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Overall Rating
3.56

Awesome: 5.56%
Worth A Look50%
Average: 38.89%
Pretty Bad: 5.56%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 6 user ratings


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Rampage (1992)
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Disturbing, Thought-Provoking Experience"
4 stars

Director William Friedkin's best film since 1985's "To Live and Die in L.A.".

What happens to serial killers once they've been caught in the world of Movieland? I pose this question because, as is mostly the case, they end up getting blown away by the hero(ine) in the final reel, so we never know what their fate would have been had they encountered handcuffs instead of the receiving end of a .357. What of their legal defense, of the fact that their gruesome, sadistic acts are viewed as so inhuman that they'd have to be crazy to commit them? Would they be declared as fit to stand trial, or would the insanity defense come into play, which, by and large, angers a majority of Americans because an insane asylum is viewed to be much too cushy an abode, more of a country club than a prison for the killer of innocents? William Friedkin's brave Rampage looks into this matter and does so with an absence of sensationalism along with a good amount of frightening plausibility. (The film is based on the true-crime novel of the same name by William P. Wood.)

Yes, you read the filmmaker's name right. William Friedkin -- the same Oscar-winning director who gave us The French Connection and The Exorcist. With a reputation for being one of the least subtle of filmmakers, it came as juicy news back in 1992 that his newest film involved a serial killer; newspaper ads were already warning that grandmothers should be locked away safe -- William Friedkin is coming to town! However, critics alike were amazed at how restrained and intelligent Rampage turned out to be. It's not about the capturing of a serial killer, but what role, if any, the insanity plea should play in their defense once captured. A natural reaction, of course, is to condemn the "monster" for his evil deeds; but Friedkin refuses to lay out easy answers, implying that "evil" may be too simplistic an assessment, even if he himself doesn't necessarily agree with that.

The opening sequence follows a baby-faced, handsome young man named Charles Reece (played by Alex MacArthur) as he enters a gun shop and proceeds to buy a weapon as easily as a quart of milk. Next, we seem him strolling aimlessly down a suburban neighborhood on Christmas morning. Clad in a red parka and sunglasses, he clearly doesn't blend in, but he doesn't stay on the streets long enough to elicit unwanted attention. He picks a house at random, knocks on the door, and when it's answered, barges his way in and proceeds to slaughter three middle-adult family members. Reece is fond of the knife, but killing is incidental to his ultimate purpose: which involves removing the bodies' organs and taking them with him in plastic sandwich bags. Gruesome stuff, no? Well, rest assured, Friedkin doesn't pour on the gore -- exactly. He cannily cuts away from the actual killings, leaving us instead to hear the agonized, horrified screams from an aesthetic distance, forcing us to recreate the killings in our own minds, which increases the terror tenfold. It's only afterward, when the police are sifting through the murder scene, that the bloody aftermath is unveiled.

In lesser hands, Rampage could have already gone off the deep end into exploitation. Luckily, Friedkin has more pressing things on his mind, like getting the audience as repulsed and outraged over the nature of these heinous crimes as the cops. The Assistant District Attorney, Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn), is already being told -- no matter the case -- he's to seek the death penalty immediately upon capture, which presents something of a moral dilemma in that after his young daughter died from an illness a year ago he's become an opponent of capital punishment. Interesting. As it so happens, Friedkin himself was opposed to it as well during the shooting of Rampage back in 1986, but after its backer, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), went bankrupt, the film was shelved for a good five years. More interestingly, during this hiatus, Friedkin was afforded the unique opportunity to actually change his film as his personal views shifted. The scene where Reece buys the gun with unsettling ease was inserted (as were a few others) to help support Friedkin's newfound opposition to the insanity plea. (None of this is speculation, by the way: I attended a screening in Dallas with Friedkin in attendance, who was more than willing to speak his mind.)

Because Reece was so careless at the crime scenes, and being that he was impulsive enough to kill one of his own neighbors, he doesn't take terribly long to track down. In fact, he's arrested just hours thereafter at work, pumping gas at a repair station (while making sure to give proper change back to a lady and remind her to have her oil changed). This is at about the thirty-minute mark. Where do we go from here? We've become so conditioned to the typical Hollywood thriller pattern of the villain being caught and killed in the final section that we're brought up more than a little bit short at Reece actually being captured, and so soon, at that. A natural reaction is to assume that the film has a serious structural flaw -- that it's unwisely climaxed way too soon. But there are three-dimensional, interesting characters on the screen here. Maybe, perhaps, we're intended to actually share the remaining time with them. You know, where character and a natural progression of related incidents are what's in store? (If you can get past false hopes of a Jodie Foster-type having another ridiculous showdown with a killer in a darkened basement, you should be fine throughout the rest of this.)

