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Will The Rock Ever Make a Good Movie?

And a few other thoughts about ‘Rampage’

No matter how bad they look, I’m always excited about seeing a Dwayne Johnson movie. This sickness has been going on for years. I even wrote about it back in 2013: “Outside of Jason Statham, there’s no movie star for whom I so consistently give the benefit of the doubt, no matter how many times he’s disappointed me.” Nothing has changed since then: His movies continue to be utterly average, and yet, I keep enjoying him in them anyway.

Rampage is more of the same — a big, dopey action film in which he’s easily the best part. But does it have to be this way? If I like Johnson but don’t like his movies, wouldn’t the easiest thing be to just skip the movies all together? Can I enjoy the Rock without submitting myself to the thing that’s made him a global superstar? If anything, his stardom is uniquely suited to that strategy. After all, his celebrity is bigger — and more entertaining — than his movies.

I’m not saying Johnson isn’t talented — he’s a charming, funny actor — but his appeal transcends the typical attributes ascribed to “good acting.” He’s not someone who “emotes.” We’re not looking to him for profound depth. His secret is obvious: He carries himself with a lightness that’s disarming and likeable. It’s not that anyone could do what he does — it definitely requires poise and confidence — but a large part of the Rock’s appeal is that we like spending time with him. And it just so happens he spends a lot of time in thoroughly mediocre movies.

Take Rampage, which is a completely ludicrous film about mutated animals that become super-huge and wreak havoc across Chicago. In theory, Johnson plays a character with a name and a profession, but be honest: Do you care about that? Nope. If you’re seeing Rampage, you’re going because it’s the Rock hanging out with a big-ass gorilla fighting a big-ass wolf and a big-ass crocodile. It’s hard to imagine caring about an action movie based on a 32-year-old video game if he wasn’t in it.

That’s power: When you can get audiences to see you in anything.

But it’s also why his movies continue to disappoint: We’re such suckers for the Rock that we will basically see him in anything. Outside of Baywatch, many of his recent movies have been big hits, increasing his clout and strengthening his case as one of the few true superstars in an age where the franchise is more important than the movie star. We’ve never, however, required him to make great movies to be a star, so that’s never been part of his calculus.

As a result, the Rock has become the cubic zirconia of Hollywood. Movies like Rampage (and Snitch and Central Intelligence and Baywatch and Hercules and…) are all varying degrees of not-bad and just-okay, and our willingness to see them anyway is emblematic of the fact that we’ve trained ourselves not to expect too much from Johnson’s movies. We don’t take him seriously as an actor — he’s just some famous guy for whom we have a certain fondness. So when his films are terrible, it’s not a surprise — and if they’re good, hey, it’s cause for celebration, even overreaction. People raved about Moana, but that’s not really a Rock movie in the way that we think of Rock movies — it’s just an animated movie that features Dwayne Johnson as a voice actor. If it was a real Rock movie, Moana wouldn’t be any good.

At some point, our low expectations for a global superstar will square with reality, and his audience will begin drying up. (And maybe that moment is on the horizon: Rampage just barely beat out A Quiet Place at this weekend’s box office.) Would part of me feel bad if there weren’t any more Dwayne Johnson movies? Absolutely. Because while there are plenty of other bad blockbusters out there, his at least have a certain sweetness to their inanity. That said, haven’t we all seen enough bad blockbusters to last a lifetime? If we all love the Rock as much as it seems, we ought to love the guy enough to start wanting more out of him.

Here are a few other takeaways from Rampage. (And warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. The film’s opening might be the best part.

Rampage’s opening sequence, which is great, doesn’t feature the Rock at all. And it might actually be the film’s highlight.

I’ll let film critic Katie Walsh describe the scene: “[A] spacecraft carrying research samples from a shady corporate gene-editing experiment explodes in the atmosphere — Marley Shelton appears in this delightfully bonkers riff on Alien, with a giant space rat — scattering its tainted shrapnel across the U.S.” The sequence has nothing to do with the rest of the movie — it’s mostly just establishing how the movie’s animals get mutated — but director Brad Peyton uses it as an excuse to stage an insane action scene as Shelton desperately tries to get away from this huge killer rat while floating in zero-gravity through a space station that’s exploding all around her.

In the span of a few minutes, this Rampage sequence plays like a fever-dream amalgam of Gravity and Life — yeah, that Jake Gyllenhaal Alien rip-off from last year — and it’s so instantly intense that you’re immediately thrown out of your comfort zone. There’s something so primal, thrilling and dark about the sequence — it’s its own little three-act film, with Shelton’s astronaut fighting to stay alive, just barely escaping, and then discovering that all her efforts are in vain. When she dies, it’s this mini-tragedy that you’re no in way prepared for.

The rest of Rampage rarely gets this close to being so dramatic, cathartic or emotional. They need to do a prequel just about her character.

#2. The ‘Rampage’ video game is terrible.

Rampage is far from the first movie to be based on a video game. There have been tons of them — Doom, Prince of Persia, Street Fighter, Need for Speed — and most of them are awful. But what’s unique about Rampage is that it may be the first film in which the original video game is also awful. Seriously, the Rampage game sucks. Look at this:

The 1980s had its share of lame video games, but Rampage was especially dumb. The whole game was based on the concept that punching buildings is fun if you’re a big monster. And, yes, that’s kinda entertaining — but that’s the entire game. What, you have to avoid some helicopters, too? That’s it? That’s the whole game?

But, wait, you say: There’s a new version of the game. You’re right. Here it is:

It’s the same thing with slightly better graphics. This game sucks. The movie never had a chance.

#3. In modern action movies, the guy doesn’t always get the girl (and vice versa).

Johnson’s costar is Naomie Harris, the Oscar-nominated costar of Moonlight. She plays Dr. Kate Caldwell, a genetic engineer who helps him rescue his beloved albino gorilla George. Because he’s a man and she’s a woman and they go on this adventure together, you might reasonably expect that they’ll fall in love over the course of Rampage. That, however, doesn’t happen: They flirt on occasion, but they’re just colleagues who respect one another.

That may seem like nothing, but it’s a twist on the typical action-movie trope — and it’s going on a lot these days. In recent films like Tomb Raider and Black Panther, male and female characters go out and save the world, but they do it as platonic equals, not as will-they-or-won’t-they lovers.

In the past, it was basically a given that Indiana Jones or James Bond would end up with a love interest. (In Speed, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock’s characters actually joke at the end of the movie that romances born out of high-stress situations rarely last.) In the old days, how were we supposed to know that the movie’s good guy was actually good if he didn’t get the additional reward of a girlfriend?

It’s not hard to see why the change has occurred. As Hollywood reflects shifting societal values, action movies are as well, with more attention being paid to developing the female leads so that they’re not just trophies for the hero. You can see it even in a film like 2015’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, in which Tom Cruise’s veteran agent is confronted by a smart, emotionally nuanced rival in the form of Rebecca Ferguson’s British spy. Sure, she’s beautiful and there’s sexual tension between them, but Rogue Nation lets her be more sophisticated than just a Bond babe. She’s Cruise’s equal in the film — and they end up having to go their separate ways, Casablanca-style.

Johnson and Harris have okay chemistry in Rampage, but not so much that it would’ve made sense that their characters get together. Twenty-five years ago, though, this would’ve almost certainly been the case — and would’ve been forced and awkward for all involved.

#4. There was a better name for ‘Rampage’ sitting there the whole time.