(On Cable TV, December 2018) Hey wow—I recall playing Rampage-the-videogame on personal computers in the late 1980s, wowed by a 16-colour palette (EGA forever!) and having rather a lot of fun with it. (I just had a spin through the online abandonware browser emulator and it’s pretty much what I remembered.) Rampage the movie, of course, is something else: A thin excuse to have monsters destroying good chunks of a city, finally proving that seventeen years after 9/11, we’re once again ready to rumble through devastated downtown areas. Dwayne Johnson (who else?) leads the film, playing the kind of superheroes that is de rigueur for that kind of movie. The scientific blablabla is nonsense, but it quickly gets us to the super-monsters destroying cities, albeit with a slightly harder edge than I expected from a big PG-13 movies: there’s some faintly upsetting almost-R violence in the film that I did not necessarily enjoy. Still, Rampage is meant to be dumb fun and it knows it: one of the best non-CGI parts of the film is Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a mysterious scenery-chewing Southern man-in-black kind of special operative stealing every scene he’s in. Johnson is up to his usual leading-man standard (but is he getting overexposed?) while Naomie Harris is always enjoyable to look at—this film not being an exception. Of course, the point of Rampage is seeing Downtown Chicago landmarks being destroyed as thoroughly as possible—surely I can’t be the only one thinking about a Rampage/Transformers 3 mash-up? The film is both better and worse than expected: better in that it delivers the goods and keeps moving, with some great special-effects sequences along the way. Worse, because of the too-high level of violence, and overall impression that we’ve seen urban destruction so often lately (even in director Brad Peyton’s oeuvre, as per the somewhat more ludicrously enjoyable San Andreas) that Rampage is going to sink back into anonymity within months.
(Video on Demand, December 2015) Not only are there better heist films than 2015’s Heist, but there are better heist films named Heist than 2015’s Heist: Have a look at the 2001 Heist for a David Mamet take on a familiar topic. (But don’t look at 2015’s American Heist, which is even more generic than this one) Actually, a good question would be why Heist is named as such, given that it pokes around a river casino, a bus chase inspired by Speed (Heist was originally far better titled as Bus 657), and the unbearably American plot device of a sick kid needing costly care that can only be met through criminal activity. Robert De Niro headlines the film but remains constrained in a fairly small role, while Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the one doing most of the dramatic work here. De Niro is good but doesn’t stretch anything on his way to his exit; Morgan is quite a bit better as an opportunity criminal who gets caught along some less savoury characters. In smaller roles, David Bautista does fine, but Gina Carano continues to display her thespian limits as a police officer who mumbles a lot. The plot is an old thriller staple (heist goes wrong; truants are challenged in their attempt to escape) and while some of the script and Scott Mann’s direction show promise, Heist struggles to distinguish itself from countless other similar movies. It’s too ponderous to be enjoyed as an action thriller (despite doing best in that mode), and by the time the story gets interesting somewhere in the third act, it’s far too late to care all that much. At the very least, Heist will do as one of those movies you catch on cable TV when there’s nothing else on… but it’s likely that there will be far better choices available on other channels at the same time.
(On Cable TV, September 2012) Sometimes, you can judge a film by its title. So it is that The Possession’s bland, forgettable, overused title also reflects a film that is, in most ways, absolutely unremarkable: From the something-awful-happens opening to the evil-survives-to-strike-again conclusion, all the way through a tiresome demonic possession plot, The Possession is by-the-numbers horror filmmaking, occasionally effective as earning an ouch or an eeew, but never quite working its way down in the murky basement of primal fears. It’s safely conventional, and the film’s best moments aren’t in the sometimes-gratuitous violent supernatural episode as much as in the character work within an estranged family pulling apart. Jeffrey Dean Morgan isn’t bad as the protagonist, a divorced father trying to hold on to his daughters’ affections even as one of them is taken over by a demon. And there’s something rather unusual in seeing Hassidic Jews being brought in to help. Still, there isn’t much more in The Possession than we haven’t seen before. Director Ole Bornedal, in interviews (and in-between the usual twaddle about this being “based on a true story”) attempts to draw parallels between demonic possession and divorce, but the evidence for this thematic ambition just isn’t shown on-screen. No amount of moderately successful execution manages to fill the big empty void in the middle of the script. While there are many worse horror films out there, they are also plenty that are more engaging, more meaningful or better executed… so why waste time on something so disposable?
(On Cable TV, March 2012) Straightforward genre exercise The Resident doesn’t have a lot of meat on its narrative bones (nor much credibility in its lead crazy-man antagonist), but it has the notable merit of being fairly well-executed, and featuring a few good actors in crucial roles. Hilary Swank stars as a medical resident dealing with an obsessed suitor/landlord, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan almost looks like he’s having fun as the improbably psychotic villain. (Meanwhile, though, Christopher Lee is a bit wasted in a very small role.) Once the story is set up (rather effectively through a rewind-flashback) as another one of those acquaintances-from-hell psychological thriller, it practically writes itself all the way to the overlong extended-fight conclusion. What saves The Resident from unqualified mediocrity, however, is the rather stylish direction and cinematography. It’s not great art, but it’s quite a bit better than many examples of the low-budget sub-genre, and it brings at least one layer of interest to the film. As for the rest, well, it’s the kind of exploitative women-in-danger film that’s been made and seen countless times. It’ll do as a way to waste time and it may even feel a bit better than most through sheer visual polish… but there just isn’t much to it.
(In theatres, April 2010) Ensemble action movies are making a minor comeback in 2010, but sneaking in before The A-Team and The Expendables is this cheap, fast and grandly entertaining comic book adaptation. The Losers isn’t that good a movie: The limited budget sometimes shows (especially for those who remember the source material’s hyperactive globe-trotting), coincidences abound and the action set pieces seldom make sense. But those flaws are arguably what enables this film to be a fun throwback to the unapologetic Bruckheimeresque action movies of the late nineties. The set-pieces make up in eye-popping originality what they lack in coherence, while the quips fly fast and sarcastic. Thankfully for an ensemble picture, it’s the characters that bring The Losers above its B-grade material: Each one has a few things to do, and while Chris Evans and Zoe Saldana generally steal the focus away from Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s role as the leader of the bunch, Jason Patric has a surprisingly odd turn as the overwritten villain of the picture. Sylvain White’s direction is hit-and-miss, but there are a few new tricks here and while the picture moves quickly, it doesn’t lose viewers in a flurry of incoherent cuts –which is another thing that The Losers does better than the rest of its recent action movie brethren. Fans of the original comic book series will be disappointed to see that Andy Diggle’s geopolitical set-pieces have been toned down, pleased to note that the evil plot is completely different and generally amused to see dialogue bits, action moments and characterization details moved around: Most of what’s in this film follows the first two of the series’ five volumes, while the ending sets up at least another film in the series. Box-office results may not guarantee that (it’s the kind of picture that generally appeals to a very specific audience), but I would certainly welcome a bit more time with the characters and their globe-trotting vengeance.