Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s CV must be an impressive read. Professional wrestler, movie star, producer, reality TV host, turtleneck and fanny pack model – he’s done it all. Personally though, I think his most impressive career achievement has to be “turd polisher”. Since making the move from the ring to the screen, Johnson has made a habit out of turning terrible ideas into blockbuster hits, and with Rampage he’s again flexed his prodigious muscles to buff the shiny hell out of what could have been the cinematic equivalent of something you scrape off your shoe with a grimace.
The third collaboration between Johnson and director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, San Andreas), Rampage is based on the moderately popular 1980s video game of the same name in which a trio of monsters (respective King Kong, Wolf Man and Godzilla stand-ins George, Ralph and Lizzie) smash buildings. That’s it. That’s the entire premise. Luckily, original scribe Ryan Engle (Non-Stop, The Commuter) has a very active imagination (or a good stash of pharmaceuticals) and with the assistance of a handful of other writers – including the guy who penned Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip! – turns in a script that doesn’t just offer enough justification for all the eventual monstrous real estate damage, but somehow structures the whole affair around a touching relationship that actually drives everything with wholly unexpected levels of heart.
One half of that relationship is primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson), whose days as a member of an anti-poaching task force has left him with very little reverence for people. Instead, all of his companionship is reserved for George, a clever and mischievous albino gorilla whose amicable nature belies his hulking appearance. That nature and stature both get a radical makeover though when George comes into contact with a mysterious gas-filled canister – part of debris from a recently destroyed space station – which has plummeted down into the animal sanctuary he lives in.
The space station belonged to Energyne – an unscrupulous biotech firm run by Claire Wyden (Malin Ackerman in full-on reptilian villainess mode) and her goofball brother Brett (Jake Lacy) – and was being used to conduct dangerous and illegal genetic editing research. Two more canisters are lost into the wild when the space station malfunctions, and just like George, the wolf and crocodile that come into contact with them find themselves growing at an impossible rate – not to mention having some other animal traits spliced into their DNA – as their aggression levels get ramped up exponentially.
As this trio of giant raging creatures go on a rampage, threatening to level cities and kill thousands, Okoye has to team up with discredited genetic engineer Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) and slick “cowboy” government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to try and stop these beasts and save his best friend before the US military decides to just bomb them to their constituent atoms.
All of that sounds like silly cartoon blockbuster fun, and we definitely get that as Johnson turns up that trademark charm of his to provide some laughs with support from Harris’ wry Dr. Caldwell. Morgan’s Agent Russell also enjoyably answers the question of “What if Negan on The Walking Dead was a good guy who thought himself a cowboy?”. However, Rampage also has a surprising heft to it as Peyton doesn’t flinch away from the violent consequences of these colossal monster’s actions. Had the camera lingered just a bit longer on some partially obscured bit of gore or the editing not strategically cut short a few moments of more adult language, and I could easily see the film’s classification inch up from its current PG-13 rating.
Also unexpected is the previously mentioned depth to the relationship between Okoye and George. Nobody is winning any dramatic Oscars here, but when either is in peril, you can really feel the palpable concern for the other.
This unforeseen level of emotional maturity, coupled with Rampage’s willingness to hew a bit darker in tone, helps to elevate the action Peyton has constructed here.These blockbuster action beats are not just gigantic showcases of very impressive CGI wizardry – thankfully all shot and staged comprehensively – but also edge-of-your seat stuff as they continuously ramp up in intensity. Heck, the film’s opening moments aboard the malfunctioning space station alone should make for several deep clenched hand imprints being left on cinema armrests. The appearance of Ralph the Wolf and Lizzie the Crocodile later on in the film especially escalates things with their relentless monstrous brutality, totally contrary to how cute their names make them sound.
Rampage is not without its flaws though. There’s an awful lot of male posturing going on, and Johnson’s Okoye is capable of laughably superhuman showcases of physical endurance. He seemingly treats gun shot wounds to the abdomen with the same disregard as Peyton and his writers treat plausibility when it comes to some military actions in the film’s later portions. Ackerman’s Claire Wyden is also not a high-point as her non-stop evil capitalist CEO schtick is just a maniacal laugh and flamboyant mustache twirl away from Saturday morning cartoon villainy. Certainly, this is not a movie for granular subtlety – it is a film where a crocodile the size of a battleship climbs up the side of an 80-story building – but a bit more nuanced character work wouldn’t have hurt.
That being said, looking at the very idea of this movie, Rampage could very much have been just a bit of goofy and cheesy tomfoolery aimed at young kids, but instead we get an enervating 100+ minutes of chills and thrills. It’s still not exactly high cinema, but it’s a lot better than it has any right to be. What’s more, it delivers on two genre fronts as we get both a proper monster movie and a surprisingly good video game adaptation.
Last Updated: April 11, 2018