Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Reconsidering Uwe Boll: Part One - Rampage (2009)

“How can you not have heard of this movie?”
My soon-to-be brother-in-law explained that Rampage was exactly my kind of movie. A dude makes his own body armor and goes on an epic shooting spree. First he bombs the police station so the town’s first line of defense is in tatters, then he stalks the streets, going from building to building to take out everyone hiding inside. The few remaining police arrive and open fire, but it's useless. He mows them down and continues the massacre, specifically targeting people who had pissed him off, but also taking out any and everybody along the way. My kind of movie indeed. It sounded nearly identical to a short story I'd conceived of years ago, but never got around to writing. I was intrigued. How had this one sneaked past me?

He pulled the movie up on his laptop as I giddily waited for the mayhem to begin. Ominous music plays over production company credits, then an abstract out-of-focus shot of some trees. A shitty car pulls into a turnout in the woods. More credits. White text on a black screen punctuated by bits of movie. A young man gets out of the car and takes off his black shirt. Dang, I know that actor, but from where? More credits. Now he's throwing his clothes into a metal barrel and dousing them with gasoline. It's nearly one minute into the movie and I'm far too excited about what is to come. The ominous music continues to slowly swell... and then the horror begins. Another credit suddenly appears, staring me in the face with a sinister smirk. That most dreaded of credits: An Uwe Boll Film.

My expectations plummeted. One minute I'm anticipating a hitherto unknown masterpiece; the next I'm preparing for a joyless slog through an incompetent, exploitative mess of a film that I'd have to pretend to like. That or tell my future family member he has deplorable taste in movies.

Totally understandable if you assumed Uwe Boll's Rampage was a live-action adaptation of this.

Then the miracle. Despite everything I thought I knew about Uwe Boll, the crowdsource-crowned Worst Living Filmmaker and modern-day Ed Wood, I fucking loved it! This new Rampaging Boll is utterly unrecognizable from the hack who churned out tax-shelter video game adaptations for the better part of the aughties. This was the single most hated director of our age. His reviled name is synonymous with the worst kind of schlocky movies, not the kind that are so bad they're good, but the kind that are so bad that they make you angry for having wasted your time. Just what was going on here?

I'm still not sure what to think. Has Boll been unfairly judged all along? Did he actually improve as a filmmaker but nobody noticed because they were too busy hating on him? Or was this just some weird fluke and he made a decent film on accident? Let's examine some of the evidence, find out what exactly made Rampage so good, and see if we can surmise some answers.

The Cast

All the performances (aside from the inappropriately calm barista) are uniformly good, from Matt Frewer’s well-meaning, but over-bearing father to Shaun Sipos’s YouTube-ranting, all-talk, coffeeshop revolutionary. But the true standout is Brendan Fletcher as the shooter, Bill Williamson. I remember him giving a solid, awkwardly creepy performance as a mentally-challenged person in Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, but mostly he’s one of those where-have-I-seen-him-before character actors you vaguely recognize but can’t quite place. Not anymore. Watch Rampage and you’ll start recognizing him left and right. Pop in Freddy vs. Jason and you’ll be like, “Oh shit, Brendan Fletcher’s in this? Oh yeah, he was my favorite character in this movie, why didn’t I remember him?”

As Bill Williamson, Fletcher has an awkward charm. When he's passing as normal, he's polite and reasonable, though the cracks start to show when he gets confrontational. He's also a classic wiseass with a comeback for everybody. Even in the middle of the bloodbath he'll crack an ironic, deadpan joke. But he’s also a ticking time-bomb of rage, furiously pumping iron while listening to a barrage of alarmist news stories and AM radio doomsayers. And woe be unto him who screws up his Macchiato. In the excerpts of his YouTube manifesto, Fletcher's reptilian eyes are off-the-scales creepy, and his unfazed demeanor during the shootings is chillingly real.

The Style

The dialogue in Rampage is mostly improvised, giving the film a naturalistic feel and ensuring the actors aren’t just rattling off stilted script-filler that could risk turning them into cardboard placeholders rather than fully-realized characters. The camerawork is handheld, which will be off-putting for those bothered by the technique, but I thought it was fittingly chaotic. The first 3rd of the film is all character and dialogue-driven preamble to the massacre, which will be boring for those looking only for a quick fix of blood and guts, but this is important stuff. When something like this happens in the real world, that’s the first question everybody asks, “How could anyone do this? What drove them to commit these atrocities?” A film like this attempts, at least partially, to answer this question. Then it walks you, in graphic detail, through the Hell that ensues.

