Big Meets Bigger
I’m certain that those who grew up in the 1980s/90s (like myself) will remember the ’86 Midway arcade game Rampage, which saw up to three players control three mountainous monsters — a King Kong-like gorilla named George, a gargantuan Godzilla-type reptilian dubbed Lizzie, and an oversized werewolf called Ralph. You see, for one to advance to the next level, gamers needed to reduce a high-rise cityscape to rubble using the monstrous protagonists — who munched on hapless humans and tore down structures by punching and pouncing, crushing cars, boats, helicopters, tanks and taxis along the way — whilst trying to survive a relentless barrage of heavily-armed military forces. Needless to say, it was a ton of fun!
Thankfully, Warner Bros.’ big-screen gazillion-dollar adaptation gives us exactly that, a trio of modified animals that (duh!) go on a rampage, bashing and thrashing anything and everything that stands in their path, while the insanely charismatic Dwayne Johnson endeavors to tame the colossal combatants (and save the world in the process), the former WWE superstar dropping one-liners and flexing his 24-inch pythons all at the same time. It’s not exactly prestige cinema, but as far as escapist fare goes, it’s a helluva ride — don’t believe me, well, Rampage is currently the best-reviewed video-game movie on Rotten Tomatoes, and that’s gotta count for something, right?
Directed/produced by Brad Peyton — in his third collaboration with The Rock, after 2015’s disaster film San Andreas and, before that, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) — Rampage opens on a burning space station, where we learn that a rouge genetic experiment has gone horribly wrong. As it turns out, the last living scientist on board, Dr. Kerry Atkins (Marley Shelton), is frantically floating around in zero gravity, surrounded by severed limbs and mutilated corpses, being hunted by a hungry supersized rodent. Hoping to get out of her debacle alive, the doc is trying desperately hard to salvage three canisters filled with pharmaceutical-grade mutagen (generated by using real-life DNA-splicing technology known as CRISPR) capable of enhancing an animal’s natural strength and ability. Anyhow, the satellite eventually blows, but the canisters survive, crash-landing onto earth and fracturing on impact, the gene-altering pathogen inside coming into contact with three distinct animals: a crocodile who resides in the Florida Everglades, a wolf in the Wyoming woods, and lastly, a rare albino gorilla living in the San Diego Wildlife Natural Reserve.
See, the thing is, this Silverback gorilla, named George, happens to share an unshakable bond with ex-black ops operative-turned primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson), a respected doctor who oversees the ape habitat at the zoo’s sanctuary, George having been in Davis’ care since he was rescued from poachers in the wilderness, orphaned at a young age. But, when this extraordinarily intelligent gentle great ape, who communicates through sign language (and is cheeky enough to give the ol’ one-finger salute) begins growing at an exceptional rate, and starts to exhibit signs of aggression and anger, Davis is forced to team up with discredited geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), who promises to secure an antidote and restore his newly transformed friend back to his former self.
Making matters worse is the discovery of other similarly altered animals (chiefly a walloping wolf that’s somehow able to fly) who are wreaking havoc as they smash and slash their way across the United States, these fierce alpha predators attracting the attention of a Texas-style badass named Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who works under the hazy umbrella of fringe organization OGA (Other Government Agency). Desperate to contain/ control these ‘growing’ threats, Agent Russell is able to sedate George, loading him into a military plane for transportation, even if Davis (George’s prime caretaker) urges him against it, the hardened hotshots, who are constantly in each other’s faces, eventually linking the savage mutations to a nefarious bioengineering corporation named Energyne, who plan on selling weaponized DNA by auctioning uber-aggressive beasts to the highest bidder.
One thing’s for certain, Brad Peyton sure knows how to demolish a city, the blockbuster moviemaker, having previously mowed down the whole of California (via a magnitude-9 earthquake) in San Andreas, now entirely decimating Chicago in Rampage’s metropolis-flattening third act — well, a solid ten blocks of it anyway! We’re talkin’ cataclysmic levels of destruction here, the rage-filled creatures chowing down cast members and bulldozing skyscrapers like they’re made out of Styrofoam, while a bevy of scurrying civilians attempt to flee for their lives (call me insensitive, but it’s refreshing to see a toppling urban territory that hasn’t been conveniently evacuated just in the nick of time).
