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Review: ‘Jungle Cruise,’ Road to Nowhere

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt star in an action adventure, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. 

Cheerily haphazard in nature, Jungle Cruise quickly reveals its instinct for precisely-timed, jam-packed action sequences that are entirely plucked from the minds and imaginations of people who are dreaming on a lazy afternoon. 

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has consistently demonstrated his craft at constructing visually appealing scenarios in a series of popcorn thrillers, often starring Liam Neeson (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Commuter). His most satisfying films have displayed a canny sense of how a strong directorial voice can overcome narrative nonsense (Orphan) and a premise that appears quite limiting (The Shallows) .

In Jungle Cruise, his filmmaking skills coalesce to make a roundly entertaining motion picture that walks a fine line between risible and ridiculous. Frequently, it becomes well-nigh impossible to discern any intentions behind a scene before the succeeding scene leaps off in a different, absurd direction, equally risible and/or ridiculous.  

Dwayne Johnson stars as riverboat captain Frank Wolff, an amiable sort of scrappy trouble on the Amazon in 1916 Brazil. Emily Blunt stars opposite him as Lily Houghton, recently arrived  from the UK with her brother Jack Whitehall, who is the discreetly gay MacGregor Houghton. 

Lily is in possession of an arrowhead that is extremely rare and valuable, said to be the key to finding Something Awesome that will cure every disease on Earth. In hot pursuit is Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim, a broadly Germanic warrior who also wants Something Awesome, though for personal profit, not the good of mankind. 

The screenplay, credited to veteran writers Michael Green and the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is filled to bursting with incidents, eventually overflowing, as though it were meant to keep people occupied while waiting in a long line for a theme park attraction. It begins to feel like a two-hour animated adventure that has overstayed its welcome, repeating similar action beats ad infinitum. 

The entire cast gets the joke, perhaps instructed to play their roles as broadly as possible, with a wink and a nod to Jungle Cruise enthusiasts — this is a movie version of a theme park attraction, after all. Johnson, especially, is in his self-mocking element, from the pun-filled salute to Jungle Cruise captains worldwide, who feel compelled to riff endless on the same tired jokes, to jokes about his size and stature.

Emily Blunt gets into the spirit of things easily; she’s the most talented actor and shows her ease at gliding through dialogue and displaying a sassy, spunky attitude; this is a woman in 1916 who is in control of her own agency. Jack Whitehall wisely recognizes that his role is a supporting player, the butt of many jokes, and the comic relief in an action-comedy. 

Jesse Plemons adroitly essays an evil villain, sometimes clueless and sometimes brilliant, but always showing up in the wrong place at the right time. Paul Giamatti contributes an amusing turn as a (broadly) Italian character; perhaps he is an ancestor of the Mario Brothers? Without tapping into the fuller range of their talents, Edgar Ramirez, Veronica Falcon and Sulem Calderon gamely make the most of their roles. 

As the action-adventure river winds onward, Jungle Cruise floats with it, sometimes  submerged by the elements surrounding it and occasionally conquering all. It’s a good ride but a bit long. 

The film opens in theaters in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on July 30, via Disney. It will also be available that day on Disney+ with Premier Access (an additional charge for subscribers). For more information about the film, visit the official site. 

Review: ‘Rampage’

dfn-rampage-ver8-poster-300Approaching his 46th birthday, Dwayne Johnson has established himself well as a dependable and likable heroic lead character in action movies, especially over the past eight years.

Before that, known primarily as ‘The Rock,’ he was divided in his career between the movies, television and wrestling, taking on both supporting and occasional lead performances in family fare and action flicks. He showed his darker side as an actor in Faster (2010) and Snitch (2013), starring in both, but it was his supporting role in Fast Five that helped elevate him higher in his status as a screen hero and since then he’s rarely looked back.

Johnson’s focus on heroic roles has paid off with his audience, through G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Fast & Furious 6, Hercules, Furious 7, San Andreas, Central Intelligence, and The Fate of the Furious. Last year, he took some critical flak for Baywatch — and gave some back to unkind critics — and then bounced back in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

As his role in the latter film showed, Johnson is not afraid to push the edges of his screen personality, but he wisely — from a commercial standpoint — always falls back to his more conventional archetype. That has served him well and seems to be the most pleasing to his millions of fans.

