What to Watch Verdict
'Rogue' smuggles a positive message about humane treatment of wildlife under the cover of explosions, vicious attacks, and a level of excitement that delivers what's expected.
🦁 Mama's angry.
🦁 Surprisingly thoughtful.
🦁 Noticably CGI lioness.
🦁 90 minutes would suffice.
“Hollywood [is] always trying to pit powerful women against each other.” While a humorous tweet in response to my anticipation of Rogue, that quote was also my first reaction. Why empower Fox’s mercenary captain only to fight another fierce woman-in-charge, a freed lioness? Thankfully, the answer is much more potent and thought-out than initially suspected. If anything, it’s two “powerful women” realizing one another’s strengths while filmmaker M.J. Bassett takes a pointed-as-hell stance against “lion farms” and animal abuse.
Fox stars as hired-gun Samantha O'Hara, who leads a team of deadly freelancers on an Africa extraction mission. Their target is governor’s daughter Asilia Wilson (Jessica Sutton), who they find with other caged captures in a human trafficking campsite. Rebels give chase while O’Hara leads an escape, losing soldiers along the way. O’Hara’s team selects an abandoned farm as their new basecamp with no alternate extraction options until the morning. To complicate things further, fresh blood suggests dangers may still be present. That suspicion is confirmed when an attack-mode lioness starts killing what’s left of O’Hara’s squad.
Let’s address the elephant in the barn - actually, sorry. The elephants in Rogue are trained performers, but Bassett’s maternal huntress is fully CGI’ed. Not fantastically well, either. Night vision limelights are more forgiving of blurry animation detail that’s admittedly janky when daylight motion is detected, which disappoints when movies like Crawl or Burning Bright exist. The former, able to digitize reptilian giants with photorealistic scaliness, the latter which spliced footage of actual tigers into scenes against actors to achieve realism and safety. Rogue takes the budgeted approach, for necessary (on the assumption) reasons, but sacrifices visual cleanliness (e.g., her furry coat resembles graphic overlays).
Bassett’s screenplay, co-written with daughter Isabel Bassett (who also appears on-screen), is more forgiving. A smash-and-grab objective under sweaty heatwaves turns complicated when O’Hara “does the right thing” (freeing more hostages). There’s a disaster, followed by an unforeseen standoff with a pissed-off kitty. Al-Shabaab jihadists pursue, chasing their prisoners until it all culminates in a man vs. man vs. nature climax with maulings and explosions. One character’s past (Sisanda Henna) ties with Al-Shabaab for a hint of redemptive sacrifice, in an attempt to show the terrorist organization’s hold over the region and how easy it is for locals to fall victim, but it’s not incredibly deep. Rogue knows what it is. Jeep chases, whizzing rounds, and lioness pounces when gunsmoke clears for stealthier predatorial defenses.
When mama pussycat strikes, she's mean. Practical effects shred flesh in crosshatch patters and expose bone fragments. Although, it’s hard to classify Rogue as an outright animalistic creature-feature. These altercations are fewer and far between, but Bassett exploits other distractions that add a level of detail above more generic safari action flicks. Maybe it’s the addition of another vicious beast that kills one of our “good guys.” Perhaps it’s the recurring Backstreet Boys gag used to keep a severely wounded Bo Yinn (Kenneth Fok) clinging to consciousness. What I’d complain about in a lesser film isn’t as noticeable here, and that’s a testament to Bassett’s ability to layer depth beyond what’s billed at surface value.
In this regard, O’Hara’s juxtaposition against her clawed equal is so much more than a grudge match. There’s a reason the lioness refuses to abandon the farmland she clears of poachers (brutally). There’s also a reason why O’Hara’s men keep questioning her abilities only to find themselves deceased or incapacitated, leaving their commander to fight militant warlords and untamed wildlife assassins.
“Females are the true killers.” There’s introspection within another sequence where two of O’Hara’s surviving male teammates are so near death they can’t muster the energy to grab a weapon no more than 20 feet away, yet chat about the concept of a lioness returning during battle. O’Hara and said lioness will stop at nothing to save innocents and protect objectives. The ferocity of undervalued characters is intertwined, as Fox’s adept action-heroine even gets to call her opposition “Queen” (it fits the moment).
Rogue isn’t winning any awards, but when M.J. Bassett’s compassionate plea for “lion farm” awareness hits before end credits scrawl, it won my heart. You can count all the gender-bent nods nestled into dialogue, as the main villain drops a line about “I have the gun, I have the power,” when glaring at two "women" (met with a “which bitch is going to kill you” retort, hell yeah). Don’t be thrown by marketing. Bassett’s intentions are pro-animal, anti-inhumane treatment, and that’s consistent throughout. Megan Fox leads with iron wills, unshakable wits, and becomes the reigning lioness of her tactical pride. For the movie it is, Rogue bites back hard against our own misguided and dismissive perceptions.
Rogue is available on VOD now.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.