Movie Review ~ Rampage (2018)


The Facts
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Synopsis: A primatologist shares an unshakable bond with a silverback gorilla who has been in his care since birth. But a rogue genetic experiment gone awry mutates this gentle ape into a raging creature of enormous size.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, P.J. Byrne, Marley Shelton, Breanne Hill, Jack Quaid, Matt Gerald, Jason Liles, Demetrius Grosse, Will Yun Lee

Director: Brad Peyton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: We’re at an interesting point in 2018. After emerging from the stuffy cloud of more serious minded Oscar-y fare, we had a January and early February that stirred little interest. Then Black Panther hit and became the kind of audience-uniting game changer we often have to wait far into the year for. With studio hits like Ready Player One and A Quiet Place making bank as well good business being drummed up for indie films such as Isle of Dogs and Chappaquiddick, there was a little something to please everyone if you chose to buy a ticket.

Now along comes Rampage and it seems like we’re all going to have to pick a side again. You’re either going to go along for its silly but entertaining ride or you’ll spend an unusually brisk 107 minutes counting the seconds until your escape. I’m of the mind that you don’t necessarily need to lower your expectations to like what Rampage has to offer, you just have to go in with the right frame of mind. If you do, there’s a good popcorn movie waiting for you.

Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve played the popular video game that inspired this film that I had forgotten nearly everything about it. What I did remember is spending quite a few quarters to keep the game going, even when it was clearly a futile attempt by an average arcade gamer like myself. It doesn’t really matter how familiar you are with the game, though, because aside from a few key characters and several winking nods to its source material it’s largely a modernized take on the game. Still, fans of the classic monsters should get a kick out of how they are incorporated into the action.

Opening in space with an action sequence that could have been the finale of a previous film, a scientist (Marley Shelton, Decoding Annie Parker) is frantically trying to return to earth with an experimental gene-splicing gas while being hunted by a genetically modified lab rat exposed to the pathogen. Without giving too much away, three of the canisters fall to earth and infect a wolf in Wyoming, an alligator from the Everglades, and an albino gorilla named George living in a California wildlife sanctuary. Lucky for us that the gorilla’s handler is the buff and brainy Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and he’s pretty protective of his ape pal.

While Davis works with geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, Skyfall) and twangy government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), a brother and sister (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers and Malin Ackerman, Rock of Ages) in charge of a Chicago-based bio-engineering initiative (known as Project Rampage) activate a beacon meant to lure the creatures to the heart of the city. A cross-country race ensues as Davis and his crew tries to beat the beasts to their destination while seeking a cure to restore the otherwise kind hearted George to his former self.

If you can’t tell already, the movie is incredibly bonkers but credit should be given to director Brad Peyton (reteaming with Johnson for a third time after San Andreas and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) for getting the right team assembled for this Rampage. Working with four (!!) screenwriters, there’s a bit more meat to the plot bones and I was grateful that the eye-rolling dialogue is kept to a bare minimum. Sure, there are some big plot holes and your brain should be stowed under your seat for the duration of the flight but I found myself more than a little entertained at the various thrills on display.

Few actors today have the “It” factor that made so many stars in the heyday of Hollywood but with each new film released Johnson is proving himself to possess the power of “It”. His good-natured demeanor translates nicely into action superstar when needed and an early career tendency to oversell a line of dialogue has all but vanished. He’s a true A-Lister and I’ve a feeling most people will be lining up for Rampage based solely on his presence alone…and those people will definitely get their money’s worth.

Harris received an Oscar nomination last year for her understated work in Moonlight but she gleefully jumps feet first into this lighter material. While Morgan is the most cartoony of the bunch as a secret agent initially set-up as an antagonist to Johnson, he wisely stops chewing the scenery long enough to let the monsters take center stage. As a smug villainess, cool as ice Ackerman is part of a great visual comeuppance while Lacy is terribly miscast as a nervous sidekick to his more take-charge sister.

Unlike the dull sameness of the monsters in Pacific Rim: Uprising, Rampage has a smaller but more engaging stable of fiends to threaten our main characters. The main beasts are fantastically rendered, from the more realistic George to the zonked out wackiness of the wolf and alligator, both morphing into nightmarish creatures that plow through crowds and buildings in the final act.

There’s quite a few nice action sequences leading up to the battle royale that takes up the last ¼ of the film but I just wish the preview hadn’t revealed quite so much. I won’t get into specifics but there are several great scenes that don’t play as strongly if you’ve seen the trailer more than once. It’s not often a disaster film destroys a less internationally recognizable city like Chicago but having just visited several days before I saw Rampage, it was fun to see some familiar landmarks topple.

Movies adapted from video games often get bad raps, often with just cause (see the recent Tomb Raider for proof) but Rampage has more than a few secret weapons. With Johnson as committed as ever, a plucky ensemble cast of humans and digital monsters, above average CGI effects, and more jump scares and thrills than you might expect going in, you’re not likely to be in a rage when Rampage is over. Just go in with the right attitude, I beg of you.

Movie Review ~ Magic Mike XXL

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Three years after Mike bowed out of the stripper life at the top of his game, he and the remaining Kings of Tampa hit the road to Myrtle Beach to put on one last blow-out performance.

