When you make a giant monster movie called RAMPAGE, there are two things I expect from your finished film. First, giant monsters. Second, some rampagin’.
The contract has been fulfilled.
Modern Hollywood is driven by brands. Not movie stars, not filmmakers, not story, not characters… but brands. It’s a little confusing, because there are definitely still people starring in these films, but they aren’t movie stars anymore. We did away with those, and we’ve replaced them with brands. The Rock, who sometimes is an actual human being named Dwayne Johnson, spends most of his time as a living, breathing brand, and he’s built one of the very best brands for the new blockbuster age. In Rampage, which is based on the old-school arcade game about three very weird giant monsters destroying a city, The Rock plays The Rock, beloved by everyone including special sign-language gorillas. The Rock has gotten very, very good at playing The Rock, and in this film, he gives one of his Rockiest Rock performances yet.
It may read like I’m being a wee bit ridiculous, but that’s because Rampage is ridiculous, and it feels like that is 100% intentional. As source material goes, the game is among the thinnest things anyone has used as the foundation for a feature film, but instead of that being a problem, it appears to have given the movie’s makers a real clarity of purpose. Any successful brand has to have focus, and The Rock has a rotating roster of collaborators who are all-in on The Rock. I spent a few days in Hawaii on the set of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, and aside from the pleasure of standing in a warm rain on a December afternoon listening to Michael Caine do impressions of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon doing impressions of Michael Caine, what I took away from that visit was the sense that Brad Peyton understood exactly what The Rock did well, and he was going to be in The Rock business for a long time. It didn’t even matter how Journey 2 did in the end. What mattered was that Peyton and The Rock clicked, and now they’ve always got something brewing. There’s always something that’s next. After Journey 2, it was San Andreas, and after San Andreas, it was Rampage. It feels like the films are getting more ridiculous as they go, and that’s fine. That’s what they do well together.
The biggest problem with the not-terribly-good San Andreas was that it felt like it was afraid to simply be what it was — a film in which The Rock should have eventually fistfought an earthquake. No, I do not know how that would work logistically, but they’re not paying me to make these movies. They’re paying Brad Peyton and The Rock to make them, and all I can do is tell you that if The Rock had indeed managed to fistfight an earthquake, that would have been worth several theatrical viewings. They learned from that film, though, and Rampage spends a surprising amount of time with giant monsters running around acting like giant monsters. I’m not sure who, out of that laundry list of writers including Carlton Cuse, Ryan Engle, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel, decided to pull from the Michael Crichton classic Congo as inspiration, but George the Gorilla, a large albino gorilla who speaks sign language, is Amy 2.0, and it’s just as preposterous this time around.
The Rock stars as Davis Okoye, a primatologist who works for the San Diego Wildlife Preserve, but who also happens to be a former military badass who was part of a U.N. team on poaching. He’s such an absolute paragon of perfection at the start of the film that it’s hilarious. I wish there was a sequence where they showed that he was also a pediatric cancer specialist in his free time and that he built houses for the homeless barehanded. It’s all handled very quickly, and then a bunch of debris from a pre-credits sequence lands on Earth, and three distinct monsters are created. George begins to grow, both in size and strength, and a wolf in Montana becomes gigantic, spike-covered, and also gains wings. Finally, there’s a third-act surprise that has been in every trailer for the film, and that features heavily in the film’s final big action sequence. The bad guys, played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, turn on a glowing doodad that glowing doodads the glowing doodad, because plot. That means all the monsters end up in Chicago and… wait for it… they rampage! Bet you didn’t see that coming.
There’s no logical reason to keep putting puny humans like Naomie Harris and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in harm’s way here, but everything’s kept light and funny for the most part, and there’s a Morgan line during a plane crash sequence that made me laugh harder than anything I’ve seen in a theater so far this year. The only human being that registers in any significant way, though, is The Rock, who manages to actually end up in the one-on-one fight at the end despite the film showing us entire army platoons being wiped out by these creatures. That would be absurd from anyone else, but it’s The Rock. He was created in a lab to be the perfect cartoon movie star, and he sets a tone of absurdity that ripples out through the rest of the film. Jeffrey Dean Morgan takes that ball and runs with it as much as the film allows him to. Of course, the focus is, as it should be, on the giant monsters, and there are plenty of opportunities for mayhem, including several big sequences with the giant wolf tearing through armed opposition. Most importantly, once the monsters get to the city, it’s nonstop rampagin’ until the closing credits roll.
Here’s the best review I can give Rampage: my son loves giant monster movies and flipping the bird. Here, at last, is a film that combines his interests, and also gives The Rock a chance to fistfight a giant alligator. The future of movies is in good hands.
Running time: 107 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic