Rampage (2018)

Despite the conventional wisdom, I believe the video game adaptation is a strong template for a deliriously fun B-picture. Much like how novellas & short stories often make for better literary adaptations than lengthy novels because they invite filmmakers to expand rather than condense, the video game medium (particularly in vintage examples) tends to only carry vaguely sketched-out lore & world-building that affords filmmakers a lot of freedom to create in extrapolation. In theory, the Rampage arcade game should have been a prime candidate for an entertainingly absurd action movie, since it’s basically a blank-slate, plot-wise. In the game, players assume the avatars of three cartoonish kaiju—a gorilla, a wolf, and a lizard—earning points by destroying buildings & eating helpless citizens one city at a time. There’s no progression to this initial setup, just more buildings & people to populate an eternally resettable scenario. Unlike the better examples of video game adaptations that use these blank-slate launching pads to create absurdly preposterous worlds, the film version of Rampage instead exhausts itself trying to imagine a plot where its resettable videogame scenario could be at least somewhat plausible. The Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil movies accept the over-the-top absurdism of their source material as a matter-of-fact conceit; Rampage instead goes out of its way to reduce its premise to the most unimaginative action vehicle possible, one it already feels like we’ve seen Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson star in before. A better-realized Rampage adaptation would have just started with the monster attacks destroying a major city and worried about the reasoning behind their origins after the fact (there are literally dozens of Godzilla pictures that teach that lesson). This adaptation instead dulls down its entertainment potential by laboriously working towards that payoff in a too-late third act turnaround.

The Rock stumbles into this picture wearing a khaki-colored composite costume of every single ex-military jungle adventurer character he’s played before. In this particular case, our impossibly handsome, charismatic hero is defined by his relationship with an albino gorilla named George. With a rapport established through sign language and sex jokes, this Buff Zoologist & Brilliant Gorilla supercouple are seemingly best-bros-for-life until a nearby satellite crash infects George (along with a wolf & an alligator) with a “genetic editing” pathogen. Designed by an Evil Corporation for military weapons purposes, this pathogen causes the three beasts in question to grow exponentially larger, more aggressive, and more resistant to harm. Teaming up with a rogue scientist (Naomie Harris) who helped develop the pathogen, The Rock must race to cure George with an antidote before the military strikes him down and to destroy the other two monsters before they destroy Chicago. And because the movie delusionally believes the monsters need a reason to work together to destroy Chicago, there’s also a broadcasted signal attracting them to the Evil Corporation’s headquarters that must be shut off before it’s too late. Beyond the too-few scenes of monsters destroying buildings (and a few villainously hammy performances from what-are-they-doing-here actors Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, and Joe Manganiello) there’s nothing distinctive about Rampage as a disaster epic, not even its deployment of three separate kaiju. The movie could have made better use of its satellite crash opening by taking its monster fight to outer space or used its inciting pathogen to create Dwayne “The Giant Boulder” Johnson or anything over-the-top enough to suggest that it fully embraces the absurdity of its central conceit. Instead, it almost outright apologizes for being built on a silly video game foundation by exhaustively explaining a scenario where a giant wolf, gorilla, and reptile might team up to destroy a major city as a team, when that should have been its first act starting point—no explanation necessary.

I was left exactly this cold by last year’s giant ape monster movie Kong: Skull Island, which also hosted just enough monster action & hammy performances to call into question how the sum of its parts could possibly be so aggressively bland. Rampage is a total MoviePass decision, an unenthused picture that’s only worth your attention if it has a convenient showtime in a directionless afternoon you’re looking to kill. No amount of helicopter-tackling wolf action or Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cowboy cop quipping things like, “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to clean the sheets,” can make up for the grey mush that surrounds them. Even the novelty of the glorious creature feature Alligator being blown up kaiju-size is only worth a fleeting smirk. The only moment of pure so-bad-it’s-great bliss at hand is a spectacularly awful Kid Cudi remix of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” that the film unfortunately buries deep in its end credits, where it’s meant to not be heard. It’s ashamed of that cheese just as much as it’s ashamed of its video game roots. Cut the wolf out the the kaiju trio and there’s no point in passing this movie off as a Rampage adaptation at all; it might as well be San Andreas 2 or Journey 3 or a sequel to any number of The Rock’s disaster epics. The green screen/mocap animation, closely cropped shaky-cam action (which is a really weird choice for a film about giant monsters), and cornball stepdad humor are entirely indistinct & interchangeable within the context of the modern Rockbuster. It’s a total shame, because the gleefully trashy arcade game the film chose as a starting point should have been an easy layup in delivering something fun & memorably absurd. Instead, five no-name screenwriters ground it down into a shapeless, unremarkable orb carried on the back of a bored-looking Rock.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

The premise of the eighth entry in the Fast & Furious franchise is that Vin Diesel’s long-time ringleader/paterfamilias Dominic Toretto (or, Daddy Dom, if you will) betrays his street racing brethren and turns his back on Family. Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the first seven installments of the series, God help you, you already know that Family is all that matters to the speed demon lug. He won’t shut up about it. That’s why the betrayal is so cold and so out of character. Worse yet, in this most recent episode the franchise itself turns its back in its own long-time partners, ice cold bottles of Corona. The film betrays over fifteen years of brand loyalty by nonchalantly switching the Fast Family’s beer preference to Bud heavies as if we wouldn’t notice. It also brings back an old villain, played by Jason Statham, who is responsible for the deaths of past Family members as a Good Guy who’s just welcomed to the team with mostly open arms, few questions asked. The Fate of the Furious also breaks format by featuring a couple brutal, non-driving related deaths (including a propeller-aided one that even involves a touch of blood splatter) and by shifting focus from Familial drama to bombastic comedy, where jokes are given far more breathing room than the overstuffed dramatic beats. It’s not just Dom that turns his back on long-established alliances and moral codes in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s contribution to the series also betrays everything that’s come before it in terms of narrative and tone. In a way, though, that kind of blasphemy is perfectly at home with the spirit of the series.

The Fast and the Furious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. The first four films in the franchise in particular are a total mess, continuity-wise. It wasn’t until Fast Five that it even found its voice: Vin Diesel endlessly mumbling about Family. The series may be Fast and Amnesious with its various narrative threads on the whole, but Dominic Toretto had always been there to keep the Family together, even in the franchise’s furthest outlier, the under-appreciated Tokyo Drift. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly. At the starting line of The Fate of the Furious, Dominic Toretto is a Christ-like figure, a Man of the People, a Hero to Children Everywhere. He takes a quick break from his honeymoon in Havana with series regular Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) to shame a predatory loan shark in front of the very people he bullies by beating him in an old-fashioned street race while driving backwards & on fire. Every last person in Cuba cheers and we’re all quickly reminded exactly why Daddy Dom is the Greatest Man Alive. This street racing reverie is disrupted by a late 90s holdover Super Hacker played by Charlize Theron. Theron’s newbie baddy preys on Dom’s infamous devotion to Family and mysteriously blackmails him into “going rogue,” stealing EMP devices & “nuclear footballs” to support her Evil Hacker cause. This betrayal of what is Right and Just leads to a global car chase where Dom’s long list of Family members (Rodriguez, The Rock, Ludacris, apparently Statham, etc.) try to steal him away from Theron, who pushes Dom to “abandon his code” and “shatter his Family.” It’s all very silly, but it’s also a welcome departure from the typical Fast & Furious dynamic.

Of course, The Fate of the Furious was never going to survive on its tonal consistency or the strength of its plot. What really matters here is the action movie spectacle. F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. The Rock is a real life superhero, particularly shining in a music video-esque prison riot sequence where he manually destroys an entire building full of lowlifes (including local pro wrestler Luke Hawx, who also briefly appeared in Logan earlier this year). At one point, Charlize Theron’s Ultimate Hacker gives the ridiculous command “Hack ’em all,” and remotely takes control of virtually every vehicle in NYC, giving rise to literal floods & waterfalls made of cars. Vin Diesel rocks a heavy metal welding mask & oversized chainsaw combo that makes him look like the villain from a dystopian slasher. Even more ridiculously, the Fast Family is asked to race and battle a nuclear-armed submarine that attacks them from under the Russian ice they drive flimsy sports cars across. And (mild spoilers, I guess) they win! As far as The Fate of the Furious might stray from past tonal choices and character traits, it ultimately sticks to he core of the only thing that has remained consistent in the series (now that Dom’s had his opportunity to Go Rogue): there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

