co-starred with Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the dark superhero flick WATCHMEN (2009), is sufficiently ruthless as Claire Wyden, but in a strictly cartoonish way. Likewise, Jake Lacy seems to be having fun as her bumbling brother Brett. Lacy enjoyed a memorable brief bit in THEIR FINEST (2016) as the American war hero with no acting experience thrust into a lead movie role.

RAMPAGE isn’t bad. It has giant monsters, Dwayne Johnson, and some decent giant monster action sequences, but its silly script keeps things a bit too light throughout and never becomes all that engrossing. Instead, it plays out like a Saturday morning cartoon of yesteryear.

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TOMB RAIDER (2018) – Alicia Vikander Is The Reason To See This One

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Alicia Vikander in TOMB RAIDER (2018)

I had zero interest in seeing TOMB RAIDER (2018).

I’m not into video games, so I haven’t been a fan of the Lara Croft video game character, I haven’t seen any of the earlier movies with Angelina Jolie, and I could give a care that this reboot presented an origin tale for the character. I could have easily skipped this one.

But, I do like Alicia Vikander.

And Vikander is playing Lara Croft here.  So, I asked myself, how many times have I ventured to the theater to see a low-regarded action film starring a Sylvester Stallone or an Arnold Schwarzenegger over the years just because they were in the movie? Plenty. So, why shouldn’t I do the same for a female actor?  I couldn’t come up with a good answer.  With that in mind, I decided to check out TOMB RAIDER, starring Alicia Vikander.

I wish I could tell you that it was all worth it, and the film was great, but it’s not.  But you know what? It’s not awful, either.  In fact, it’s a halfway decent movie, if your bar isn’t set too high.

And the reason it’s watchable is Alicia Vikander. If you’re going to see this one, she’s the reason to do so.

Twenty one year-old Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is having a tough time of it.  She’s working as a bike courier in London, scraping together just enough money to live on, even though she’s heir to a fortune.  All she has to do is sign the papers which declare her missing father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) legally dead, and the company and all its assets are hers, but she declines, because she refuses to believe that her father is really dead.  He disappeared seven years earlier somewhere in Hong Kong.

However, when informed that unless she signs the papers, her father’s entire fortune will be lost, she relents and agrees to sign, but just as she is about to do so, she discovers a secret note to her from her father.  The note leads her to a secret room containing her father’s secret work, as a researcher into the supernatural. When he disappeared, he was actively searching for a mythical Japanese witch who it turns out is so dangerous, that the message he left for Lara was for her to destroy all his notes so no one will be able to misuse the witch’s power.  But Lara being the strong-willed woman that she is, decides instead to use this newfound information to seek out and learn the fate of her missing dad.

So, she travels to Hong Kong in search of the man who took her father to the mysterious island home of the witch, and instead finds his son Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) who nonetheless agrees to take Lara to the island.  There, they are captured by the villainous Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) who is running a slave labor camp in an ongoing attempt to locate the tomb of this all-powerful supernatural demon queen.  He’s overjoyed to meet Lara because he finds in her belongings her father’s notes which will lead him at long last to the hidden tomb.

But Lara has other ideas.

In terms of story, the one that TOMB RAIDER tells is completely ridiculous and silly. I didn’t believe any of it.  By far, the main plot involving the search for the demonic queen/witch is the weakest part of the film. That being said, the screenplay by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons is not awful.  It does some things right.

For example, it downplays the supernatural.  The whole demonic queen aspect of this story is ludicrous and one thing I could never wrap my head around was why these folks were so darned interested in her.  The story never really makes that clear, and as a result, this one had the potential to be a goofy mess.  But it’s not, because as we learn more about this queen, it’s revealed that she’s not all that supernatural.  In fact, she’s not supernatural at all, but that doesn’t mean she’s not deadly.  It’s a twist in the story I really liked.

