When I heard that Uwe Boll was writing and directing a movie called Rampage, my thoughts immediately went to the 1980s arcade game of the same name. In the game you played as one of various classic movie monsters, like King Kong or Godzilla, and the mission was to obliterate a city building by building and avoid the military forces trying to take you down (edit: later turned into a 2018 movie starring The Rock). At first I thought there was no way that Boll could raise a budget big enough for a giant monster movie, then I paid closer attention to Boll’s Rampage and discovered it only had one cost-effective monster — man. Boll’s film revolves around a single man massacring a small town. Most surprising of all, Rampage is actually earning Boll a full slate of positive reviews. Critics have mostly taken a shine to this violent shoot-em-up, going so far as to all it Boll’s best film to date. I suppose Boll’s recent upgrade in ability he showcased with Stoic and The Final Storm raised my expectations that the prospect of a “good Uwe Boll movie” is actually a concept not just in the theoretical realms any longer. It could happen. I can honestly say that Rampage is not it.
Bill Williamson (Brendan Fletcher) is just a regular dude living at home with his parents and bouncing from dead-end job to dead-end job. That’s all about to change. Bill seems to have taken a cue from his friend Evan (Shaun Sipos), who has advocated radical measures be taken to make the world a better place. Bill has been building a bundle of arms and body armor for one mission — to kill as many people as possible in a day.
I think the movie’s main weakness is that it’s too insular. We can never free ourselves from Bill Williamson’s head (really, Boll? William Williamson? Are you even trying?). I understand that Boll tries to drop us into the psychosis of a seemingly ordinary 23-year-old burnout that snaps. To that end, Boll effectively fills the background with an mélange of chatter; short news radio bursts are strung together noting the ails of the global ails of the world. It feels like an actual peak into the anxiety-riddled skull of the main character. But this guy just isn’t that interesting. We’re never given any real insight into his thought process because Boll holds back whatever Bill really thinks until the very end, which means for the majority of the movie we’re just watching a nut in body armor. A far majority of the movie is tagging along on Bill’s killing spree, watching person after person gunned down. Is this entertainment and for whom?
Boll assembles a better thesis about what makes people grab guns and lash out than he did in 2003’s school shooter rumpus, Heart of America, which also starred Fletcher as a chief bully. But that doesn’t mean that the pieces fit together any better. Bill’s rationale is that the world is overpopulated and could use a good pruning. So everybody goes. This is a pretty weak justification, especially when you consider that he’s slaughtering the denizens of a SMALL TOWN who has plenty of room for growth. Will purposely goes out of his way to gun down the servers who irritated him the day before, thus he seeks vengeance not ideological purity. Boll at least switches spree motivations late into something a tad more consumerist, but by then it’s too late. We need outside perspectives for this story to become more than a horror highlight reel of death. This movie could have worked from a Falling Down-esque narrative divided between the man on the rampage and the man in hot pursuit. That dynamic would provide for more thrills as well as a natural good guy and bad guy designation. But Boll doesn’t want any such designation. He wants us to be uncomfortable from beginning to end, to empathize with Bill early on and become horrified about what this says about all of us. A radio broadcaster says, without a hint of irony: “I don’t know how this could happen here or anywhere?” You’re uncomfortable but not because of what Bill is doing. You never empathize with the guy because he’s a loser and pretty hotheaded. It’s because the movie is bereft of commentary that makes it uncomfortable because then the violence becomes celebratory.
Rampage is set in a small town for some sort of ham-handed message about the unpredictability of violence, but could something of this magnitude truly go down in today’s technologically saturated world (for extra sledgehammer irony, the town is called Tenderville)? I will even give some leeway that a small town has a limited number of police officers and Bill blows up the police station as his first goal, but then where are all the neighboring cops? When we live in a world where everybody owns a cell phone, and every cell phone owner is an amateur journalist, it’s somewhat preposterous that news of this magnitude would remain so isolated for so long. As soon as a crazy guy walked down the center of town and murdering everybody, you better believe that CNN would have some cell phone video up in a manner of minutes. Surely the barrage of 911 calls would have informed emergency technicians that the police station was bombed and the killer is still on the loose. Where are the neighboring communities’ police officers? Where are the helicopters? In the age of information, nobody seems able to communicate anything. And why do people have trouble locking and barricading their doors? As Bill goes window-shopping for victims all the store doors remain unlocked, allowing him easy access to blow away customers. If Rampage was set in a violence-torn area that had become eerily accustomed to the sound of gunfire then perhaps people’s initial indifference to gunfire could be explained. But remember, this is a small town for maximum intentional dramatic impact. They should be extremely responsive to the sound of continual gunfire. And these people should be packing too.
The scheme of Bill’s coalesces in the last ten minutes of the movie, attempting to offer clarity and advance the material. Beware gentle reader, spoilers will follow, but you’ve already come this far. In the end, Bill has planned his killing spree with the intent of framing his only friend, Evan. Bill has made sure all his mail-order purchases were delivered to Evan’s home, Evan is the one with the long YouTube rants about overpopulation and people standing up to make change, and Evan’s father is a former radical from the 1960s who justified violence in the name of good causes. Of course we only learn that last bit in the film’s closing seconds because why would something like that be relevant to know beforehand, right? Bill meets his buddy in the woods for their scheduled paintball date, tazes the bastard, then stuffs a gun in Evan’s hand and has him pull the trigger to fulfill his role as patsy. The cops will think Evan has killed himself after being pursued into the woods. This is why Bill had to come back and brutally gun down an entire salon of women because he took his mask off and exposed his real face. Bill then disappears with the money.