Rampage is that rare film where the general audience learns a few things about a legal process that most of us would like to shut our eyes to and hope that the valiant efforts of others prevail. This alone doesn't guarantee a good film, though, for a couple of weeks ago I took in Taylor Hackford's Proof of Life, which was splendidly made but cold at the core because the central characters remained distant. I learned a lot about the lucrative, dangerous business of K&R (Kidnap & Rescue), but this wound up getting the film only so far. With Rampage, the characters are beautifully defined yet lived-in; they're vivid not just because of the actors' charisma, but because the actors have fused so effortlessly with their well-written parts.

In the showy role of Reece, Alex MacArthur wisely underplays, making the character's docile surface nature so disarming that the horrific acts he's capable of committing suggests a sociopathic nature that could be lurking inside anybody. Rather than going the easy and embarrassingly emotive route Anthony Hopkins took in the grossly overrated The Silence of the Lambs, MacArthur starts with the man, not the role, building from the inside out, and, in the process, etching a characterization that's wholly believable -- we can accept that Reece has been functioning perfectly well among society for so long. Assistant DA Fraser is a more difficult role. Michael Biehn (great at playing scum as well as heroes) has to be able to suggest not just internal conflict, but (for lack of a better word) righteousness, a dangerous thing for an actor to convey, because a lot of the time the overall effect comes off as either didactic or maudlin; the emotional layers, instead of being peeled away dexterously, end up being worn on both sleeves. But Biehn gives a touching, modulated performance, the kind that wins respect rather than raves because the acting going on within it is unselfishly invisible. He consistently walks an emotional tightrope and never teeters; not once.

The majority of Rampage takes place in the courtroom and the county jail, where a renowned clinical psychiatrist, Dr. Keadie (John Harkins), hopes to use Reece as the basis for a sure-fire best-seller. In the schema of things, Keadie is as close to a secondary villain as we get, but while Harkins gives basically the same performance that he did as Matthew Modine's close-minded doctor in Alan Parker's Birdy, Friedkin hasn't stacked the deck too far to the right in that the scientific evidence supporting his claim of insanity comes off as frustratingly reasonable. We may not like it, but a good deal of it's pretty hard to immediately refute. On the other hand, the psychiatrist Frazer gets for the prosecution makes just as convincing a case for the state that Reece is fit to stand trial. Who's right? Obviously, Friedkin favors the state, while the defense is depicted as living somewhat in denial, of using a case such as this more for their own good than the general public's.

What ultimately happens to Reece? All I'll admit to is that when one side appears to prevail, the other one comes up with a doozy that immediately tips the scales of justice in their favor. But according to Friedkin, it's not just opportunists who are at fault, but the criminal justice system in general, which is burdened with far too many caseloads than can be adequately handled. Perhaps Friedkin is guilty of overstating by having the courtroom Reece is tried in littered with overflowing case files piled directly in front of the judge's bench; then again, maybe this depiction is an unfortunately accurate one in some courtrooms, so there might be some dramatic license in it. And maybe the subplot of Frazer and his wife (a fine Deborah Van Valkenburgh) still trying to come to terms with their young daughter's death is too patly engineered as the catalyst that inspires Frazer's pro-life stance. Rampage isn't without flaws -- its lumpy middle section should be singled out, as well -- but it's so good for so much of the time that they can be easily forgiven.

I labeled the film daring and brave before, but not due to the subject matter, but because it took guts for Friedkin to require his audiences' attention throughout by refusing to offer up simplistic solutions that go down all too easily with a sip of Coca-Cola. Rampage can be a difficult film to get through, and a good many will find it downright enraging. So what? When was the last time you saw a film that challenged your views and shook up not only your sensibilities but your beliefs in what you've tried to justify to yourself are morally sound and responsible? In refusing to back down, by respectably following through with what he started with, Friedkin doesn't close his eyes to the innate unpleasantness of the material; instead, he does the responsible thing by exploring a problem's complexities and sifting through all the components (whether they favor his side or not) with a (mostly) objective hand. Rampage may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a challenging film, a cinematic protest, and an unnerving experience that refuses to be easily shaken off even after the ending credits stop rolling.

Well-acted, incisive, and intelligently rendered.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=6532&reviewer=327
originally posted: 12/31/02 08:20:51
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User Comments

6/27/14 Jake Johansen Good Drama, but Has a Made for TV Look to It 4 stars
6/08/06 malcolm haven't seen this in years but i remember it was pretty damn good 4 stars
2/21/05 Megan Lee It's a very unique film and educational 5 stars
1/28/03 Darren Rush A good film, but could have been better if it was to have been directed less biasedly. 4 stars
1/05/03 AJ Above average, but too short and gory 3 stars
12/15/02 Charles Tatum Liked the direction, but never warmed to the story 2 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  30-Oct-1992 (R)

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