An exhausted Dwayne Johnson watches a giant wolf fly through the air on webbed arms, muttering to himself “Of course the wolf flies.” Naturally. Why wouldn’t it in a movie where mysterious gasses turn predatory animals into city-destroying giants? It’s that loose logic that makes these spectacles entertaining. I only wish the film had a little more of that self-awareness to propel Rampage past being just a smile-worthy farce of dazzling special effects.
The plot is ripped right out of the old and dusty book of 1950s B-movies. An experimental gas aboard a space station, contained within three containers, descends on the planet. It infects three creatures, turning them into angry mutants that just can’t resist that urge to toss a human or topple a skyscraper. One of the animals is George, an albino gorilla residing at a California wildlife enclosure. Dwayne Johnson plays Davis, a primatologist that is smart enough to reason with George and buff enough to crack jokes with him. So when George starts growing larger, growling louder, and smashing property, there’s some heartbreak in their relationship of man and ape.
Davis’ character trait that isn’t abundantly clear is that he likes being around wild animals more than he does people. It’s understandable in this context as there are a lot of nasty people after George. There’s an evil corporation that wants to cover up their experiment, led by a sharply-dressed vixen (Malin Åkerman) and her bumbling brother (Jake Lacy). There’s a collective of well-armed mercenaries gleefully hunting down the monsters, led by a bearded badass (Joe Manganiello). There’s a secret government organization trying to more properly contain the creatures, led by a smirking agent (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) that is having way too much fun with his work. And there’s the US military, led by a cocky Colonel (Demetrius Grosse) that is convinced enough firepower will take down these monstrous beasts. Perhaps the lovely Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) will bring him out of his shell.
The film keeps itself on the strict schedule of the giant monster movie formula. We get the briefest of relationship establishing for Davis and George, relegated to some silly sign-language before George inhales the gas and goes on a, well, rampage. Then it’s a mountain of exposition and loose rules to properly stage an excuse for a giant gorilla, wolf, and crocodile to mess up a city. I was honestly surprised how by the book the film felt to go with the boring babblings of genetic mutation and radio signal attraction to concoct this story. There’s a devotion to the genre that is so faithful I started getting antsy for the film to go back to its self-aware insanity.
What kept winning back from the onslaught of exposition and backstory are bits and pieces of solid characters scattered throughout the film. Dwayne Johnson naturally oozes charisma and has some fun with the material, as well as finding the right scenes to draw attention to his massive biceps. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is always entertaining to watch, but he seems stuck in the familiar character of Negan from The Walking Dead, making me weary if this is the future of his career. I even liked the human villains of Malin Åkerman as a sexy schemer and Jake Lacy as an always-nervous cohort.
But they’re not the real stars, of course. Fans of the game have most likely come to see the big-screen CGI treatment for the giant monsters of George, Ralph, and Lizzie. All three will converge on a city and do what they did best in the games; causing mass-destruction. But for hiding the monsters for so long, their action-packed battle comes off more standard than exhilarating. There are a few moments of campy joy that involve eating humans and decapitation, but, much like all of the movie’s pleasure, it’s sandwiched between less impressive scenes. Less effective than the close-ups of the monsters are the wide shots where we can see all the carnage clearly but feel too safe and by-the-numbers. I dunno, something about watching a monster attack from a distance doesn’t hold the same thrill as when you’re looking up at a giant albino gorilla tossing tanks into the air.
In its cartoonish and knowing state, Rampage can be fun but I wish it had the monster guts to have more fun. Though I left smiling and satiated with popcorn thrills, I kept wanting just a bit more to enjoy the picture past the expects sights and sounds. Maybe a few more jokes between Dwayne Johnson and the ape or a half-dozen more amusing deaths via a monster attack. But for many, the sight of an albino gorilla duking out in the city against flying wolves and spiked crocodiles will be enough. For my inner-child who went goofy over Jurassic Park as a kid, it was indeed plenty to keep the eyes enthralled with a cool battle to relay for the schoolyard.