Released: 11th April 2018
Directed By: Brad Peyton
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris
Reviewed By: Van Connor
In a startlingly blunt profile piece for Rolling Stone recently, it came to light that Dwayne Johnson’s mantra upon tackling any new project is “elevate and dominate”, a philosophy you can’t help but respect when you walk away from his latest blockbuster offering, Rampage. You respect it because it brings to mind that moment at the onset of Johnson’s 2003 actioner The Rundown (hilariously – in hindsight – retitled Welcome to the Jungle for UK audiences) in which Arnold Schwarzengger put in a rather amusing meta-cameo to literally wish the up-and-coming star “good luck”, a moment that appears to have meant more to the former Rock than anyone quite expected.
Schwarzennegger, you see, hit something of a professional sweet spot in the early nineties – not by becoming the biggest action star on the planet – that was incidental – but instead by unearthing just what it might take to become the biggest star on the planet, full stop. That secret, surprisingly, was to embrace the full-blown family movie audience, and drag them along to the next project with you – laughing all to the way to the bank as you went. Where Arnie fell flat, however, was in never finding the right projects to maintain that audience post-Kindergarten Cop, and it’s a defeat Dwayne Johnson emerges from Rampage with no sign of ever falling victim to himself.
Rampage is, for the most part, Monster Movie 101 – an unashamed, smash-a-minute, explosion-heavy kaiju flick that just happens to include a “don’t you dare mistreat animals!” subtext and plays equally well to both children and adults as it romps along with the heir apparent to the Fast & Furious franchise front and centre. It’s also, and it’s easy to forget this, an adaptation of the classic eighties arcade game that’s become a staple of background imagery in 80s-set pieces such as Stranger Things and IT – meaning that, mere weeks after releasing the best video game to film adaptation in history, Warner Bros. have brilliantly managed to top their own achievement with nary a spark of fanfare for doing so.
With the video game story (or, realistically, lack thereof) being shunted to the third act, the set-up of Rampage sees Johnson as military man-turned-zoologist (suggesting there was a West Point class at some point that included only Johnson and Jurassic World’s Chris Pratt character) Davis Okoye, San Diego animal handler and best friend to albino gorilla George. When a secret genetic experiment taking place on a space station (just roll with it) causes a manmade virus to rain down on the Earth, George is one of three animals across the United States to come into contact with it, and, soon enough, begins to grow at an extraordinary rate – with his aggression rising correspondingly. As George’s behaviour becomes increasingly dangerous, it’s down to Davis and disgraced geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to pursue the unhinged gorilla as he makes his way toward his creators’ homing beacon in the city of Chicago, but, unbeknownst to them, George isn’t alone – and there are two creatures afflicted by the same toxin headed to the same destination.
Reuniting Johnson with director Brad Peyton was always going to be an obvious no-brainer. The pair delivered impressive disaster movie results with San Andreas a couple years back, and the idea of revisiting that movie’s tone and four-quadrant tentpole appeal with the added spectacle of a Godzilla flick is an insanely easy sell for an audience in 2018 – particularly when it’s delivered by way of yet another vessel so imbued with the personality of Johnson himself, that it could have just as easily been retitled Dwayne Johnson vs the Monsters and likely not have lost out on a single ticket sold. Johnson is a movie star through and through, so much so that – if there were a special sauce that made movie stars – he’d presumably be marinating in it overnight before his 4am shift in the Iron Paradise (no joke – actually what he calls his gym). Is he the greatest actor of his generation? Hell no – and Jeffrey Dean Morgan continually shows up to remind him he’s not even close to being the most fun – but his presence is so integral to the feeling that makes Rampage so enjoyable that you know full well it could never in a million years have hit the family-friendly bullseye that it does were it not for the baddest of the bald.
On the action front, Peyton’s the pitch-perfect man to helm it all – his action set-pieces impressively coherent considering the sheer volume of activity taking place in any given moment, his character scenes are tight and engaging, and, though it’s yet another tentpole blockbuster that succumbs to that increasingly tiresome trend of bleached-out colour, it’s reigned in just enough to offer quite a lively palette too. Hats off, as well, to the motion capture work behind George, with Jason Liles’ performance not quite up to Andy Serkis’ grade, but an admirably engaging and likeable turn that nonetheless shines through the many layers of computer animation needed to bring the gorilla hero to life. It’s a shame that Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy bring an even more animated sensibility to their would-be antagonists, but, considering they’ve sold the gorilla, a giant flying wolf, and a mega-crocodile, the pair are just one cartoonish black spot among an otherwise pretty glowing roster.
It outdoes the Transformers franchise for “a man and his monster” action. It laps San Andreas for disaster movie cred, and it might be the most Dwayne Johnsonish Dwayne Johnson movie to date – Rampage is a helluva time. A pulse-pounding building-levelling rollercoaster of a summer blockbuster led by the movie star of our time. An unbelievable amount of fun, with likeable characters, an engaging dunder-headed story that’s in it as much for the fun as it is an animal rights message, and a healthy dollop of requisitely saccharine Hollywood emotion to boot. If you’ve been on tenterhooks waiting for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom to come along and light up your summer, take a break and embrace the Rampage, cos if the raptors and the Rex can top this…
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Ol Parker
Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard
Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths
The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.
Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.
Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).
Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).
Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.
Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.
Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.
It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.
Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…
Hotel Artemis ★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Drew Pearce
Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.
On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.
On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.
On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.
Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.
Released: 12th July 2018
Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.
Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.
Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.
Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.
In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.
It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.
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