Monday, May 7, 2018


If you didn’t get your fill of colossal robots and chimerical lizards toppling Tokyo skyscrapers in “Pacific Rim Uprising,” you can find something similar in the predictable but winsome sci-fi, creature feature “Rampage” (*** OUT ****) where a gargantuan gorilla, a 30-foot wolf, and a leviathan-shaped alligator flatten Chicago.  Based loosely on Bally Midway’s 1986 video arcade game, this $120-million, Warner Brothers/New Line Cinema release qualifies as a big, dumb, demolition derby with sterling CGI galore.  Outrageously outlandish in every respect, this far-fetched fable benefits from the charisma of lead actor Dewayne Johnson and supporting star Jeffrey Dean Morgan.  Johnson’s commanding presence is literally ‘the Rock’ that allows us to treat “Rampage” as something more than just another paint-by-the-numbers extravaganza.  Johnson plays a primatologist who uses sign language to converse with a rare albino gorilla.  Morgan is cast as a good ole’ boy government trouble shooter.  As arch-villainess Claire Wyden, Malin Akerman infuriates these two, and she shows no qualms about genetic editing in lifeforms.  Owner of a billion-dollar biotech company, Wyden breaks the law without a qualm for her forbidden genetics experiments.  No, Marvel Studios isn’t the only company that has exploited genetic mutation to pump up their plots.  As this deafening, melodramatic, nonsense approaches its climax, the city of Chicago suffers another apocalypse like that in director Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Dark of The Moon.”  British actress Naomie Harris rounds out the cast as one of Claire’s disgraced researchers. 

“Rampage” opens in outer space on the Wyden space station Athena-1 where experiments have been performed on lab rats.  As the action unfolds, alarms throughout the space station send one technician, Dr. Kerry Atkins (Marley Shelton of “Planet Terror”), scrambling desperately for an escape pod.  A mutant rat that appears to be the size of a wild boar pursues her.  Claire Wyden locks down the mechanism which enables Atkins to open the door to the escape pod hatch.  While a succession of fireball explosions rocks Athena-1, Claire orders Atkins to retrieve several canisters holding a pathogen known as CRISPR.  According to the film’s preface: CRISPR is “a breakthrough new technology” used by scientists to “treat incurable diseases through genetic editing.”  If she refuses to obey Claire’s demands, Atkins will die aboard the disintegrating platform.  Although Atkins salvages enough canisters, the rat shatters the window in the escape pod door before it jettisons itself.  The craft explodes along with the space station.  Fortunately, for Claire, the canisters survive the deep-freeze temperatures of space, plunge through the atmosphere, and crash in different parts of the United States. 
At the San Diego Wildlife Preserve, an albino gorilla named George is the first animal to confront this pathogen.  George has been raised from infancy by muscle-bound primate specialist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson of “Baywatch”), who rescued him from poachers that slaughtered his mom.  Of course, Okoye is no ordinary primatologist.  He has served in the U.S. Army Special Forces, knows how to wield weapons of any kind, and can fly a helicopter.  George grows several times his normal size, demolishes his enclosure, and is poised to flee when a mysterious chopper hovers nearby. A swarm of tranquilizer darts knock him off his knuckles.  No sooner has George collapsed than troops load him onto a military transport plane.  Former Wyden genetic engineer Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris of “Skyfall”), who had rushed to the wildlife preserve after learning about George, finds herself in the custody of OGA Agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of “Watchmen”) along with Okoye.  Russell reveals to Okoye that Claire Wyden fired Caldwell, and the former Wyden scientist served time in prison.  Okoye and Caldwell warn Russell that none of his safeguards will prevent George from escaping from the transport plane.

While George, Davis, and Dr. Caldwell are in flight, two other beasts encounter CRISPR canisters.  The second is a timber wolf that grows large enough to snag a helicopter in its jaws and destroy it.  This savage animal chews up a squad of heavily-armed mercenaries dispatched by Claire to trap it.  The last canister splashes down in the Everglades, and a random alligator crunches it.  Eventually, the gator swells to the size of a “Jurassic Park” dinosaur.  Shrewdly, Claire has devised a means to summon these genetic mutations to her laboratories in the company's Chicago, Illinois skyscraper.  George awakens in flight, destroys the transport plane, but miraculously survives the crash.  Like Tom Cruise and his leading lady in last summer’s horror adventure “The Mummy,” Davis and Caldwell seize parachutes and bail open, too.  Now, George and the wolf are scrambling to Chicago as well as the mutated gator.

“Rampage” marks the third collaboration between director Brad Peyton and Johnson. Earlier, they made “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” (2012) and then “San Andreas” (2015). If you’ve seen any of the recent alien invasion epics or Godzilla sagas, you can figure out easily what follows next in this rambunctious taleNaturally, the military responds with enough firepower to blast Chicago to kingdom come.  The trouble is, nothing slows down this indestructible trio.  Meantime, the FBI raid Claire’s offices, but she cooperates.  Unbeknownst to Uncle Sam, Claire has cleverly concealed her top-secret files.  She gets the surprise of her life when this monstrous trio wreaks havoc in the Windy City and scales her skyscraper to silence her homing beacon.  Dr. Caldwell and Davis aren’t far behind Wyden, and Caldwell locates the antidote that will save George.

Dewayne Johnson compensates for all the ersatz, ‘what-if’ science fiction nonsense with his affable personality. You’ll have more fun watching the Hawaiian hulk than the imposing monsters.  You’ll appreciate Johnson’s compassionate friendship with George that director Brad Peyton amplifies with comedy before disaster strikes.  Their friendship reminded me of the classic 1933 “King Kong” sequel “The Son of Kong.”  Unlike the other two mutated monsters, George never seems as pitiless and predatory. The CGI effects are virtually flawless, so the mutated alligator and the Tex Avery timber wolf appear sufficiently menacing.  “Rampage” ranks as rip-snorting enjoyment.