Thus we have Rampage, in which Johnson stars as Davis Okoye, a big-hearted primatologist who enjoys a very special relationship with an albino gorilla named George (portrayed in motion-capture by Jason Liles) until a spaceship explodes and rains down dangerous pathogens on Earth. The pathogens cause three unfortunate animals — George the gorilla, an unnamed wolf, and an unnamed crocodile — to suddenly begin growing in size.

The animals also become far more aggressive in their behavior and develop a taste for human flesh. Their conduct resembles the average moviegoer sitting in a reclining, deeply-cushioned chair, chomping on popcorn from a giant bucket in their lap.

The primary difference is that the giant animals are accustomed to physical activity, so when the evil business executive who spearheaded the development of the dangerous pathogens decides to call them “home” (i.e., the skyscraper where the company is located in Chicago, Illinois), rampant destruction and widespread human slaughter awaits as the animals kill their way to the big city.

The animals are innocent victims of a human monster, and that’s about as far as Rampage wants to go in its moral lessons. Inspired by a popular video game that was released in 1986, screenwriters Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel assemble a scenario that enables Dwayne Johnson to be heroic as he endeavors to save his best friend George, with the help of Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), who formerly worked at the evil company run by Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman), and Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a mercenary who begins working for the evil company and then is tempted to the side of the good guys.

Rampage is not meant to be taken seriously. Instead, it’s a modern, Hollywood version of the Japanese sequels to Gojira and like-minded, derivative works, pumped up by millions of dollars spent on visual effects to make the incalculable destruction of property and the deaths of thousands of people look as inoffensive — and lovely — as possible. It achieves those goals handily.

The film is playing in theaters throughout Dallas and Fort Worth. Seek to pay as little as possible on the biggest screen available.

Review: ‘San Andreas’

'San Andreas'
‘San Andreas’

Look out, earthquakes! Mess with Dwayne Johnson’s family and he will punch you in the nose.

Completely divorced from reality, San Andreas is a large-scale, family-first action movie that stars Dwayne Johnson and millions, perhaps billions, of pixels, all gathering together in messy 3D compositions that are magnificently rendered in exquisite detail to approximate the destruction of the state of California and thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of its inhabitants.

Johnson is a rescue worker for the Los Angeles Fire Department, and in the opening scenes we see his brave, daring leadership of his crew as he risks life and limb to save a young woman who is trapped in her car, dangling over a newly-formed crack in the world. Soon enough, however, Johnson will go A.W.O.L., stealing a helicopter so that he can meet up with his daughter in San Francisco.

Now, there is no good reason for him to abandon his duties at this point; his daughter is safe and sound, and out of immediate harm’s way. But, darn it, Johnson puts his family first! To hell with his fellow crew members — with whom he shared in military rescue service — and to the devil with people in Los Angeles who might have been saved by the helicopter that he’s nicked for his own personal transport. He needs to make sure his daughter is OK, and reunite his family!

See, Johnson and his pretend wife Carla Gugino have separated, and she has moved on to a very wealthy architect / real estate developer (Ioan Gruffudd). Johnson has even received divorce papers! He knows it’s his fault because he clammed up after one of their daughters died, and he’s sorry and all that, but he doesn’t know what he can do to make things right. Anyway, Johnson is still tight with his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) — or “BLAKE!” as she’s often called as the movie unfolds — who is heading off to college in Northern California but his rescue work has interfered with his plans to drive her there, so…

Frankly, no plot description is necessary, because the script — screenplay credited to Carlton Cuse, story credits to Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore — is very careful to foreshadow every major plot point at least once, if not twice or thrice. It’s almost as though the filmmakers anticipated that viewers might be tempted to step out (or fall asleep) between the very loud disaster sequences, and kindly made the story easy to follow for everyone.

