'Rampage': No sentence too harsh

November 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Rampage" has an interesting recipe for social improvement: Burn the rats.

A peculiarity in our politically correct times, it turns out to be a pro-capital punishment manifesto! And it convinced me: By the time the movie was over, I wanted to strap writer-director William Friedkin into the hot seat and punch that ON button

It's not so much its conviction that the insanity plea is a cop-out and that anybody doing nasty things ought to be fried or gassed. And it's not its evasion of the reality that capital punishment typically falls on someone poor and black, and that better-heeled but equally guilty white murderers tend to draw lesser sentences.

Instead, it's that this conservative movie uses the same cheap tricks and worst-case generalizing to build an argument as do the far more common avowedly liberal movies, and the results are equally sanctimonious and appalling; on either side of the spectrum, it's reprehensible.

The 1987 movie has been in a legal limbo since the collapse of its corporate father, the Dino De Laurentiis Film Group. Now, five years later, it's been plucked off the shelf and launched into the marketplace at the Charles, where it will play for a week.

The arc that is crudely traced is a liberal's conversion. The ever-earnest Michael Biehn plays a prosecuting attorney who is nevertheless against capital punishment on moral grounds; ordered to pursue the death penalty in the case against a flamboyant mass murderer, he is gradually seduced to true belief, first by the killer's evident remorselessness and second by the obdurateness of the psychiatric profession, which invests its energies to a despicable degree in sparing the murderer's life, no matter what, without a shred of concern for the victims or their survivors.

However, the moral bankruptcy in the liberal position isn't fairly argued; instead, it's merely personified in a chubby, epicene, almost reptilian psychiatrist, played by John Harkins, who will stop at nothing, even blackmail and extortion, to spare bad Charles Reece an appointment with a cyanide capsule.

Indeed, the entire profession of psychiatry is demonized; if the shrinks aren't slimy liberal backstabbers, they're gutless weasels willing to change sides at the hint of a scandal.

Biehn plays the prosecutor with a fair amount of neurotic tension; he's so angst-ridden, he seems a great deal crazier than Alex McArthur, as Reece. A very bad idea from Friedkin is to give Biehn an elaborate background built around inconsolable grief over a recently deceased daughter; this adds nothing to the proceedings at hand.

Meanwhile, the background of the flagrantly twisted Reece, a far more interesting litany of child abuse and psycho-sexual oddity, is left strangely unexamined by the movie; his crimes seem to come from nowhere, as if he's evil incarnate, the face behind Jason's hockey mask. He may be, but the argument for capital punishment has to be based on more than the movie offers us.

It never articulates the position that it is the state's responsibility to shield us from such monsters.

And it's not helped by being set in that favored terrain of bad movies, the parallel world called Stupidland. In this one, absurdities pile up so quickly that the movie quickly loses all claim on believability.

A man who's lost a wife and child to the killer refuses to testify against him because he thinks it's "inevitable" that he'll get off on an insanity plea. Why do I suspect that such a man would stand naked in a blizzard the entire month of February to do his bit to send the killer to the gas chamber?

Then there are the two moronic prison guards who undo the killer's handcuffs so that he can eat his doughnuts; of course he kills them and escapes. Literally and laughably inconceivable!



Starring Michael Biehn and Alex McArthur.

Directed by William Friedkin.

Released by Miramax.

Rated R.

... **

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