A couple of times this year at the movies, I’ve found myself thinking about one of the great lines from one of the great movies about the movies. “Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture! Whaddya need, a road map?” So goes the snappy one-liner from Michael Lerner’s cynical studio executive in the Joel and Ethan Coen masterpiece Barton Fink, and so it echoed in my head as I sat, disappointed, through two different-but-not-exactly genre films.
In April, the film was Rampage. Last week, the movie was The Meg. I left the film feeling a bit like Lerner’s character, chastising the pretentious Barton Fink. These movies should not have needed the road maps.
It’s easy, by which I mean “lazy,” to paint critics as being humorless scolds who are either unwilling or unable to meet a movie on its own terms. If a critic takes to task a genre picture like The Meg, you might hear a fan (or sometimes people involved in the production) suggesting “Well, what do you expect? It’s not trying to be Citizen Kane.” (Feel free to fill in the blank with another prestigious title if the 1941 film doesn’t float your boat.) It’s easy and lazy because critics such as myself – brace yourself for this shock – tend to like things that are fun. We’re only a couple weeks removed from the genuinely wonderful Mission: Impossible – Fallout, a movie that’s about as fun of an action blockbuster as they come.
When I walked into both Rampage and The Meg, I went in expecting a movie like what was promised in the ads. The former film features Dwayne Johnson and a modern-day King Kong; the latter film features Jason Statham facing off against a mammoth shark and the tagline “Pleased to Eat You”. Not only did I walk into each screening expecting movies exactly as gleefully ridiculous as what was promised, but I wanted badly to enjoy them. (Not that this should have to be said, but critics also tend to want to enjoy the movies they see, because otherwise, they’ve wasted a perfectly good two hours on a bad movie.)
The Meg, especially, felt like it could benefit from the unspoken knowledge of what being an August release means. While the so-called summer movie season goes well past the actual summer these days, August is usually not a time for marquee releases. Films like The Meg can capitalize on good timing – the recent Shark Week – and people’s desire to spend a couple hours away from the house and in air conditioning. Plus, Warner Bros. Pictures, which coincidentally released both Rampage and The Meg, has its own cult shark movie in Deep Blue Sea. The Meg could have been Deep Blue Sea 2.0. That would have been great. If only.
And Rampage could have been a truly goofy take on an old-school video game. The ads for both of these movies suggest at least one thing: WB’s marketing department has a really good handle on what people want from these kinds of movies. It’s not enough for films like Rampage and The Meg to have goofy premises. They have to acknowledge how stupidly ridiculous the setups are. The ads for these movies, essentially, were self-aware, but the films don’t have nearly so much self-awareness to survive. There’s a reason why dialogue like “…Of course the wolf flies” shows up in the ads for Rampage. It’s funny. It’s funny because someone – Dwayne Johnson, or the writers, or someone else – understood that you have to have dialogue like this with such inherently silly plots.
But there’s not enough self-awareness in either of these films, just a couple of tossed-off lines of dialogue from the hero briefly acknowledging how crazy their predicaments are. They make for good moments in a trailer, but neither Rampage nor The Meg have enough of those moments in full. Rampage is slightly more successful, if only because enough of the people on camera understood exactly what they signed up for.
For example: Jake Lacy (who I still know best as that one salesman nicknamed Plop on the final season of The Office) plays the boneheaded, preppie/loony brother of the true mastermind behind the pathogen that makes a trio of animals into city-destructing giants in Rampage. Lacy delivers the kind of performance that goes over the top and lands on the other side. He seems to grasp exactly how goofy this film is, and modulated his performance to match. It’s notable primarily because, unfortunately, no one else in the film is willing to join him, thus making his performance singular in good and bad ways. In retrospect, I wish the rest of the cast joined him in his play to be super-campy. But being the only one has its downsides.
The Meg has a number of moments that feel as those they were tailor-made to be hammered home in the marketing, moments that suggest a truly campy film. There is the shot when the thought-extinct megalodon shark tries to chomp down on very thick glass in an underwater outpost, facing off against a little girl who watches in horror. And the film’s climax features Jason Statham treating the underwater shuttle he’s driving like an X-Wing Fighter as he evades the eponymous shark. But those are two moments in a 113-minute movie that feels a lot longer, and is weirdly bloodless for a film about a killer shark.
Both Johnson and Statham are capable of toplining movies as goofy as these. Frankly, their presence is part of what makes these films so potentially intriguing, in the same way that last month’s Dwayne Johnson movie, Skyscraper, could have been exciting. Dwayne Johnson in a supercharged Die Hard! What’s not to like? Unfortunately, a lot, as Johnson’s heroic character has no genuine flaws, just a prosthetic leg that feels like it exists because otherwise, it’d be a movie where the physically imposing and dominant Johnson saves the day with little to no pushback. (And Skyscraper may actually invoke the word “family” more than the Fast and Furious movies, which is saying something.)
We’re over a decade removed from a movie that feels like it was the Patient Zero for films like Rampage and The Meg – Snakes on a Plane. That film had three selling points: the title, Samuel L. Jackson, and that R-rated line of dialogue. Rampage and The Meg both had big names above the title, an easy and ridiculous elevator pitch, and very little else. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are both charismatic performers, just as Samuel L. Jackson is. But if you put any of these men in a story that feels like an escapee from the SyFy Movie of the Week, all it feels like is that these guys are slumming for a paycheck. At least films like Deep Blue Sea – co-starring Jackson, of course – tried to have some level of wit and intelligence amidst the cheese.
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