The actors are grouped together to make it even easier to follow. Johnson and Gugino are warm and engaging as a married couple on the cusp of divorce, more disappointed than angry as they take various modes of transportation to see their daughter. Daddario takes charge of her scenes in San Francisco; she’s an able and intelligent action heroine who certainly stands out, teamed with a plucky young visiting Brit (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his witty younger brother (Art Parkinson, who might be famliar from the first three seasons of Game of Thrones).

The third group is led by Paul Giamatti, who is the brains of the operation as a seismologist at Cal Tech, an elite private university in Pasadena, near Los Angeles. Gimatti has developed a predictive technology for earthquakes, which comes in handy as the movie begins. Archie Panjabi is a television reporter with great timing.

The movie briskly glides through sequences of mass destruction that should be absolutely devastating, if not entirely paralyzing to witness, yet insists that what’s most important is one’s personal attitude. No doom and gloom here, no sir! As directed by Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), San Andreas aims to deliver a positive message in the face of apocalyptic disaster.

Even as skyscrapers crumble and thousands of people perish, the harsh realities are quickly whisked off-screen in favor of action-movie heroics. Intentionally or not, San Andreas borrows loosely from the disaster movies that were prevalent in the 1970s — notably Mark Robson’s melodramatic Earthquake (1974) — substituting all-star graphics for an all-star cast. The simplicity of the plot keeps it in the background, and the resolution of the story and the fates of its characters are all foregone conclusions.

This allows the mind to wander; it’s hard not to stare in shock and awe at the beautiful, artfully-conceived destruction that is depicted on screen. The end of the world has never looked so inviting.

Review originally published at TwitchFilm. The film opens wide in theaters across Dallas on Friday, May 29. Visit the official site for more information.

Review: ‘Fast & Furious 6’ Flies Confidently and Absurdly Into Superhero Territory

'Fast & Furious 6' (Universal Pictures)
‘Fast & Furious 6’ (Universal Pictures)
Dispensing with the boundaries of time and space — and breaking loose from the shackles of gravity and logic — allows the latest installment in the Fast and Furious franchise to bound confidently, if absurdly, into superhero territory.

Consider: superheroes can fly through the air; ordinary mortals cannot. Superheroes can return from the dead; ordinary mortals, even ones driving wicked fast motor vehicles, cannot.

Fast & Furious 6 is based on the absurd proposition that Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez), who died several sequels ago, has returned from the dead and is now a member of a gang of thieves who drive very, very quickly and are quite angry to boot. She has amnesia, of course, and no longer recognizes Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), the former love of her life, who has moved on reluctantly and learned to love again, or at least allowed Brazilian model / some kind of armed agent Elana (Elsa Pataky) to warm his bed.

Dominic and his driving / thieving pals Brian (Paul Walker), Han (Sung Kang), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) are living in retirement, reaping the reward of the millions of dollars they stole / earned by liberating a steel safe, tearing up the streets and businesses of Rio de Janeiro and pretty much ensuring that the Brazilian government would be happy to lock them up forever. The fugitives consider each other to be family, though, and they all come running when Dom whistles at the possibility that Letty is really, actually alive; after all, ‘you don’t leave family behind,’ which is a very popular sentiment among moviegoers and driving / thieving / rich people alike.

The gang has been reconvened at the behest of Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), a lone guerilla in camouflage pants who represents the government in some behalf, somehow still gainfully employed after the disaster that was the previous episode of the series. Well, not quite “lone” this time, because he’s joined by his newly faithful sidekick Riley (Gina Carano), and I do mean sidekick; she can punch and shoot guns as well as anybody in camouflage pants, but her distinguishing skill is her capacity to kick people into submission.

The rival gang of villains mirrors the heroes in appearance, as one of the good guys helpful points out, and is led by the shady Shaw (Luke Evans), who wants to steal a computer chip worth billions from the government and/or quasi-governmental entity. The chip’s theft would be devastating to the nations of the world and upset the balance of power and/or would put Apple and Microsoft out of business; the explanation is tossed off quickly and is really not germane to this discussion, because mainly what the movie wants and needs are excuses for people to fight and wisecrack and drive stylish cars very quickly and blow things up and smash vehicles and destroy property and make some more jokes and maybe flirt a little and kill people without dwelling too long on the dead bodies and maybe quite possibly and casually kill innocent civilians but not acknowledge anything more than — wow! Doesn’t that look cool! And, hey! Isn’t that funny? And, oh no, he didn’t! Snap!