Also, early on, the tale is grounded in reality.  A lot of time is spent on Lara’s life in London, and this gritty part of the story works well.  The film takes its time before it gets to all the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK treasure hunting stuff, and with Alicia Vikander in the lead, the film doesn’t suffer at all for its patient storytelling.

As I said, the best part of TOMB RAIDER is Alicia Vikander’s performance as Lara Croft. I’ve always enjoyed Vikander’s work, ever since I first saw her in EX MACHINA (2014), and she was just as memorable in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and JASON BOURNE (2016).  And of course she won the Ocscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for THE DANISH GIRL (2016).

The story here might be ludicrous, but Vikander makes Lara Croft completely believable.  She brings her energetic spunky personality to life, and she’s as tough as nails.  She looks completely believable in the role, as she’s lean and mean, and she gets to take part in some really cool fight scenes.

Vikander is so good in the role, that even though I have had no interest in the Lara Croft character, I would easily be happy to see Vikander play the role again, hopefully in a movie with a better plot.  She’s that good. Is she up there with Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman? In terms of the entire package, no, but in terms of individual performances, yes. Vikander carries this movie in much the same way that Gadot carried WONDER WOMAN (2017), which might be more impressive since Vikander has less help, in terms of cast, production values, and writers.

The supporting cast in TOMB RAIDER is okay.  Walton Goggins is the biggest standout here other than Vikander as the villain, Mathias Vogel. Goggins makes evil look so effortless, but that doesn’t make him any less impressive.   The best thing about his performance is that he makes Vogel real.  He’s surrounded by silly story elements, but Vogel could have walked off the set of THE WALKING DEAD- he’s that type of bad guy. You don’t want to mess with him. All this comes as no surprise, as Goggins has been a highlight of a bunch of recent movies, including DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).

Daniel Wu is likable as Lu Ren, although his character is stuck in a thankless sidekick role.

I was less impressed with Dominic West as Lord Richard Croft, who just never came to life for me.  He seemed like a stock character from a 1980s soap opera, that handsome lead who disappears from the show for six months and then turns up later on a deserted island.

And veteran actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi have small roles, mostly appearing in the Croft board room.

TOMB RAIDER was directed by Norwegian director Roar Uthaug, and he does a decent job. The fight scenes involving Alicia Vikander are all first-rate, and they’re pretty intense and compelling.  Of course, the film is rated PG-13, and so the skirmishes never get as grueling and dirty as they should have been.

There’s also a couple of really cool scenes, one in particular involving Lara and the wreckage of a plane that is right out of an Indiana Jones movie.  Lara is fighting through a raging river, trying to avoid a massive waterfall when she seeks refuge inside the wreckage of a plane precariously hanging on to the edge of the fall. It’s a scene that is well-staged and is one of the more intense sequences in the film.

There’s also a bicycle chase through the streets of East London that is well done, although it’s early on in the film and much lighter in tone than the later sequences. And all of the hand to hand battles which Lara engages in are well worth the price of admission.

On the flip side, things tend to slow down a bit towards the end, and the film does struggle to get through its 1 hour and 58 minute running time.  Also, the very end, which sets up an obvious sequel, is forced and contrived.

That being said, TOMB RAIDER is much better than it has any business being, and the number one reason for this is Alicia Vikander.  With this movie, she makes the Lara Croft character her own.

So, should you run out and see TOMB RAIDER? Is it on par with a film like WONDER WOMAN? No, and no. But I see a lot of movies each year, and as a result, unfortunately, I see a lot of bad movies. TOMB RAIDER is not a bad movie.

It’s a decent movie, lifted by a spirited performance by Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, and it has a competent script, and features some energetic directing by Roar Uthaug. It’s not going to make my list of best movies of the year, but for a film I had zero interest in, it’s not all that bad.

If you’ve never seen Alicia Vikander, or you have seen her and you’re a fan, either way, she’s the reason you should see TOMB RAIDER.

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