Besides the narrative ways in which The Fate of the Furious breaks format, the film also marks a shift where the franchise functions as an outright, intentional comedy. F. Gary Gray openly shows his roots in the Friday series with the way humor overtakes Family drama in this entry. Vin Diesel starts off the film with the same “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging he used to anchor xXx: Return of Xander Cage earlier this year. Ludacris’s nerd archetype is in constant verbal sparring with Tyrese Gibson’s womanizing ham. Dick jokes, Taylor Swift references, and meta humor about The Rock’s past life as Hercules all seem to be afforded more heft than the mood-killing dramatic beats, which breeze by no matter how shocking or tragic. The series also seems to have moved on from stunt casting rappers to enlisting well-respected actors for over-the-top cameos, this time none other than Helen Mirren. Despite rumors about an on-set rivalry between Vin Diesel & The Rock and a few drastic shakeups to the franchise’s central Family dynamic, F. Gary Gray manages to keep the mood in The Fate of the Furious just about as light as its explosions are frequent & loud.

If I have any complaints about this most recent entry to the series, it’s that it wasn’t quite blasphemous enough. The Fast & Furious franchise is overdue for another Tokyo Drift-style shakeup that completely disrupts the rules of its universe. Why not take this carnival to space? Why not have the Family get caught up in A Race Through Time? Why not have them travel to Hell and win back the life of a fallen member by beating The Devil Himself in a street race? If the series continues down its current path, I have no doubt it’ll remain a fun, absurd source of racing-themed entertainment. There’s just so much potential for it to jump a new shark in every franchise entry, though, (including literally jumping sharks!) and I think it’s more than ready to both make the leap and stick the landing.

-Brandon Ledet

Mad Moana: Fury Cove

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Disney’s Moana (2016) was a jarringly alienating experience for me in a way I haven’t felt since venturing to the theater to watch John Waters’s brief cameo in Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip (although the raucous laughter at my screening of the brutally unfunny Deadpool ranks as a close second). I just had no business being there, to the point where I have no business rating or reviewing the film in any traditional way. I’ve had positive experiences going out of my comfort zone to watch highly-praised Disney productions this year, namely Zootopia and The Jungle Book, but with Moana I was way out of my league. The buffoonish sidekicks, the uncanny valley CGI, the constant indulgences in  *cringe* musical theater: Moana was mostly just a reminder that Disney’s princess mode, no matter how highly praised, is just not for me. Brave, Mulan, Frozen, and so on have all alienated me in the same way (with The Little Mermaid being a rare exception to the rule) and not even song & dance numbers from the likes of a pro wrestler (The Rock), a Flight of the Conchords vet (Jemaine Clement), and a Godzilla cameo could turn me around on an experience that was so uncomfortably foreign to every fiber of my being. Moana did feature one isolated gag that spoke directly to me, though, an extended homage to Immortan Joe & the War Boys, just about the last influence I expected to find in a Polynesian Disney Princess action adventure.

The filmmakers behind Moana (an extensive team that has included names as significant as Hamilton‘s king nerd Lin Manuel Miranda & comedic genius Taika Waititi at some point in its production) have acknowledged in interviews that the film’s homage to Mad Max: Fury Road was indeed intentional, so I’m not just grasping at straws for something to enjoy here. The homage is brief, however, and although the film was not nearly as much of an obnoxiously undignified experience as Road Chip, it did remind me of mining the entirety of that work for a pitifully minuscule glimpse at the Pope of Trash. While on their quest to restore order in the world via a pebble-sized MacGuffin, Moana & [The Rock] are at one point pursued by a tribal army of Kakamora, a fiendish crew of mythical spirits who take the physical form of coconut War Boys, complete with their own coconut Immortan Joe. The Kakamora approach Moana’s puny-by-comparison boat in massive warships, attempting to board her ship & rob her of her all-important MacGuffin Pebble. Moana doesn’t directly reference Fury Road with any specific visual cues; it instead tries to mimic the feel & the scale of George Miller’s massive accomplishment in a more general way. The Kakamora appear in ocean mist the way the War Boys appear in the kicked-up dust of desert sands. They tether their ships to their target vessel as a means to both board it and slow it’d progress. Most tellingly, they play themselves into battle with a live music soundtrack of tribal drums. All that’s missing from the scene is a blind little Kakamora threateningly riffing on a coconut guitar.