As popcorn entertainment, Fat and Furious Sex — or whatever it’s called, the main titles reduce it to Furious 6 — is a lot of hot air, recyles far too many shopworn cliches, and is faithful only to the modern action insistence on cutting in harmony with the chaos method, which prevents easy comprehension of geography and danger. On the other hand, that’s all it wants to be; despite the repeated references to family and the yearning to return home expressed in the script by franchise stalwart Chris Morgan, this is a movie that is built around the action sequences, and director Justin Lin fully exploits the budget that has been accorded to him.

It’s a knowingly absurd film that always keeps a straight face. Fast & Furious 6 doesn’t need to wink at its audience; it’s not a secret that action junkies crave bigger and more boundless experiences, and so much the better if they’re delivered with a friendly sense of humor and a reckless disregard for reality.

Fast & Furious 6 opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, May 24.

Review: ‘Pain And Gain’ Warns Against the Abuse of Drugs and Too Much Style

Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson in Michael Bay's 'Pain & Gain'
Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson in Michael Bay’s ‘Pain & Gain’

Michael Bay takes a daring, creative approach to Pain & Gain, a story based on real life: he makes it look as unreal as possible.

Not that he’s doing much of anything that’s different from what he’s done with his previous nine films. He applies his distinctive, pumped-up style — constantly roving cameras, unusual angles, staccato editing, saturated colors, disharmonious performances — with great verve, if little variety and a off-kilter rhythm. Occasionally, it meshes well with the look and sound of Miami, Florida, where Pain & Gain is set, but that almost seems to be accidental, as though Bay kept swinging a baseball bat every five seconds, no matter if a pitch were thrown or not.

Still, Pain & Gain is a step away from what has become ordinary for Bay, and closer to his first feature, 1995’s Bad Boys. That too was made on a relatively modest budget, featured two men who played by their own set of rules, and was set in the Miami criminal world. Whereas Martin Lawrence and Will Smith were cops, however, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson are criminally-inclined bodybuilders. (Note, however, that the new film is based on events that took place in late 1994 and early 1995, i.e. the same time period as Bad Boys.)

Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) works as a personal trainer at a gym he has made successful for owner John Mese (Rob Corddry). But Daniel wants more: he wants the American Dream, which to him translates into gaining as much wealth as possible while doing as little work as possible. He becomes convinced that personal success guru Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) has the right idea, and somehow translates Wu’s platitudes into a scheme to kidnap Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), a new client, and soak the rich bastard dry.

To accomplish that, he first enlists the help of his fellow personal trainer Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and then drafts newly-paroled bodybuilder Paul Doyle (Johnson) onto his team. Their scheme is wild and reckless and stupid; after kidnapping Kershaw, they discover that he’s unwilling to cooperate by signing over everything he owns to them, so they begin torturing him in the abandoned warehouse where he’s been stashed.

“Stupid” is the operative word here. The three bodybuilders are so dim that it’s a wonder they can tie their own shoelaces. Beyond their lack of intelligence, their core personalities are despicably self-centered and avaricious. Kershaw, as more than one character observes, is so unpleasant and temperamental that it’s difficult to pity his horrid situation.

To compensate, the film offers … not much more than a weak sense of humor and a strong sense of style.

The only vaguely moral character, a retired private detective and former cop (Ed Harris), arrives far too late to offer much ballast. The idea that “truth is stranger than fiction” is pounded into the ground. The attempts to puncture Daniel Lugo’s version of the American dream ring hollow. Even the personal success strategies sold by Johnny Wu fall flat as either satire or commentary.

Really, Pain & Gain plays best as the most stylish and overblown cautionary tale about substance abuse in movie history. The bodybuilders’ abuse of steroids and other drugs is depicted early and often, and so perhaps that can serve as a warning sign.

Pain & Gain opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, April 26.