FILM REVIEW OF ''A PISTOL FOR RINGO" (Spanish/Italian-1965)

Writer & director Duccio Tessari, who co-scripted Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars," helmed this entertaining, above-average Spaghetti western, "A Pistol for Ringo," (***1/2 OUT OF ****) starring Roman actor Giuliano Gemma--billed here as Montgomery Wood—as the eponymous hero with perennial villain Fernando Sancho as his treacherous adversary. For the record, the profligate Sancho appeared in over 230 movies and basically played the same slimy Mexican outlaw in 35 westerns. Tessari penned a number of other Italian oaters including "Seven Guns for the MacGregors," "Return of Ringo" and "A Train for Durango." Tessari also worked on the Italian peplum--muscle man movies--before he embarked on these trigger happy westerns, most notably co-writing Sergio Leone's "The Colossus of Rhodes." In "A Pistol for Ringo," Tessari imitates American westerns more than his native variety. Gemma is a clean-cut, good-looking, well-dressed gunfighter who is too fast on the draw for his own good. At least twice in this lively horse opera, he guns down opponents in self-defense. The way that Ringo handles a six-gun, however, comes pretty close to murder. Moreover, Ringo is a wise-cracking gringo with a comeback line for everything. Indeed, the dialogue by Tessari and co-scenarist Alfonso Balcázar, who also knew his way around continental westerns with writing credits on "Nevada Clint," "Five Giants from Texas," and "$100-Thousand Dollars for Ringo," crackles with humor and imagination. Simply said, nothing about this hostage crisis western set in the arid Southwest that co-stars George Eastman, another Italian who made his share of Spaghettis, is half-baked.  Ennio Morricone composed the beautiful orchestral score and Morricone's magical music is far above what this violent western could have hoped for, especially the lyrical title tune about the wily protagonist.

The first time we lay eyes on our hero, Ringo (Giuliano Gemma of "Day of Anger"), he is playing hop-scotch with a bunch of kids in a village. Word has arrived that Ringo has been cleared of murder charges in the shooting death of another gunman, but the Benson brothers decide to make him pay for their brother's death. No sooner have they challenged Ringo—, who is also known as 'Angel Face,' —than he whips his six-shooter out of his waistband and blows all four of them away without wasting a shot. Indeed, like Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful of Dollars," Ringo doesn't wait for them to draw and only one of the Benson's clears leather with his revolver before he is shot dead. The sheriff (George Eastman of "Ben and Charlie") arrests Ringo and puts him in jail where our hero demands a glass of milk. Later, Ringo pours out liquor on the floor when he doesn't get his trademark glass of milk.

Meanwhile, Sancho (Fernando Sancho of "Mission Phantom") rides across the border alone only to be confronted by a couple of U.S. Cavalrymen who tell him to turn around and ride back across the Rio Grande. Sancho feigns ignorance and removes his sombrero in humility while the soldiers chew him out. Little to the troopers know that Sancho has taken his large hat off to hid his hand pulling his pistol out. He guns them down and his gang joins him in the border town where they shoot it up and rob the bank. During the hold-up, Sancho catches a bullet in the shoulder. The sheriff forms a posse to follow them and the villains hightail it out of town and ride to a sprawling ranch near the border. They take the owner, Major Clyde (Antonio Casas of "The Texican"), his pretty daughter Ruby (Lorella De Luca of "The Swindle"), and their servants and ranch hands hostage.

After the posse lays siege to them at the ranch, one character points out how impregnable the ranch is. "The walls are high and thick. You'd need a company of cavalry to attack it. Half of the soldiers would be killed in the charge." Nevertheless, the stalwart sheriff informs Sancho that his men and he are cornered in the ranch and there is no escape for them. The murderous Sancho responds, "Meanwhile, in case it takes you a while to make up your mind, we'll send out two dead men a day, one at dawn and one at sunset, first the ranch hands and last of all, the girl and her father." At the same time, the townspeople send for the U.S. Cavalry. They know Sancho by his reputation: "His favorite sport is shooting unarmed men, preferably in the back." Another posse man observes, "The only sure method to handling them is to slaughter them like cattle." The sheriff is bothered by Sancho's ultimatum. Particularly, the sheriff worries because Ruby is the love of his life and he doesn't want anything that might jeopardize her life. "If we could get a man inside the ranch," he opines, "we could help them to escape." Reluctantly, he approaches free-wheeling Ringo with a scheme that would see Ringo turned loose. Initially, Ringo is reluctant to help them. "Don't look for trouble," he points out, "It'll come by itself." Nevertheless, after the sheriff clears Ringo of the shooting death of the Benson brothers and the citizens grudgingly agree to 30 per cent as a reward for our hero, he agrees to help them. However, to establish his credentials as a villain, he has the sheriff and his posse pepper the air with bullets as he rides hell-bent-for-leather to the ranch. Once Ringo shows up, he operates on Sancho and removes the bullet. Ringo tells them about his predicament as well as their predicament and demands 40 per cent of the loot in exchange for getting them out of the ranch.

"A Pistol for Ringo" is head and hands above most generic spaghetti westerns. Director Duccio Tessari keeps things popping. Gemma is perfectly cast as the agile Ringo. The rugged Spanish scenery is gorgeous and the formulaic plot provides a couple of surprises.