If history has proven anything it’s that I’ll continue to shell out money for any new theatrical version of Fury Road that achieves distribution: 2D, 3D, (most absurdly) black & white. I doubt I’ll ever stop returning to that well and, alongside its stellar reviews from those more in tune with the merits of the Disney Princess brand, just the mere mention of a Fury Road homage was enough to drag me to the theater for a CG cartoon musical I had no business watching in the first place. In some ways it’s tempting to read into how Moana & Fury Road communicate plot-wise. Both films center on a female badass trying to welcome back Nature to a crumbling society  by employing a storied male warrior sidekick & the restorative help of water to defeat an evil presence and convert a longtime patriarchy to a matriarchal structure. In both instances, success also hinges on a race to a narrow physical passage that seems impossible to reach in time. These shared sentiments are likely entirely coincidental, though. Borrowing a little of Immortan Joe’s War Boy mayhem for its coconut pirates was simply a means to an end. Besides being a delightful nod to a property you wouldn’t expect to be referenced in this context, it also affords a key action sequence the sense of scale & visual specificity that makes George Miller one of the greatest visual minds of the genre. So much of Moana was Not For Me (which is obviously my fault and not the movie’s), so it was kinda nice in those few fleeting minutes to mentally return to a property that is a continuous source of personal pleasure. Moana was smart to borrow some scale & adrenaline from Fury Road in a scene that desperately needed the excitement (despite the Kakamora never registering as at all significant to the overall plot). Honestly, though, I was just glad to have the film’s more alienating musical theater & CGI sidekick buffoonery broken up by something familiar & genuinely badass that offered me a moment of escape from what was a personally misguided ticket purchase.

-Brandon Ledet

An Evening with Richard Kelly: A Southland Tales (2007) Q&A

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“No film is every really finished, just abandoned by the filmmaker.”

This is the philosophy, or rather one of the facets of the real-life and filmmaking philosophies, of Richard Kelly. In something of a MotM miracle, I received an email last week advising that Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse would be hosting a screening of Kelly’s 2007 opus Southland Tales, with an introduction by the director and a Q&A following the film. As discussed in our email roundtable, I was a fan of Donnie Darko when it was first brought to my attention in 2003, when a DVD of the film was passed around like wildfire at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. Although time and distance (and a strong wave of hype backlash as the film caught on outside of the cult scene) have dulled my teenage enthusiasm for the film, my interest in Kelly’s work was piqued again by our viewing of The Box, a film I didn’t love but haven’t been able to stop thinking about. I never got the chance to see Southland Tales before this past Sunday, but I’m glad that my first viewing experience was on the big screen and not limited to the comparatively tiny television in my living room.

What’s the film about? I’ll try to be as succinct as I can: Southland Tales takes place in an alternate 2008, where post-9/11 paranoia and the overreach of infringement upon civil liberties that followed that incident has been further exacerbated by a nuclear attack on American soil (Texas, to be precise). The draft has been reinstated, interstate travel is extremely restricted, and citizens are heavily monitored via the use of information network USIdent and the deployment of heavily militarized Urban Pacification Units, which seem to have taken the place of standard police forces. The Republican Party, most notably represented by Texas Senator and potential VP Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) and his wife, NSA Deputy Director cum USIdent overlord Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), is seeking to swing California to the red in order to ensure the continued power of USIdent and the party. Popular action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), the husband of the Frosts’ daughter Madeleine (Mandy Moore), has recently awoken in the desert with amnesia; he makes his way into the arms of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a psychic porn star seeking to expand her media and merchandise empires through diversification. Krysta has recently completed a screenplay entitled The Power, which foretells the end of the world.

