I thought I would have to wait to see King Kong battle Godzilla
By Jason Wiese
I remember walking out of San Andreas, the 2015 reference guide of disaster movie clichés from director Brad Peyton in which Dwayne Johnson must save San Francisco from a devastating earthquake, and thinking “Well, that was a stinker, but man, did I have a good time laughing at it.” The secret to how San Andreas “worked” was that the cast was in on the joke that the plot was amateurishly inconceivable and the action sequences were uproariously cheesy. In Rampage, Johnson and Peyton’s even more ludicrous reunion, only about half of the cast is in on it.
Rampage is an adaptation of the 1986 arcade game of the same name in which a trio of wild animals (a gorilla, a lizard and a wolf) of monstrous size must fight off military forces while destroying an entire city to finish each round. How do Peyton and company attempt to translate that idea to cinema? As best as they probably could, really.
An ill-fated team of scientists in a space station developing a pathogen that combines that DNA of several species with strong growth hormones finds their mission cut short when one of their creations cuts loose, resulting in the destruction of the vessel. However, three samples of the pathogen survive and end up landing near the Gulf of Florida where a crocodile lurks, in a wolf’s den and in an area of the San Diego Animal Sanctuary housing a clan of gorillas, one of which has a personal relationship with primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson). After the pathogen infects the animals causing them to grow in size and aggression, a war between nature and architecture begins brewing in the heart of Chicago, leaving Okoye, scientist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) and federal agent Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to take on the task to prevent these impressively animated monsters from causing ultimate destruction as they run on a… rampage.
There is just no better way to say it.
While San Andreas was a by-the-book, tongue-in-cheek disaster movie, Rampage has the same approach to the monster movie subgenre. Everyman protagonist with a personal connection to the creature: check. Scientist with a connection to the cause of the situation whom no one listens to before it is too late: check. Corporate bigwigs whose unclear motivations (money, most likely, I guess) cause further problems ultimately leading to their own comeuppance: check. Loose cannon legal authority figure with a last-minute change of heart brought to life by a scenery-chewing performance: double check. No cliché is left unturned in this film. Some of it actually works and lends to the most entertaining scenes in the film, even counting the monster action, with the determining factor being the cast.
Johnson, whose outstanding track record of always playing himself has earned him the title of this generation’s Chuck Norris, definitely knew what he was signing up for with this, winking at the camera in every frame. Harris, surprisingly, adds an unexpected layer of sophistication to her otherwise by-the-numbers role. The undisputed scene stealer, however, is the deliciously over-the-top Morgan, channeling the essence of his menacing performance as Negan on The Walking Dead into a good guy role. Bogging it down to a disparaging level of dryness is Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy as siblings who run the corporation funding the experiment that leads to the mutation. Neither succeed in fulfilling the purposes of their roles. Akerman’s solemn approach to her bad guy role only comes off as wooden, while Lacy, whom I assume was meant to serve as comic relief, is anything but funny.
Of course, I never really needed great casting for this movie. All I really wanted and needed from this film was to have fun watching three larger-than-life animals play with skyscrapers like Lincoln Logs. But even the human interaction was more compelling than that.
Rampage is really just some good, old fashioned stupidity. I do not regret watching it, but I have no desire to see it again, nor would I ever recommend it to anyone. To paraphrase my friend and fellow Lindenlink critic Devin King, Rampage is the bar between mediocre and just plain crap. I hope Peyton and Johnson at least wear that description as badge of honor. Peyton is a filmmaker who, unlike other megabudget filmmakers of his time, has the ability to embrace a preposterous story instead of taking an overly serious approach to it. He has an eye for absurdist cinema that I admittedly admire. Maybe one day I will walk away from one of his films and, instead of gawking at it, cheer at its childish whimsy.