Is it exploitation? 

A resounding Hells-Yes! But is that all it is? All horror movies are, by definition, exploitation films because they exploit our fears. They use violence, or possession, hauntings, disease that deforms our bodies, or even muthafuckin snakes on a muthafuckin plane to simulate the fear we would experience in those situations. In a way, all movies are exploitative, as they manipulate our emotions, from love to sadness to anger. There may be an element of “Too soon,” distastefulness to Rampage, and the cynics among us might chalk it up to a cheap attempt to cash in on real-world tragedies. But fuck that noise. This is horror at its most potent. In the 80s, it was all slashers, all that time, and why not? This was the era of Richard Ramirez and John Wayne Gacy. There was a very real fear that some psycho could chop you up and store you in their basement freezer. But ever since Columbine, our national fear has shifted to mass murder in crowded places. The closer to reality a horror film gets, the more potent it is, and honestly, the more important it is as art.

The Meaning

Why does Bill Williamson do it? He has his reasons, which he states explicitly in the end, but Boll shows us not only the killer's words, but his world. He is constantly disrespected by his parents, his boss, his goddamned barista, and even the waitress at the chicken restaurant. He fills his hours in the echo chamber of negative sensationalist media coverage, warping his perspective. But to be fair, there’s a lot of truth in that same media coverage. So much inhumanity and indifference. A pervasive cultural malaise that can actually infect a susceptible person and prey on their violent tendencies. This ain’t no House of the Dead. This is genuine cultural commentary. It’s actually surprising how few movies have been made about mass shootings, given their pervasiveness in American life. And true to form, no one dares show it as unflinchingly as Uwe Boll.

Favorite scenes

To be perfectly honest, as much praise as I’ve heaped on this movie, much of the titular rampage comes off as rather clinical. There’s so much violence it becomes numbing. It is only in those moments where the killing-spree slows down and focuses on the victims as individuals that we really feel the gravity of the murders. As such, here’s a rundown of my favorite moments (Minor Spoilers ahead):

Bill has machine-gunned down dozens of people in the streets and they have finally scattered and found shelter. One unfortunate woman is boxed in with nowhere to hide. As Bill is reloading, he spots her and says congenially, “Oh, hi. Scary shit, huh?” Then as he’s popping in a fresh clip, “Here we go,” and guns her down from ten feet away. It’s brutal.

The Beauty Salon
The streets are empty and everyone’s in hiding, so Bill’s got to go looking for them. He enters a Beauty Salon, herds the employees and patrons into a corner and has himself a little breather. He takes off his helmet and has a drink of water while the terrified women plead for their lives. He responds by mocking them with, “Chirp chirp chirp chirp,” effectively saying they’re merely a bunch a pretty little birds and nothing they can say will get through to him. You can guess how the scene ends.

The BINGO Parlour
Skip this section if you haven’t seen the movie. I really don’t want to spoil it.
Bill hits the jackpot with his next stop, A crowded BINGO parlour where the docile retirees could triple his body count in two minutes. But there’s no screaming, no panic. No one bats an eye at him. He briefly terrorizes the clerk at the snack counter, then goes on to snatch a BINGO ball and calls out the numbers, ensuring that everyone finally notices him. But still, no fear, hardly a change in their facial expressions. Then he just quietly leaves, muttering, “You guys don’t need my help at all.” Classic.

Is this a fluke?

That’s what I had to wonder as soon as the credits rolled on Rampage. Maybe the quality of the film had less to do with Uwe Boll than it did the acting chops of the cast. Brendan Fletcher served as co-producer, so his contribution is unquestionable. The one and a half Boll movies I’d seen before this (I turned off House of the Dead halfway through, and thought Bloodrayne was a goofy-but-enjoyable guilty pleasure) suggested I shouldn’t give too much credit in the direction department. Then I watched Seed, a film Boll had made two years earlier. Seed is deeply, perhaps even fatally flawed, but absolutely powerful in its nihilism. In short, a movie that sticks with you for quite awhile. So I have to conclude that no, Rampage was not a fluke, and the trajectory of these four films suggests a Uwe Boll that has vastly improved as a director, and is no longer worthy of the internet’s ceaseless ridicule. But I want more evidence. I’ve got to figure out this enigma. I must immerse myself in this man’s filmography and try to separate that gr-Uwe from the Boll-shit.* Won’t you join me?

*Okay, this joke only works if you know the man’s name is pronounced “Ooh-vay Bull,” if then.