Elsewhere, the underground liberal forces of the Neo-Marxists oppose the Republican Party (this entire group is composed almost entirely of former SNL cast members, including but not limited to Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, and Cheri Oteri). Their current plan involves staging a racially-motivated police shooting committed by haunted veteran Roland Taverner posing as his twin brother Ronald (Seann William Scott), an UPU officer; the intention is to have this captured on film by Boxer during a ride-along for research purposes, then use the footage to discredit Bush’s apparent successors. Their machinations are held in check by a series of double-crosses that undermine their ability to take any real political action. Elsewhere elsewhere, the wizard Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has invented both a device that uses the power of the ocean to generate wireless electricity as well as several injectable liquids of various colors that are used as drugs for both recreational and psychic purposes. He and his band of assorted cronies (Bai Ling, Curtis Armstrong, Zelda Rubinsten, and Beth Grant) move throughout the various factions at play, gaining political power and prestige while well aware that the alternative energy source that they have created could bring about the end of humanity. And all of this is narrated by Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a former movie star whose face was disfigured by friendly fire in Iraq after he was drafted. And, hey, if you were starting to think any of this was too straightforward, don’t worry; there are also stable time loops, predestination paradoxes, mistaken identities, and all the other Kelly elements you’ve come to know and, perhaps, love. Plus a lip-synch music video.

Part multimedia experiment, part time travel film, part jeremiad prophecy of the dangers of unchecked rightwing expansion into surveillance and homeland policing, part philosophy lecture, but mostly a political satire, Southland Tales has been called many things: unwatchable, convoluted, pretentious, and incomprehensible. For my money, however, the film (and its expanded materials, which I hesitate to call “supplementary” given that they were always intended to be part of the experience) is simply too ambitious to ever have any kind of mainstream penetration, even on the level that Darko did. There’s also been a lot of name-calling and assumptions with regards to Kelly’s ego and affectations of intellectualism, even from those of us here at Swampflix; in person, however, Kelly comes across as approachable, well-spoken, thoughtful, and shy (and he’s a total babe as well– look up a picture or two if you haven’t already done yourself this great service; those triceps are poppin’). Kelly directed this film when he was twenty-nine; that’s my age, and all I have to show for a life is a stack of unopened mail and a heap of student loan debt that I’ll finish paying off seven years after I’m dead– if I’m lucky.

In case you weren’t aware, Southland was originally envisioned as the final three chapters in a six-chapter arc, with the first three components released as graphic novels (Kelly said that when these materials, which were not quite complete at the time of the Cannes premiere, were given to the press, they sneered). There is a certain feeling of incompleteness that can be felt in the film as a result, but this is not the same thing as saying that the film is, as Kelly said in his introduction, “unfinished.” There’s certainly an element of that in play in the theatrical version that was screened, but I didn’t find it as distracting as others have. He discussed the nature of the release of the film, the way that certain visual effects were never quite completed due to the fact that the money for said polishing was to have come from one studio that held the international distribution rights, but there were issues with the domestic distributor. It’s all information that you can find elsewhere, I’m sure, so I won’t get into it here. There were some new tidbits that were shared in the Q&A that I’ll share here, though.

Why is Janeane Garofalo in the final scene? In the earlier, longer version of the film that was screened at Cannes, there is an additional subplot in which Garofalo plays a general who is engaged in a Dungeons & Dragons game with veteran Simon Theory (Kevin Smith) and a couple of other characters, with that game serving as an additional metaphorical layer to the events of the film, just line the screenplay for The Power. (I did see a credit for a D&D consultant in the final credits, which confused me until this was explained.)

Was this movie inspired by Brazil? Yes, Kelly loves Brazil.

Where did the character names come from? Kelly discussed that there’s a music to character names, and described how some come from more obvious sources (like the Robert Frost-quoting Senator Bobby Frost), and some a bit more obscure from sources both historical (like the von Westphalen family, whose true allegiances are obvious from the outset for those who know Jenny von Westphalen was the wife of Karl Marx), and literary (the Taverners share their surname with Jason Taverner, protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which shares a rightwing autocratic dictatorship with Southland). So, like many of the references to extratextual real-world works that we mentioned in The Box discussion, they’re present less because Kelly wants to prove how smart he is and more because he thinks we’re all on his level, which is a compliment more than anything else.

Why so many Saturday Night Live actors? Besides the aforementioned Poehler, Oteri, Dunn, and Garofalo, other SNL alums include Jon Lovitz and John Larroquette. I really liked Kelly’s answer to this question; when we talk about political satire, at least in America, SNL is the troupe that is on the cutting edge of that discussion.