Under VFX Supervisor Erik Winquist, of WETA Digital (the effects house responsible for creating the CGI primates in the latest Planet of the Apes remakes), the mammoth monsters are stunningly brought to life (particularly George, who expresses genuine emotion), each one nicely integrated into the live-action photography, while the exceptionally impressive scenes of chaos and carnage wholly pull viewers into the eye-popping mayhem, the film’s apex, a sequence that sees a 13-ton winged wolf, a jumbo spike-covered croc, and a hulking ape scale then KO the iconic Sears Tower after running amok in downtown Chicago. Look, if the button-mashing battles or dumbfounding devastation can’t put a smile on your dial (I’m talking to those snooty cynics), the bursts of icky violence will surely do the trick, Rampage custom made for the 12-year-old boy inside of us all! And for the ladies, well, they’ve got the smouldering presence and rock-hard abs of Mr. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (the ninth-most-followed user on Instagram).
Oh, the story! (Almost forgot about that.) Penned by a cluster of scribes — including Ryan Engle, The Commuter (2018), Adam Sztykiel, Due Date (2010), Ryan J. Condal, Hercules (2014), and Carlton Cuse, San Andreas (2015) — the screenplay actually ain’t half bad, our writers mixing darker elements (think the dangers of genetic editing) with a lighter, more mischievous touch, filmmakers managing to sneak an anti-poaching message beneath the countless layers of smoke and debris. Anyone who’s ever played the game will also notice that some artistic license has been taken with the material, which has been modified in order to make the larger-than-life narrative feel more grounded and ‘down to earth’ — and I mean this in the loosest sense of the term. Sure, Rampage is big, loud and stupid, with the line of plausibility crossed almost instantly (the flick defying all laws of physics and gravity), but it’s surprisingly anchored by a sweet bromance between man and ape, exploring themes of friendship and loyalty. Yeah, we’ve seen this type of film before — i.e. Godzilla (2014) or, just recently, Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) — but the care that’s been taken, both technically and in generating a fun vibe and characters to root for, truly elevates its generic B-movie premise.
While the humongous computer-generated abnormalities stand as the real stars of the show, the human players give ‘em a good run for their money. Sharing the screen with our behemoth beasties, Mr. Johnson oozes charm and congeniality as Davis Okoye, a guy who likes to ‘hang with animals more than people,’ the 45-year-old megastar, who comes off as an indestructible killing machine, bringing his usual swagger and good-natured bravado to the role, The Rock (who’s finally pit against an advisory that’s as large and looming as he is) proving to be this generations Arnold Schwarzenegger — albeit less Austrian.
Elsewhere, Negan, I mean, Jeffrey Dean Morgan from Fox’s The Walking Dead (2010), is an absolute riot as the scene-chewing rootin’ tootin’ Texan Agent Russell, his charged interactions with DJ’s formidable Davis adding levity to proceedings, whereas Naomie Harris, Moonlight (2016), is kinda-sorta wasted as the kinda-sorta love interest Dr. Kate Caldwell, an idealistic scientist who, failing to save her sick brother’s life, unknowingly aids in the engineering of the city-tearing giants. On a side note, it’s disappointing that we don’t get to see more of Davis’ wildlife reservation colleagues, who show promise but are totally abandoned after Rampage’s opening 20 odd minutes — there’s the nerdy Nelson (played by P.J. Byrne), who helps George in the early stages of his metamorphoses, along with the center’s primatologists in training, Amy and Connor (played by Breanne Hill and Jack Quaid, respectively), the former a flirty grad student wanting to shack up with Johnson’s baled-headed, eyebrow-raising bad-boy.
In terms of antagonists, Malin Akerman, Watchmen (2009), and Jake Lacy, Miss Sloane (2016), wholly commit as dastardly sister-brother duo Claire and Brett Wyden, these siblings dissimilar in all regards, Claire a conniving, self-serving she-devil and her bro a bumbling, cowardice idiot, Akerman and Lacy crafting the type of villains that’ll have audiences fist-shaking, patiently waiting for these baddies to get what’s coming! Lastly, a scarred Joe Manganiello, Magic Mike XXL (2015), pops up in a handful of scenes as Colonel Burke, the take-no-shit leader of a top-tier mercenary unit referred to as ‘Killers R Us,’ who is recruited to capture the double-decker-sized dingo, dead or alive.
Ultimately, as an action-oriented science-gone-wild spectacle, Rampage ticks all the right boxes, director Brad Peyton, having fine-tuning his craft, delivering his best and most boisterous outing yet — and, at a breezily-paced 107 minutes, this undemanding entertainer never outstays its welcome. Yes, it’s big-budget buffoonery but it totally works. What can I say, I’m a sucker for monster porn!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner