Way back in 1986, Bally Midway introduced Rampage, an arcade game that featured three massive monsters–a wolf, a gorilla, and a lizard–bent on destroying North American cities and avoiding the military forces trying to stop them. The button-mashing sensation went on to enjoy multiple video game sequels over the years, but the big bad monsters have now made their way to the big screen in Brad Peyton‘s adaptation starring Dwayne Johnson. The movie version makes some big changes from the game–some for the better, some … not so much–and the end result is a massively entertaining creature feature that’s very short on substance but absolutely wild when it goes all-in, animal-style.
The story of Rampage is pretty straightforward, even if it strains your suspension of disbelief to its limits: Johnson stars as Davis Okoye, a former Special Forces operative turned United Nations Anti-Poaching Task Force member who opts to settle for a relatively quiet life as the local primatologist at the San Diego Zoo. (Those are all real occupations, I just don’t think anyone has ever occupied all three of them in the safe lifetime unless Jane Goodall is hiding something…) When mutagenic chemicals produced by illicit research aboard a space station fall to Earth and corrupt a trio of animals–one who happens to be Davis’ best pal George, an albino silverback gorilla–their resulting rapidly growing size and increasing aggression lead them to tear up the American countryside. It’s up to Davis, disgraced geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) and gunslinging government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to save the cities … and hopefully George in the process.
For those of you who never played the original arcade game or simply need a refresher, it was very, very silly. The player characters were actually humans who were morphed into massive animals in various ways–an experimental vitamin, a radioactive lake, a food additive…–and then smashed buildings, destroyed vehicles, and gobbled down the occasional human during their rampage. It was a tongue-in-cheek nod to classic monster movies like King Kong, The Wolf Man, and Godzilla. While the movie version certainly has nods back to the original game–notice the arcade game itself conspicuously placed in the Wyden corporation’s office, and it’s hard to miss one particular human death scene pulled straight from the game–the writing team of Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel wisely tried to ground Rampage in cutting-edge science.
Now, this movie’s understanding of said science–notably the use of CRISPR, a versatile gene-editing tool that’s got almost as many uses in the real world as it does in sci-fi–is cursory and doesn’t ask (or want) viewers to think too hard. In fact, the film’s geneticist literally Googles CRISPR in order to show Davis just what the technique can do, pulling up a glorified Wiki page. It’s fine and it gets the job done. Essentially, all this genetic and biochemical engineering has created a chemical that grants a wide range of super-powers to subjects treated with it, like incredible size, strength, speed, agility and healing factor, with the nasty side effects of heightened aggression and ferocity. It’s a perfect biological weapon for nefarious corporate overlords–played with scene-chewing, mustache-twirling efficacy by Malin Akerman and the punchable Jake Lacy–to sell to the highest bidder. Hey, it’s better than experimental vitamins.
However, Rampage takes itself far too seriously at times. to the point of being laughable in the wrong kind of way. Most of the intended humor is derived from the brotherly relationship between Davis and George, the latter of whom is incredibly gifted with comedic timing and an extensive repertoire of sign language (some more crude than others). That’s not to say Johnson doesn’t bring his usual charisma to the role; he does, he’s just literally overshadowed somewhat by the bigger-than-life monstrosities roaring across the screen. This goes for the comedic moments as well as the epic, action-packed sequences, of which there are many. There’s the troubling discovery of George’s affliction; a wild, almost Predator-like hunt for a wolf in the Wyoming wilderness; a military intervention gone very wrong; and, of course, a climactic, city-destroying battle. That’s all worth the price of admission. But for a video game that rewarded players for gobbling up humans and roasted chickens alike while also penalizing them for grabbing electrical appliances or getting stunned by a photographer’s camera flash, this adaptation could have been better served by folding in some of those sillier moments and remembering that the game itself was a parody.
Sometimes, Rampage is downright brutal. If you’re at all squeamish about animals battling each other, even if they’re on the scale of Godzilla or King Kong types, you might want to skip this one. Or if you find yourself somehow emotionally attached to nameless, faceless humans–dozens of whom shuffle off this mortal coil throughout the movie–I’d advise the same. The only named character I was left wanting more from was Joe Manganiello‘s burned, scarred, and quite capable mercenary Burke, introduced via the clunkiest of dialogue deliveries (“Remember that mercenary unit we acquired, the ones you called Killers ‘R’ Us? He’s the “us.”) but who only factored into the story in a tertiary manner.
Johnson is great, as always, though he sometimes struggles to convincingly cuddle up to his computer-generated gorilla pal. His character keeps himself at a distance from other humans, which is a bit thin as far as emotional struggles go. Otherwise, everyone else is serviceable. Harris’ Dr. Caldwell waffles between Damsel in Distress and Capable Badass, Dean Morgan does more with his two-dimensional agent than merely make him a variation on Negan (He does give a great delivery regarding the wolf monster: “The weirdos on the Internet have started calling him ‘Ralph.'”), and the supporting cast plays their part well without hamming it up too much. The real stars here however, apart from Johnson, are the big, bad beasties. So I say let them fight!
The only issue here is that the script holds no surprises for anyone. If you’ve seen any standard action movie, and especially if you’ve seen films like Outbreak, Independence Day, or even Peyton/Johnson’s own San Andreas, you know exactly what the beats are going to be. That’s a shame because this is just the kind of movie that can afford to take some chances and surprise people. Sure, I’ve never seen a giant gorilla, wolf, and alligator tear up a city before–and when they all show up, it’s pretty thrilling, despite the one-liner reactions that sap the energy out of the scene–but beyond that central conceit, the plot is paint-by-numbers. (Oof, and don’t even get me started on the dialogue that’s on par with some of the ironic “best” of 80s and 90s action movies.)
Overall, Rampage was a surprisingly fun ride that’s briskly paced, epically entertaining, and a crowd-pleasing creature feature. Get your popcorn and enjoy the ride!