Is the recurring theme of free will versus predestination representative of a personal philosophy or just something that Kelly finds intriguing to play with on film? This was my question, and was admittedly a little longer in the actual asking (which involved referencing the Job-like structure of The Box and eschatological nature of Southland, leading Richard Kelly to compliment me personally, so take that, world!), but Kelly stated that this was something that he thinks about a lot, that humans beings are often bandied about by forces outside of their control, and how much agency any of us have at all (one audience member asked about Krysta Now’s agency in regards to the film, but I missed the answer to that one trying to calm myself enough to ask my question). Kelly had previously mentioned that Southland was intended to be a cathartic film experience; given that the themes of the film boil down to the idea that salvation comes from forgiving the self, which is an entirely internal emotional journey, I think that this could be reflective of that idea. Forgiving one’s self, like Taverner does in the film’s final moments, removes the external elements of predestination and is purely an act of personal decision, and through that comes real existential relief.

Whatever happened to the Norma Lewis prosthetic foot prop? This one I had to ask for Britnee, per her final thoughts on The Box. As it turns out, Kelly’s father, who really did work on the Mars Viking Lander project, did something similar for Kelly’s mother, whose own foot was disfigured, not unlike Norma’s. As for the prop, Kelly said he would have to make some calls to be absolutely certain, but he’s pretty sure it’s in a props warehouse in Boston.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery thriller The Box, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how the film works as a literary adaptation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

San Andreas (2015)

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three star

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There’s really only one reason to see San Andreas and it ain’t to watch The Rock act outside of his comfort zone. If you really wanted to watch Dwayne Johnson push himself as an actor, I highly recommend checking out Southland Tales or Pain & Gain. If you want to watch buildings fall over and crush countless nameless people while The Rock just happens to be there, San Andreas is the movie for you. The Rock is in full Hercules mode here, just sort-of coasting on his natural charisma as a mediocre film crumbles around him. San Andreas may not be the best possible Johnson vehicle, but it does have something Hercules was missing: incredible visual spectacle. As soon as San Andreas leaves the theaters it’s going to be a forgotten by-the-90s-numbers natural disaster pic, but as long as it’s huge & loud on the silver screen it’s got an impressive 3D spectacle to it that I found myself genuinely wowed by when I wasn’t chuckling at the clichéd dialogue that broke it up (like the earthquakes that break the movie’s California coast into pieces).

Since it’s unlikely that you’ll enjoy San Andreas for its storytelling prowess or emotional resonance, I guess I’ll detail what it has going for it in camp value. First of all, its aping of 90s disaster pics like Daylight & Volcano is so accurate that the whole endeavor feels ludicrously old-fashioned. In a lot of ways, it’s only a half-step up from the corny script of last year’s horrendous Left Behind, which is really saying something. Unlike Left Behind, however, San Andreas is consistently dangerous-feeling from the get-go, almost to the point of sadism. Buildings are ripped in half, people wander around bleeding in a daze, floods & fires complicate the rescue missions, etc. San Andreas knows it has little more to offer than sheer spectacle, so it pushes how much constant carnage it can get away with without devolving into a complete cartoon, something it just barely gets away with. As for traces of camp in The Rock’s performance, he does have a pretty great one-liner when he expertly parachutes onto a baseball field with his estranged wife (“It’s been a while since I’ve gotten you to second base”) and it’s pretty amusing how quickly & without inner conflict he abandons his post as a helicopter-rescue pilot to focus on retrieving his own wife & daughter as millions of other earthquake victims suffer. Other than that & a few amusing scenes in which a cowardly business dude pushes people into immediate peril to save his own ass, the movie doesn’t offer much else camp-wise outside the impressive 3D spectacle of a city collapsing.

With a larger budget, San Andreas could have looked even further back than its 90s-disaster-movie roots and assembled one of those sprawling casts from the days of Big Studio disaster films like Towering Inferno & Earthquake. I’m not saying that they should’ve recast The Rock’s helicopter pilot or Paul Giamatti’s befuddled scientist. It’s more that they felt like a small part of an absent larger whole. If San Andreas were a near-three hour epic overstuffed with every Hollywood star imaginable, but with the same level of impressive special effects it could’ve been something really special. As is, it’s going to lose its significance as soon as it hits VOD & home video, so I suggest seeing it in the theater while you can if you have any interest in it at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Furious 7 (2015)

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fourstar

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The true story at this point of the Fast and Furious franchise is the story of an ever-ballooning budget. The 2001 debut installment cost $38 million to make, which it of course spent on fast cars & Ja Rule, depending on ultra-macho cheap thrills like rap rock & lipstick lesbianism to fill in the gaps. In 2015 a Fast and Furious movie costs $250 million to make, which gives it the freedom to tear down entire cities on the screen, no Ja Rule necessary. The first three or so Fast and Furious movies serve mostly as cultural relics, time capsules of bad taste in the early 00s. As the budget continued to expand (along with Vin Diesel’s delightfully long winded musings on the nature of “family”) so did the scope of the action sequences and the feeling that the franchise had actually started to pull its own weight as a unique intellectual property. The street racing & Ja Rules of the early films are mostly gone, but far from forgotten as the series has become completely wrapped up in its own mythology, pretending that the past was more significant than it was and pushing what they can do in the present to any & all ridiculous heights allowed by the strengths of an ever-sprawling cast & budget. Furious 7 may have taken my top spot in the franchise (although that may just be the post-theater buzz talking) simply because it’s so much movie.

Furious 7’s charms depend greatly on the six films that precede it (this marks the first time that the Tokyo Drift storyline is in the rearview), but it uses that well-established history to its advantage as a launching pad for its larger-than-ever set pieces and relentless fan service. It’s difficult to imagine just how much a newcomer would get out of early scenes where Vin Diesel’s Dominic struggles to keep his “family” together, including the significance of details like the house they worked so hard to hold onto, the struggle to keep Paul Walker’s Brian out of danger, and the faulty memory of Michelle Rodriguez’ Letty. There’s an excess of callbacks to seemingly insignificant details like a tuna sandwich from the first film, images & music lifted directly from Tokyo Drift (within which Lucas Black ages a decade in the blink of an eye), a return to the Race Wars (the ludicrous name of a street racing competition I still can’t believe no one in that world finds fucked up), outrageous stunt casting of flash-in-the-pan rappers (in this case the most-insignificant-yet, Iggy Azaelea), and increasingly obnoxious product placement for Corona. There was even a return to the excessive ogling of the early films, but with a modern update. If the gratuitous leering of the early 00s was Generation Lipstick Lesbian, Furious 7 poses the modern era as Generation Dat Ass, featuring a peculiarly intense focus on the female posterior. The only thing that was really missing was a backyard cookout. To a newcomer these callbacks could feel superfluous at best and grotesque at worst, but for a fan (even a recent convert such as myself), they’re pleasantly familiar.

That’s not to say that a pair of fresh eyes would have nothing to enjoy here. At a remarkably brisk 137 minutes, Furious 7 is packed to the gills with action movie surface pleasures: self-described “vehicular warfare”, flying cars, smashed buildings, absurdly intricate martial arts sequences, drones (or as Tyrese Gibson’s Roman calls them, “space ships”), hacker technobabble, rap music, and the aforementioned near-naked asses. On the gender-swapped side of that butt fetish is a gratuitous shot of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s mostly nude, entirely exceptional body lounging in a hospital bed that is sure to raise a couple heart rates. Although The Rock isn’t afforded much screen time, he makes the most of it. Besides appearing undressed, he also puts his pro-wrestling background to good use in some epic shit talking (“I’m gonna put a hurt on him so bad he’s gonna wish his mama had kept her legs closed”) and a fist fight in which he delivers his signiature “Rock Bottom” move to Jason Statham. However, even that fight pales in comparison to the stunts performed by legitimate hand-to-hand combat artists Ronda Rousey & Tony Jaa. The film could’ve used more of crowd favorite The Rock (and personal favorite Jordana Brewster), but the additions of newcomers like Rousey, Jaa, and total weirdo Kurt Russell more than filled the void.

