Uwe Boll is getting angrier. Best known for defiling fanboys’ sacred cows with subpar vidgame adaptations, the German director trains his aggression directly on the audience in “Rampage.” Based on an original idea (despite a title that misleadingly echoes a popular ’80s arcade game), this intense killing-spree thriller serves as Boll’s answer to the 1993 Michael Douglas drama “Falling Down,” shadowing a sociopath as he ruthlessly executes innocents in Tenderville, U.S.A. Uncompromising and nearly unwatchable (as much for its subject as for its nauseating visual style), “Rampage” will depend commercially on distribs willing to bank on Boll’s reputation.
What makes Boll’s prolific output of late so fascinating is the contradictory way the helmer has responded to the personal attacks against him online. Starting with the tasteless post-9/11 satire “Postal” (also about an average guy who snaps and starts killing everything in sight), Boll’s recent pics send a clear “screw you” message to the haters, and yet, with nothing left to lose, the director actually seems intent on proving them wrong.
“Rampage” belongs to a fresh batch of artistically ambitious projects designed to clear his name (including human-rights statement “Darfur” and war-is-hell Vietnam movie “Tunnel Rats”), the sheer gutsiness of which is sure to earn him some points with his detractors. There’s no arguing the fearlessness of the concept, which confronts head-on several aspects of the American mindset even Michael Moore seems too culturally entrenched to acknowledge.
Where Boll’s earlier vidgame adaptations (“House of the Dead,” “BloodRayne”) were the very definition of mindless entertainment, “Rampage” actually has something to say. It’s not the first time, as it happens; the director here recasts lead bully Brendan Fletcher from his controversial (yet largely unseen) school-shooting saga “Heart of America.” Boll may even be trying to get meta-conceptual here, asking auds to consider their reactions to the material itself (which included inappropriate cheers when “Rampage” screened at Fantastic Fest), even if the film is a mess.
Working from a treatment instead of a script, Boll relies on his cast to improvise their way through the simplistic story. Fletcher can handle it. He’s convincingly cold-blooded but frustratingly one-dimensional as Bill Williamson, a tightly wound high school grad who feels threatened when his parents (Lynda Boyd and “Max Headroom” star Matt Frewer, who are less comfortable ad libbing) pressure him to find his own apartment. Bill’s only friend is pretty-boy Evan (Shaun Sipos, whose Brad Pitt looks serve as Boll’s indictment of the star’s cause-oriented persona).
The climax occurs midway through, after a series of early encounters designed to push Bill’s buttons: A rude barista gets his order wrong, Bill’s auto-mechanic boss refuses to give him a raise, etc. In “Falling Down,” such modern-life transgressions cause Michael Douglas’ character to snap, but here, they merely reinforce Bill’s preexisting nihilism. His outburst is the result of careful planning, as he suits up in full Kevlar body armor and using the seemingly random execution of complete strangers to cover for a bank robbery.
But Bill’s scheme has more holes than the victims he machine-guns in the streets, and in contrast to “Postal,” there’s no levity to offset the pic’s bleak tone. The experience is every bit as vile as it sounds, exacerbated by Boll’s in-your-face narrative technique (odd that he doesn’t co-opt the style of first-person-shooter games, considering “Rampage’s” gleeful “Grand Theft Auto”-like approach to gunning down bystanders).
Working in handheld style, d.p. Mathias Neumann frames his unsteady footage super-tight, punishing the audience as he whips the camera around a given scene. Editor Thomas Sabinsky intensifies the assault with his disorienting assembly, shock-splicing glimpses of the carnage or Bill’s confession (a kooky monologue that has no reason to exist) into scenes already jump-cut to the brink of incoherence.
More effective are Jessica de Rooij’s aggressive score and Steve Smith’s stir-crazy sound design, as a litany of grim TV news headlines running in the background intensify the hysteria. Boll’s conceptual strategy might have worked had the film started stable and become more erratic as the mayhem mounts, but it’s too much to expect auds to stomach such fragmented storytelling for an entire feature, especially when the content itself is so distressing.