Review: Rock keeps ‘Andreas’ from disaster

29 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Dwayne Johnson rises above in ‘San Andreas‘.

Dwayne Johnson and his muscles come to the aid of Los Angeles and San Francisco when the two towns start to shake, rattle and roll, courtesy of humongous earthquakes erupting along the San Andreas Fault. We all love movies that get us uncomfortable, shaking or hiding our faces when something happens, especially to the lead character that we usually identify with.State-of-the-art digital mayhem mingles with disaster flick drama that couldn’t be more quaint in “San Andreas,” Hollywood’s latest bit of morbidly sensational speculation about its worst earthquake nightmares come true. But the cringeworthy dialogue and unmoving earnestness are the biggest disasters in this mostly forgettable action flick (** out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide). This weekend you are as good as sorted as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson goes on a mission to save his family and everyone else in the 2015 adventure thriller San Andreas.

You could expect Moses to be held to a higher ethical standard than the rest of the picture’s all-star cast, which included George Kennedy, Victoria Principal, Richard Roundtree as a “daredevil motorcyclist,” and Walter Matthau as a character identified only as “Drunk.” The film was the first to be released in Sensurround, designed to use low frequencies to create a rumble from the back of the theater. Raymond Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is a helicopter rescue pilot for the L.A. fire department whose wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), is about to move in with her new mega-rich developer boyfriend, Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd).

Ray (Johnson) is an L.A. rescue helicopter pilot unafraid of jumping out midair to save damsels in distress, even when their car is hanging off a cliff. Still, for all the unabashed cliches and straight-faced silliness delivered by Johnson, Paul Giamatti, and their generally capable castmates, they’re doing something right. In his favorable New York Times review, Vincent Canby said the gimmick “acts on the eardrums like thousands of angry Magic Fingers.” Sensurround probably felt like a bigger deal 40 years ago than the familiar, weightless ka-blammo of does now. The breakup comes as Raymond and Emma’s daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), prepares to leave for college, while the drowning death of their other daughter looms over the family.

And now we have the humbling image of the Hollywood letters themselves toppling to the ground, as most of California is pulverized by an earthquake — make that earthquakes, plural — in “San Andreas.” If those letters toppling sounds like a pretty obvious image, well, duh. The film boasts of powerful stars such as The Good Wife’s Archie Punjabi, Game Of Thrones’ Art Parkinson, Todd Williams and Australian pop star Kylie Minogue. The spectacle they put together with director Brad Peyton (Johnson’s “Journey 2” and upcoming “Journey 3”) does get us pulling for these folks to make it out of the rubble OK.

But the audience that will pay $14 to see the Hollywood sign tip over again, and the Golden Gate Bridge once more sundered like a bag of Twizzlers ripped open by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, regenerates every six or seven years; just enough time for an incremental upgrade in computer animation. When the first major quake hits L.A., Raymond is in the air and Emma is eating lunch in a skyscraper’s rooftop restaurant — from where she sees buildings topple like tall timber. All that needs to be tabled when quakes annihilate the Hoover Dam and then move to Southern California, where skyscrapers fall and bridges tumble dramatically.

Apparently recognizing that even the Rock probably can’t body-slam tectonic plates into submission, the movie establishes Johnson’s Ray Gaines as an ace helicopter pilot handling dicey rescues for the Los Angeles fire department. And that’s pretty much the calculus behind the new Universal Pictures release San Andreas: The Rock vs. falling rocks, which sometimes seem like they’re really there but just as often don’t. Blake gets lost in the streets of San Fran with a pair of English kids — one of whom (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) takes a shine to the girl, even with broken stone pillars screaming down upon them — and her parents reunite in order to bring her home safely. (It helps that Ray can drive pretty much anything with an engine.) Paul Giamatti co-stars as Lawrence, a noted Cal Tech seismologist and the movie’s resident science guy that no one listens to about the impending doom.

Summer’s upon us, and you could do worse than watch the undeniably appealing Johnson try to save the day while uttering the silliest dialogue imaginable. She’s rescued by Ben Taylor (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), an aspiring architect, and his kid brother, Ollie (“Game of Thrones’ ” Art Parkinson); the three seek out higher ground to be saved by Blake’s parents. Plus, if you live far from the West Coast, there’s the juicy schadenfreude factor — though we can count on the inevitable sequel (“San Andreas 2: Eastward,” perhaps?) to fix that. It’s one that turns infinitely scarier when a Hoover Dam tremor that Giamatti’s Caltech wonk had predicted spikes into a record quake he could barely have imagined. “Everybody off the dam!,” indeed. The most visceral scenes are when the camera is pointed up, with chunks of building tumbling or a huge boat coming over the crest of a tsunami, giving the audience a real sense of danger.

As LA’s office towers begin to fall, Ray detours his chopper to grab shellshocked Emma from a collapsing rooftop, then sets off with her for San Francisco, where Blake is in serious jeopardy, too. Conveniently, he does this when a reporter (“The Good Wife’s” Archie Panjabi) is visiting, so he can fulfill his disaster-epic role as “the scientist nobody listens to.” Everyone else has roles one would expect in a disaster epic, thanks to the paint-by-numbers script by Carlton Cuse (“Lost”). In a town that’s short on macho action heroes these days, Johnson is probably the only man in Hollywood who looks like he could take on an earthquake and win.