There was also something missing in the absence of longtime Fast and Furious director Justin Lin, particularly in the scaled-back “family” talk that reached its fever pitch in Fast & Furious 6. Considering the real-life loss of Paul Walker, however, the “family” speeches that are included feel all the more significant. When Dominic says “I don’t have friends. I got family,” you could easily substitute the word “friends” for “fans”. Anyone who has made it this far into the Fast and Furious ride (or at least tuned in after the not-so-great fourth one) is likely to feel an affinity for the franchise that not only excuses, but emphatically embraces its trashy, trashy charms. Paul Walker’s transformation from a “sandwich crazy” undercover cop to an action movie legend was a gradual one that has now sadly come to a close. It’s always a bummer to watch a family member go and Furious 7 does a great job of giving him a proper send-off. The focus on fan-pleasing callbacks and the transition from the “family”-heavy Justin Lin run into a new era (in which Walker will not be joining us) distinguishes Furious 7 from the six previous installments, while still honors them with a lofty reverence. It’s sure to please the franchise’s established fans as well as gather some new ones along the way. There really is just so much movie here that anyone who enjoys loud, obnoxious action films in any capacity is likely find something to latch onto.

-Brandon Ledet

Hercules (2014)

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Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the great WWE success story. When the juggernaut wrestling promotion tried its best to launch Hulk Hogan’s movie career with its first foray into film production, 1989’s No Holds Barred, the results were mixed. Hogan remains the most widely known household name in wrestling, but his movie career, which featured long-forgotten titles like Suburban Commando & Mr. Nanny, didn’t exactly pan out as planned. The Rock, on the other hand, basically launched WWE’s movie-making division all by his lonesome. His first three starring roles in The Scorpion King, The Rundown, and Walking Tall basically built WWE Studios from the ground up. The Rock’s world-class shit-talking skills & excessive mugging in his wrestling promos translated well to action stardom & he’s been the sole wrestler who’s been able to make a long-term career for himself on the big screen (though Bautista may be next in line).

The secret to Johnson’s success? He’s actually a damn good actor. He has a lot of weird, mostly untapped energy that can reach far beyond the limited roles he’s been landing. With early parts in action shlock like Doom & The Scorpion King, he’s proven himself to be one of the last Schwarzenegger-type muscle gods who manage to look convincing while kicking ass & dispensing pun-heavy quips indiscriminately. He’s perfectly suited for action movie roles, but he’s also being underserved in them. Riskier projects, like the more unhinged Southland Tales and Pain & Gain, have unleashed a different Dwayne Johnson altogether, one completely independent of the Schwarzeneggers & Van Dammes before him. He has a manic beast lurking under that confident exterior, just waiting to out-weird any other action star in the world, Stallone & Cage included.

Unfortunately, Hercules does not employ the offbeat wild-man Dwayne Johnson, but instead opts for the cookie-cutter action star The Rock. He’s in full Scorpion King mode here, hitting so many familiar Schwarzenegger beats that I assumed it was secretly a Conan the Barbarian remake that couldn’t secure the rights. Hercules’ opening narration plays like a trailer to a much better film, The Rock slaying a succession of giant, mystical beasts with ease. It slows down from there, limiting the action to a single episode of Hercules and his rag-tag crew of super-warriors leading an army into an epic battle, the exact kind of narrative you’d expect from vintage Conan the Barbarian story record. The movie has a sort of charm in its limited scope, especially in its lighthearted approach to mass violence and in The Rock’s natural magnetism. Most of Hercules’ best moments arise from The Rock’s inherent coolness. He just looks like a total badass as he wears a lion’s head as a crown, defeats wolves & charging horses with just his bare hands, and smashes a hooded executioner to pulp with a smaller, less talkative rock. Hercules makes for a much more convincing, enjoyable superhero adaptation/reboot than the similarly reductionist films I, Frankenstein & Dracula Untold, but in the end a lot of your enjoyment will hinge on how much you enjoy spending time with The Rock, as opposed to how much room Dwayne Johnson is given to be his enchanting self.

The transition from babyface wrestler to action hero makes total sense. Both roles require a convincing “good guy” to put the world’s depthless “bad guys” in their place. The Rock has had a few great action roles over the past decade or so, and with the exception of a couple missteps like The Tooth Fairy, he’s managed to avoid the pitfalls of Hulk Hogan’s career path. It’s just that after watching what a stranger, more nuanced Dwayne Johnson can do, it’s worrisome that he’s still making something this close to The Scorpion King at this point in time. Hercules can be a fun, one-time viewing for the audience, but let’s hope it’s not a damning career-trajectory indicator for Johnson. He can do so much more when given the chance.

-Brandon Ledet