The Bally Midway arcade favorite Rampage had a very simple premise—you control one of three anthropomorphized monsters to trash buildings and vehicles and devour helpless citizens—that could have been expanded for the big screen in any number of ways. The people behind the film version that has emerged did not exactly break the creature-feature mold, but they did come up with a scenario allowing for a good amount of old-fashioned giant-monster entertainment and just enough heart to give it a spine. And they got the right actor for the lead: Dwayne Johnson, whose bigger-than-life persona makes him a perfect fit.
Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a former Special Forces soldier who went on to a stint busting poachers around the world, and has seen enough human cruelty against animals to prefer the latter over the former. Now working for a San Diego wildlife preserve, he has bonded with an albino gorilla he’s named George (as the game’s primate is known), with whom he communicates via sign language. Their relationship has more feeling and plausibility than any between the people in Rampage, and it’s tested when, for reasons it would take too long to explain, one of three containers of a “genetic editing” agent whipped up by a company called Engyne falls from space and crashes down in George’s home. It causes the ape to grow well beyond his normal size, and develop a serious attitude problem, which means Davis has his hands full keeping George from running afoul of the authorities.
Then there are the “offspring” of the two other Engyne meteorites to deal with. One lands in Casper, Wyoming, where it transforms a wolf into a lupine creature that also has characteristics of a flying fox and a porcupine—and in another nod to the game, is given the name “Ralph” by on-line onlookers. Its first major sequence, taking out a heavily armed squad sent to destroy it, is scary and exciting and one of the film’s strongest setpieces. The third touches down in the Everglades and super-accelerates the growth of an alligator, which is not called “Lizzie.” (Game purists may lament the alteration of the trio’s backstory—vanquished monsters don’t transform into naked, modest humans shuffling off to the sidelines.) The colossal reptile somehow travels from Florida to Chicago undetected…but I’m getting ahead of the narrative.
There is, as Joe Bob Briggs would put it, too much plot getting in the way of the story here, and Rampage bogs down somewhat in its midsection, sidelining its ever-enlarging beasts in favor of melodramatics amongst the standard-issue supporting players dealing with them. There’s the Good-Hearted Scientist, Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a former Engyne researcher trying to help Davis mop up the company’s mistakes. That’s all she really needed to be, but she’s saddled with a bunch of unnecessary backstory that must be revealed via labored exposition by the other characters. These include Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, doing Negan again), a government stooge from an unidentified division who describes his job, “When science shits the bed, I come in to clean the sheets,” which is one of the movie’s better lines.
Then there are Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacey), the heads of Engyne and the movie’s cartoonish villains, who do everything but chuckle, “Nyah-hah-hah!” as they scheme to cover up their naughty deeds and profit from the giant living weapons they have inadvertently spawned. (For the record: Sorry, Watchmen fans—Morgan and Akerman share no scenes here.) Claire has an original Rampage arcade game in her office, and the movie never addresses the astounding coincidence that Engyne’s activities have resulted in a trio of mutations identical to its featured monstrosities. Finally, there’s Colonel Blake (Demetrius Grosse), who insists on ignoring our heroes and vainly throwing endless conventional weapons at the battling beasties, to the point where you wish Dr. Serizawa would stride in from Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, slap him upside the head and intone, “Let them fight!” Do I need to tell you that Blake orders an air strike that must be averted, for the sole purpose of adding a ticking clock to the climactic action?
For all the generic and simplistic stuff served up in Rampage’s script (by no less than four writers, including genre-TV veteran Carlton Cuse), the movie delivers where it counts. The visual effects, supervised by Colin Strause and created by several companies including Weta, are absolutely first-rate. Whenever the animals, both normal- and outsized, are doing their thing, the illusion is complete and frequently thrilling, particularly during the final half hour, when the titans converge on the Windy City. Director Brad Peyton stages the rampages cleanly and coherently, often employing aerial views that offer a good sense of the scope of the destruction. For those who can’t wait for Godzilla vs. Kong, the epic smackdown between George and the gator will more than suffice.
And then there’s Johnson, once again demonstrating a crucial quality that has made him a star of this genre: No matter how outlandish the situations he faces, he always seems to thoroughly believe in them. His interplay with George is so honest, combining concern with humor, that you buy the big ape’s reality, and can invest in the duo’s combined efforts to save the world. Rampage may be trading on the appeal of the game’s building-busting writ large, but it’s at its best as a buddy movie.