The action is all about the Bay Area from here, as we alternate between the fast-reconciling parents’ desperate trek and Blake’s perilous meanderings alongside a courageous, hunky Brit (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his equally likable pubescent brother (Art Parkinson). On this fateful day, he’s just received his divorce papers from Carla Gugino. (Every action hero needs a failed or foundering marriage unless he’s a widower.) I note with approval that Johnson and Gugino are the same age in real life, which makes her a cradle robber in Hollywood casting terms. There are a few instances of the signature cinematic bravado he’s shown in the Fast & Furious films and other projects — a cocked eyebrow here, a lighthearted one-liner there — but it’s sorely lacking overall. Many of the lines are met with a thud, and the worst of them induce groans and laughs: When Lawrence discusses history’s biggest quakes in class, one student chirps, “Do you think something like that can happen here?”

Daniel is the douchey stepdad, and one assumes it’s only time constraints that keep us from learning that his under-construction San Francisco high-rise is made from shoddy materials. Gazing at a plan for his latest skyscraper, he says: “I guess I never had kids because I was too busy raising these.” And that, dear reader, is what we mean by cheesy writing. Business as usual for Johnson, but Daddario also does a pretty good job of shifting into plucky good-girl mode for someone who was so convincingly down-and-dirty on HBO’s “True Detective.” Meanwhile, that unbilled megastar — simulated destruction — is immersive enough to stifle any snarking that Roland Emmerich must have been busy for Peyton to have landed the job. Schwarzenegger used to refer to as Cal-EE-for-KNEE-uh to expect a second, even more devastating strike. “They will feel this on the East Coast,” he says, and it’s not a pickup line. This all a huge shock (pardon the pun) to everyone except one man: a geologist at Cal Tech, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), who predicts much of the mayhem, but can’t get anyone to listen.

The film has other dialogue, too; mostly minor variations on the classics “We gotta go!” and “Get dowwwwwwn!” and “DOWWWWWWWNNNNN!” But there is also the more somber and exotic, “It was my idea to take Mallory rafting that day,” because every action hero also must be haunted by The One He Couldn’t Save. Giamatti brings all his nervous energy, but can’t do much to liven up lines like: “This is NOT good.” He’s accompanied in many scenes by Archie Panjabi as a TV reporter who, if we’re not mistaken, doesn’t remove her stilettoes once, even when taking cover from the Big One. But back to Ray, because, while this movie is prepared to kill off thousands of people in seconds, it cares deeply, as does Ray, about those close to Ray. This is a film wherein a scientist rejoices that he has figured out how to predict earthquakes no more than 60 seconds before an earthquake makes him pay the ultimate price for his hubris.

Yes, he really says that. “San Andreas,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language. ” Running time: 114 minutes. The makers of San Andreas have heard your complaints about the callous city-destroying in Man of Steel and Star Trek into Darkness two summers ago, and responded by leveling two cities, L.A. and then, for the finale, San Francisco. More astute specimens of the disaster-survival genre – the Steven Spielberg War of the Worlds from a decade ago; last year’s Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla – evince some moral awareness of the massive death toll they imply, while still being massively entertaining. San Andreas is closer to the cheerful style of Roland Emmerich, the German filmemacher who came to Hollywood and then razed it three times, in Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. What San Andreas has in common with Emmerich’s mega-death megahits is its conviction that though mostly-unseen millions perish, if the half-dozen people we’re following pull through it counts as a happy ending.

Costing a thrifty-for-its scale $100 million and clocking in at under two hours, San Andreas hasn’t time or money for the subplots and oddball supporting players that make even (other) middling disaster flicks so hard to turn off. Johnson, dialing down his Furious 7 arm-cast popping swagger, is a calming presence, his manner as implacable and mountainous as his cod-fed physique. Introduced via a thrilling cliffside chopper rescue, he brings the opening line, “Just doing my job, Ma’am.” Only he can’t make that claim for long, because the first time he glances down from the cockpit and casually notices a freeway overpass dissolving into dust, he and his whirlybird go AWOL to save Gugino and then Daddario, who’s up in San Francisco with Mom’s rich land-developer boyfriend. (The movie encourages us to bay for his blood, then only kinda-sorta delivers.) This rank dereliction of duty by a fire and rescue chief during L.A.’s darkest hour might make for gripping drama, if the movie took even the slightest notice that its hero — a decorated Army veteran, we’re told — is committing a huge crime, the kind that gets you court martialed and jailed and/or dishonorably discharged from the service. Why these parents believe their daughter needs rescuing during this statewide emergency is unclear: She’s a resourceful kid who we see has learned plenty of valuable survival skills from her soldier-turned-rescue-worker pop. Daddario and her new boyfriend are there, too, the four of them looking ready to put their superior genetic material to work repopulating a California from which all the quitters have been washed away.

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