Stars: Channing Tatum, Amber Heard, Adam Rodriguez, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Gabriel Iglesias, Jada Pinkett Smith, Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Glover, Michael Strahan

Director: Gregory Jacobs

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: You only need to glance at my 2/10 review of 2012’s Magic Mike to know that Steven Soderbergh’s scuzzy stripper drama wasn’t my favorite movie of that year.  An ugly looking film that tried to supplant its grim slime by tossing toned abs around with aplomb, I wasn’t distracted enough to be convinced that the movie was anything more than a last gasp effort from Soderbergh to instill some meaning into a meandering career.  Thankfully, after pounding the nail into his coffin with 2013’s dismal Side Effects Soderbergh took leave of the director’s chair, allowing us to attempt to fondly remember the director that gave us a string of dynamic films (like Erin Brockovich before petering out.

Well, while Soderbergh isn’t directing Magic Mike XXL his presence is still felt in his cinematography an editing  (both contributed under pseudonyms) and it turns out the audience is all the better for it.  Magic Mike XXL is that rare unicorn of a sequel that’s better than its predecessor in every way imaginable, leaving the original to be looked at as a curious exposition film that laid the groundwork for this superior sequel.

Picking up three years after Mike (Channing Tatum, 22 Jump Street) hung up his thong and tried to start his own business, we soon see that times are tough, his girl is gone, and a chance meeting with his old dancing buds rekindles a need in Mike to put some Magic back into the daily grind.  Accompanying his crew to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, FL (because, of course it’s there) with stops along the way to vogue at a gay bar, hob nob with some mature Southern Belles (including a scene stealing Andie MacDowell), and reconnect with an old employer (the dynamite Jada Pinkett Smith) Mike and his gang of booty shakers take audiences along for a road trip adventure that’s pretty damn entertaining.

Though it features less nudity (sorry ladies and gents) than the first film, there’s no shortage of seriously raunchy dancing, the kind of bump and grind action that had my preview audience squealing with delight when they weren’t laughing.  I had low expectations going into this one based off of my disdain for Mike’s first movie but almost from the get-go it was obvious this was a whole new ballgame with a roster of MVPs in the waiting.

Over the past three years Tatum has become a true blue movie star and that self-assuredness is put to good use here.  I felt the first film (and Tatum’s performance) was more arrogant than confident but here the opposite is true.  Tatum knows he has the moves, looks, and body to make this character a living breathing entity and it shows…but without that self-congratulatory glint in his eye he had last time.  This is a character that’s evolved by leaps and bounds over the years and Tatum easily shimmies and shakes his way to another star performance.

Though he’s the headliner, Tatum is more than generous with screen time for his co-stars.  Joe Manganiello (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) may have Tatum beat in the overall handsome department but what he’s lacking in dance moves he makes up with an awareness for his ability to sweep in and steal a scene or two.  His convenience store seduction of an otherwise tuned out store clerk is a highlight of the film.  Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez are given the spotlight as well but Matt Bomer edges them out for the third supporting role and that’s where the film falters a bit.  Bomer is built like a studly Ken doll and has the plastic personality to go along with it.  His scenes have a false quality to them, not helped by Bomer’s inability to truly convince us of the character he’s playing.  I kept waiting for him to reveal himself as gay but instead we’re treated to him waxing philiosopical via New Age catch phrases and singing too much, especially in the finale.

The finale.  Now here’s where the film really accomplishes something spectacular.  Once they arrive at the stripper convention (what exactly IS a stripper convention?  I sorta wanted to see the guys walking around a trade show setting looking at next-gen thongs that double as a FitBit) Mike and co. work out a five ring circus of a routine that finishes the film off with a major bang, giving each member of the group a moment in the naked spotlight to show off his special talent.  It’s a boffo extravaganza of flesh and good-natured raunch, possibly the best example yet in 2015 of a movie giving the audience exactly what they came for.

Director Gregory Jacobs (Soderbergh’s long-time assistant director) keeps things lively and appealing, and I’ll admit that Soderbergh’s cinematography is visually pleasing and very much in line with his famous style.  The soundtrack to the original film was a heinous mix of awful cover songs but the soundscape here fits right in with the breezy atmosphere.

It’s just a whole lot of fun.  Where the previous film was more concerned with showing the seedy underbelly of the world of male strip clubs, the sequel couldn’t care less about it.  I thought I’d leave Magic Mike XXL with the same bad taste in my mouth that I had after taking in the gross original but instead I felt like making it rain for Tatum and his pals…something I’m sure audiences will have no trouble doing this weekend.

The Silver Bullet ~ Magic Mike XXL

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Synopsis: The continuing story of male stripper, Magic Mike.

Release Date:  July 1, 2015

Thoughts: I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2012’s stripper-palooza Magic Mike, finding it to be one of director Steven Soderbergh’s (Side Effects) worst looking and worst sounding films to date.  Between the garish production design and general stupidity of the entire affair, it was just a gigantic dud in my book.  Still, Magic Mike was a perfect example of creators knowing exactly who their target audience is and going in for the kill – which is why it’s not a shocker that the further adventures of Mike (Channing Tatum, The Vow) and his crew of perfect peelers are returning with an XXL entry this summer.  Sadly, Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), the lone presence from the previous chapter that was the least bit interesting, isn’t along for the ride.  The first look at the sequel shows off some of Tatum’s moves before going, um, balls out into overstimulation mode.  Though my overall interest may be XXS, I’m have to admit some mild interest in seeing what Tatum and co. have worked up.