Basically: The Rock meets Mighty Joe Young in a seemingly endless battle of giant ape vs. giant flying wolf vs. giant crocodile (and that sounds better than it is).
Rampage, the new movie from Brad Peyton, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is based on an arcade video game originally released in 1986. Once I learned about its origins everything about the movie made a lot more sense.
There isn’t a lot to this movie outside of the visual effects and The Rock’s biceps, which are both impressive. Actually, another title for it could have been: The Rock meets King Kong/Mighty Joe Young. Johnson is likable, fun to watch, and audiences don’t seem to tire of the affable former pro wrestler. His negatives seem exceptionally low and audiences receive him warmly in a number of movies that have released pretty quickly. Fresh off Moana and The Fate of the Furious, The Rock popped up in Baywatch—the only flop—and the big hit Jumanji. Not to mention his HBO series, Ballers, and action thriller Skyscraper due out early this summer.
Image: Warner Bros.
In Rampage, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a primatologist who prefers animals to humans. He has a close bond with George, a rare albino gorilla who’s been in his care since it was young. Through a mishap the gorilla, as well as a wolf, and a crocodile, are exposed to an experimental formula that dramatically alters their genetic makeup. Bottomline, this stuff turns animals into giant monsters. The formula was developed by Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) and is appropriated by unscrupulous corporate executive Clair Wyden and her brother (Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy). Once the action gets going it continues at a frenetic pace. In an effort to secure the formula, The Wyden siblings send in mercenary, Burke (Joe Manganiello).
The Rock is good. Most of the other roles are problematic. Other cast members include Jeffrey Dean Morgan as agent Russell of OGA (Other Government Agency) and Will Yun Lee as Agent Park. While some good actors have been assembled for this movie there isn’t much to work with outside of archetypical caricatures. Naomie Harris, who I liked as Moneypenny in Bond films, is reduced to a pseudo love interest—although she has plenty of “science!” to do in order to advance the minimal plot. At least she gets to play a female character with agency. Hollywood seems to have come around to stronger roles for women of late. Malin Akerman plays a second one as the ruthless corporate villainess determined to capitalize on the rampage by monetizing the genetic enhancement formula. We’ve seen this before but Akerman—who is familiar to audiences as Silk Spectre from Watchmen and more recently on the Showtime series Billions—is credible and believable. Jeffrey Dean Morgan also does his best with what is essentially a stereotypical role.
Image: Warner Bros.
What makes all of this tolerable is The Rock. Dwayne Johnson is a legitimate movie star and you’ll enjoy watching him do a slew of ridiculous, impossible, and heroic stuff. You believe because he makes you believe. So when he’s in a helicopter crash and crawls out without any broken bones and starts running around you’re like, okay. And it’s convenient that—as in many of his movies—the Davis Okoye character has a background of military training. So, in addition to being a primatologist he is former US Army ranger special forces, because a lot of special forces guys end up going into primatology after their tours, right?
Screenwriters Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel have the unenviable task of adapting this video game for the big screen. You’d have to figure they knew The Rock was starring as they were writing which meant they could go outrageous. Director Brad Peyton takes the script and runs with it. It is a benefit that Peyton has worked with The Rock previously in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and San Andreas. Don’t look for The Rock to win any academy awards anytime soon but Peyton gets a good performance out of him here.
Motion capture actor Jason Liles portrays George and his performance makes the giant ape both an endearing as well as threatening figure. And, of course, the visual effects co-star in this movie. Effects are becoming so commonplace that there is a certain level of acceptance on the part of the audience. What would have been revolutionary as recently as 10 years ago is par for the course today. And here the effects deliver a seemingly endless battle of giant ape vs. giant flying wolf vs. giant crocodile—along with widespread destruction and carnage as the creatures rampage on screen.
Image: Warner Bros.
There is quite a bit of lightheartedness and humor in this movie and that sort of belies the carnage but I suspect the levity is the source of the PG-13 rather than an R. The filmmakers have gone to lengths to incorporate jokes and pretty much keep the lead characters free from major injury. But, make no mistake, this is a violent movie and it is absolutely scary in parts. Really, the premise of genetic manipulation is frightening. And, if this were a film with any substance there was an opportunity to explore a number of complex issues of morality as well as how loyalty is tested when someone you love is changed by science gone out of control. However such ponderings are too lofty for this movie, but there is a lot of misdirection to keep your mind off the fact that giant monsters are trampling, crushing, and eating people throughout.
My main worry is that a movie like this continues the trend of desensitizing general audiences to the consequences of giant monsters rampaging through crowded urban environments—and voicing that worry makes me feel simultaneously sanctimonious and ridiculous.
In the end: If you like The Rock, and who doesn’t, you’ll have fun with Rampage (but this movie is honestly a big nothing burger).