As you expect, there are more holes to this plot than Swiss cheese. First off, there’s a noticeable height difference between Evan and Bill (Fletcher is only 5’4″ tall). Take into account different boot sizes, massive amounts of security camera footage, the registration for the cars that Bill turned into suicide bombs, the fact that the stolen bank money would now be marked, an autopsy report that would discover the stun gun wound and the awkward position for the self-inflicted gunshot wound, and the eye witnesses that must have seen Bill roaming around his neighborhood head-to-toe in his armor, never mind the fact that a massacre of this size practically guarantees the FBI’s involvement, and you’ve got so many areas for this master plan to unravel. That’s probably why Rampage ends with a post-script informing us Bill took off and has yet to be caught because somehow he’s a criminal genius.
This is Fletcher’s (Freddy vs. Jason, HBO’s The Pacific) movie and he pretty much hides behind his character’s literal and figurative mask. It’s not too hard to glower and walk with purpose, which is what Bill does for most of the movie. He doesn’t come across as overtly threatening, which is probably the point, but nor does Fletcher ever show insight into Bill’s dark recesses. He just seems like an irritable child with guns who wants to settle some scores from a bruised ego. Fletcher has acting ability but his assimilation into the Boll Players should worry anybody who wants to see that ability again (four Boll films and counting). Curiously, Katherine Isabelle, the star of the clever teen-girl-werewolf Canadian horror series Ginger Snaps, has a near cameo appearance as one of the salon workers who gets murdered. Having an actress like her play such a small character with brief screen time seems bizarre. Maybe Fletcher, as the film’s co-producer, called in a favor from his Freddy vs. Jason co-star.
Boll’s direction pretty much gets swallowed whole by the void of his main character. Every decision seems made to suit some kind of allegorical message that never seems to materialize. The camerawork is self-consciously shaky; there’s no reason a simple family conversation over the breakfast table should look like a 9.8 earthquake is going on simultaneously. The film also has the annoying habit of jumping forwards and backwards in time for split-second edits. I couldn’t tell if these flash edits were mere foreshadowing peaks at what was to come, trying to sate a bloodthirsty audience getting antsy, or if they were small fantasies playing out inside Bill’s head, showing his violent tendencies and delicate hold on reality. Well, they were just previews for the main attraction, which makes their use hard to fathom. If Boll wanted an audience to be shocked by what was to come, why give them previews? The film would have worked better without the non-linear quirks. Boll makes sure his camera is never far away from Bill, and during stretches the camera is pinned on Bill’s face as he huffs and puffs and kills people off screen. It’s Boll’s one somewhat interesting moment of artistic restraint. Boll is improving as an action director in certain regards. Rampage has some nice stunt work and some pretty well executed explosions.
Don’t believe the steady stream of good press for Rampage. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to write these words … but Rampage does not live up to the hype. It is not Boll’s first successful movie; I’d argue that his Vietnam movie Tunnel Rats came much closer to being a good and entertaining movie. Rampage is a rather empty vehicle to watch innocents get massacred. It lacks subtext and commentary, so the violence becomes gratuitous and meaningless, which is much more uncomfortable than anything Boll intends with his narrative. Obviously, Boll has modeled his story after recent incidents like the Virginia Tech gunman in 2007. Sadly, there is no shortage of crazed gunman stories in the news to pick from. If Boll attempted to squeeze some subtext into the various proceedings, satirizing the sensationalistic media turning people into fragile, potentially-lethal time bombs, or perhaps even the allure of fame through whatever costs, even the most infamous, then maybe watching countless people get shot would at least offer some meaning. I wasn’t expecting a Funny Games dissection level of violence and voyeurism and the participation of the viewer, but I expected more than watching a dude in a suit of armor kill fleeing civilians for an hour. If that’s your idea of entertainment than perhaps you should go play a video game that rewards such behavior. Don’t worry; it’s only a matter of time before Boll transforms that into a movie next.
Nate’s Grade: C-
For many, any notion of a remake of George Romero’s 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead would be heresy. There are only two things this remake has in common with its predecessor: 1) The characters are holed up in a mall for survival, and 2) There are zombies. Thats it. The social commentary of Romero’s Dawn is stripped away, and in its place is a slick, lean action film with lots of very effective and suspenseful set pieces. Instead of thoughtless and lumbering zombies of Romero’s film, these zombies have taken a cue from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later brood and run, dont walk, to nibble their meat. First time director Zack Snyder creates a movie rich in gruesome thrills and dark comedy but overloaded with characters, some of which you dont even remember until they are eventually picked off. Indie stalwarts Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames nicely anchor the cast. Dawn of the Dead is light on characters (except in numbers) and plot, but it starts with a cataclysmic bang and doesn’t let up until the lights go back on. If you want the film to end optimistically leave immediately upon the end credits, and if not, then stick around for some more goodies.
Nate’s Grade: B+