When Hollywood makes a full-length feature based on an arcade game where the only goal is to destroy as much public property and eat as many humans as possible, you can bet they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of creative inspiration.
Loosely based on the 1986 three-player arcade classic, Rampage features a larger-than-life Dwayne Johnson playing Davis Okoye, a primatologist iteration of the same character he plays in virtually every movie. You can’t blame filmmakers for banking on the charismatic Johnson, whose good-humored, smooth-talking, alpha male persona is so likable that it’s shot him right to the top of Hollywood’s A-list.
But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, and in the case of Rampage, it’s too much of the same thing, especially so soon after last December’s Jumanji, where Johnson plays the archaeologist iteration of the same character he plays in virtually every movie.
They’ve even supplied him with a crew of clearly-less-physically-imposing beta males and a swooning female—exactly like in Jumanji—who work with him at the San Diego Zoo, but who are promptly forgotten and never heard from again as soon as the action picks up. While, in the video game, the giant creatures are actually mutated humans, the film thankfully grounds the plot in far more plausible pseudoscience based on real world CRISPR gene-editing.
The film opens with a clandestine research operation in space going haywire, thanks to a giant mutant rat—a nice nod to the Atari Lynx version of the game—and the monster-creating pathogens crash into various parts of the United States, mutating a crocodile in Louisiana, a wolf in Wyoming, and an albino gorilla in San Diego Zoo who happens to be the human relationship-averse Okoye’s best friend.
Thankfully, George, the gorilla, outshines Johnson in most of their shared scenes, which makes the film not only bearable, but actually pretty enjoyable. Rampage builds up the relationship between George and Davis early on, so audiences will root for albino King Kong all the way, even during one gruesome moment at the finale at the top of a tower in Chicago.
George is the true star of the show, and it’s a shame he’s lost to the audiences as the mutating pathogens scramble his brain for a good two-thirds of the movie. In fact, just like the video game, the best characters are the monsters and I found myself cheering on Lizzie, the giant crocodile, to actually eat Dwayne Johnson (spoiler: I was disappointed). There’s also the giant gliding wolf with porcupine quills. You just can’t go wrong with that kind of ridiculousness.
Rampage is helmed by Brad Peyton, who directed Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (where Johnson plays a stepdad iteration of the same character he plays in virtually every movie); and San Andreas (where Johnson plays a fireman iteration of the same character he plays in every movie).
Peyton is a master of oversized animals and things getting smashed to the ground, which makes him a perfect fit for this film’s thinly plotted mayhem—i.e., evil corporation makes ridiculously dangerous gene-editing pathogen for no other reason than to potentially sell to even eviler individuals, and everything predictably goes to the shitter. You can't even miss the bad guys' intentions, because Brett Wynden, the dimwitted one of the evil Wynden Corporation’s two sibling owners, actually says it out loud.
The paper-thin plot is also peppered with paper-thin characters, including the stunning Naomie Harris as Dr. Kate Caldwell, a former Wynden corporation geneticist who ends up playing a glorified tour guide to the Wynden office. My favorite paper-thin-but thoroughly-convincing character is the ruthless Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman), co-CEO of Wyden corporation, who is irredeemably twisted from start to finish as she cooks up Project Rampage, completely dominates her brother Brett (Jake Lacy), and shoots The Rock in the gut. She even has the Rampage arcade game in her office. Claire wears a striking red dress identical to the ones worn by the damsels in the video game, which is a bit of a spoiler if you’ve ever played it.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Harvey Russell, a self-described “cowboy” working for a government agency that handles the cases of evil corporations and their evil plans. He is actually an everybody-described cowboy, because people literally call him a cowboy just in case his Southern drawl and side chewing didn’t drive home the point. Russell and Okoye have a testosterone-overloaded alpha male pissing contest in their first encounter, but by the end of the movie, the Tinder-shunning big man and unkempt scientist are just about ready to go on a date. It’s this kind of off-kilter character development that throws the whole thing off. If Peyton had directed it as a straight campy comedy—instead of using George to inject occasional humor, and relying too much on Johnson’s natural light-heartedness—it might’ve worked better.
All said, however, I actually enjoyed the film. In spite of the movie's numerous faults, it’s actually a lot of fun. It’s giant monsters tearing down buildings and eating things, which looks just spectacular on an IMAX screen.
The first few minutes are also one of the few instances in films where wearing 3D glasses actually pays off. It’s a bit of a letdown that the filmmakers made full use of the technology but then forgot all about it as soon as Dwayne Johnson shows up."As long as you enter the theater with expectations in check; as long as you understand that this whole thing is a multimillion dollar excuse to have giant, mutant animals smash and chomp on things; as long as you can stand the Rock, who’s probably contractually bound to wear the same, sexy, tight-fitting white tee in every movie—you’ll have a rollicking good time.