Friday 25 December 2020

Rogue (2020) - Movie Review

As is the case with just about everyone who worked on the Transformers movies, critics make it a sport of taking the piss out of Megan Fox as an actress. “She’s just eye candy”, “She’s centrefold fodder”, “She has the range of a broken cellphone”, etc. And I freely admit that I’m not an exception to this, as I never held much stock in her acting chops either. However, since last writing about her as part of the woeful ensemble in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows, I’ve since seen her career-highlight turn in Jennifer’s Body, and on the basis of that alone… she isn’t a joke to me anymore. When attached to something without the spectre of Bay surrounding it, she can deliver, and for those still unconvinced, here’s her latest.

An action-thriller/creature feature where a sex trafficking rescue operation goes tits-up and the mercenaries find themselves under fire from the traffickers as well as a rogue lioness, Fox in the lead role certainly holds her own as the leader of the pack. Along with the soldier cred, she has the charisma of someone you’d trust to lead you into a dangerous situation, as well as believing her when she says she’ll do her utmost to get you out of it. And for a story all about the pretences of manhood and all the pointless bloodshed therein, she’s a solid nucleus for the themes at hand.

And yet, I still hesitate to call her my favourite performance in this thing. Most of the cast operates as part of a unit, where their chemistry with each other is more important than their individual presences, but there are still a couple of stand-outs. Philip Winchester as de facto second-in-command Joey adds some dry humour to the proceedings, and his frequent singing of Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) make for some oddly touching moments of camaraderie. The absolute highlight, though, is Sisanda Henna as Pata, a Maasai who got brought into the trafficking ring and who shoulders a lot of trauma and regret about the things he’s done and seen. His initial introduction has the faint odour of Magical Negro, but that quickly gets snuffed out and he ends up stealing just about every scene he’s given a chance to shine in.

As for the genre thrills, there’s a rather infectious B-movie energy to the whole affair, with some solid shoot-outs and quite grisly showings of gore from both the gun fights and the encounters with the lioness. It also keeps a steady amount of tension throughout, making the moments when the predator catches her prey impactful where needed. And the fact that this film made that lioness even remotely threatening is itself surprising, but holy shit, the CGI work to bring her to life is awful. It’s at least three generations behind in terms of fidelity, and it even gives writer/director MJ Bassett’s previous blunder with Silent Hill: Revelation a run for its money in bad visualisation.

Which is a genuine shame because, going off of MJ and her daughter Isabel’s work on the script here, it feels like the visuals are holding back what could’ve been an excellent feature. It shows MJ getting back to her roots as a wildlife photographer, with a story about the brutality behind animal poaching, lion farming, and even tying it together with the sex trafficking to highlight how badly we can treat other living things if the price is right. Where that notion gets interesting is that the main group of mercenaries aren’t immune from that mindset either, as being paid is the only reason they’re doing this rescue operation in the first place.

It also ends up drawing a target on ideas of masculinity and what all this mistreatment says about the priorities of man. The film is bookended by the actions of predators (sexual ones with the trafficking, and natural ones once the lioness appears), and it makes some pretty accurate statements about how the act of killing or otherwise taking away life from other living things is treated as some manly right of passage, like with Pata recounting a time he ‘failed’ to kill a lion because “I couldn’t take life in order to prove some ideal of manhood”. And on the other end, you’ve got the divine feminine, the nurturer, the protector of her pack. Fox’s Samantha fits that description, as does the rogue lioness, and when the opportunists tried to get between them and those they care about, it’s just a matter of which bitch will strike first.

For as much as the effects work is embarrassingly distracting, and it not really being as much of a star vehicle as its casting and marketing suggest, this is still a solid B-movie with a good message, some genuinely noteworthy performances, and an approach to genre that may take its cues from the classics (there’s more than a bit of Predator in here) but also shapes them into its own artistic identity. MJ, Isabel, Megan, Sisanda, and everyone else on hand should pat themselves on the back for what they’ve pulled off here

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