The arcade games of the 1980s had no time for exposition. All those seconds of backstory really got in the way of having a button-mashing good time. So it was for Rampage, where gamers played one of three giant monsters intent on smashing buildings and eating people in every major U.S city. Who cared why or how? Just let us trash everything. The same cannot be said for the inexplicable film adaptation, which seems delusional in its belief that any of us came for anything but some monster-on-building mayhem.
So to that end, we have human characters that we follow throughout the film and are told we need to care about. Primary among them is Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson), a Special Ops-turned-primatologist wall of muscle who’s also the caretaker for an albino gorilla named George. When George is infected with a nasty, corporate-engineered mutagen, he starts to grow and mutate, becoming progressively more destructive and aggressive. Davis teams up with geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to find a way to help George and stop a similarly mutated giant wolf and crocodile from destroying Chicago.
That’s all we need to know. But the film insists on making us wait about at least a full hour until it actually gets to Chicago and starts channeling the furious energy of a caffeine-fueled weekend at the arcade. The first two acts drag on forever as we learn motivations and histories that don’t mean much of anything and meet a cast of supporting characters whose net contribution to the final product is just a little more than nothing. The final act is exciting, entertaining and a whole host of other e-words, but the build-up to it is completely excruciating.
To director Brad Peyton’s credit, he keeps the pace brisk and kinetic, never lingering on one thread of his story-by-committee for too long. He does manage to tease us along the way with scenes of small-scale, PG-13-approved carnage, but it’s as frustrating as it is appetizing. Peyton and his small army of screenwriters play it far too safe for far too long, treating the premise almost completely at face value. This actually works in the film’s favor during the Chicago climax, when Peyton’s self-seriousness helps sell the sheer absurdity of what we’re watching, but this is a “go big or go home” approach that doesn’t work in the small scenarios leading up to that.
And the film is truly absurd in many ways, both in-universe and without. A fair potion of the film’s narrative structure doesn’t make sense, and that’s just fine. When Peyton and company run with the ridiculousness instead of running from it, the film has a highly-appealing, 80’s exploitation vibe to it. It’s the kind of dumb, appealing action movie that would have ended up wearing out a whole lot of VHS tapes back in the day. This is a film where a standard wolf becomes a two-story monster with quills and gliding membranes and treats South Dakota tourists like chicken fingers. There’s absolutely no reason to take this seriously AT ALL.
Beyond all that, the fact that the movie exists in the first place is pretty damn ridiculous. Rampage, while a fun game that’s seen many re-releases over the years, is really an also-ran in the vast collection of arcade classics. It isn’t even a top-tier entry in the library of its creator, Midway Games, which includes far more recognizable titles like Gauntlet, Defender, and Mortal Kombat. The film’s connection to its source material is amazingly thin, and it doesn’t even bother to include what little plot was in the original, where the three rampaging beasts were mutated humans. Frankly, that potential body-horror goldmine would have given the film justification for taking itself a little seriously.
The closest we get to a mutated human in the film is Dwayne Johnson, a man who’s physique and charisma are so impressive that they must be the result of an active X-gene. Johnson is the primary reason the film is watchable in the first place, its primary selling point, and the earnest heart at its center. No matter his role or place in any of his movies, Johnson knows how to sell himself and his characters very well, and he’s never less than appealing. He’s woking with a weak script, and he full well knows it, but he does his damnedest to make everything work.
His supporting cast pales in comparison, often through no fault of their own. As his partner-in-narrative, Naomie Harris does what she can with an underwritten part that’s all tragic backstory and no active present. She works well with Johnson, although it’s a far more reactionary chemistry than it should be. Halfway through the film they’re joined by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a smarmy cowboy of a governmental agent. Morgan is clearly coasting through the role, but that’s still more than enough to make him a welcome presence. The ostensible human antagonists, a pair of super-Aryan, standard-issue evil corporate siblings played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, are as uninteresting as they are underplayed.
Humans shouldn’t be the focus of this film in the first place though, yet we’re forced to spend the majority of our time getting to know a whole host of them anyway. The true stars of the film are the monsters intent on tearing down civilization, and the film works better when they’re the focus of our attention. Monster performer Jason Liles’ motion capture as George the gorilla is arguably more expressive and emotional than the vast majority of the human cast. The physical designs of the wolf and crocodile monsters are more interesting than the backstories of any of the protagonists. And the CGI for all three of the beasts is well-done and on-point. There are a few times before the climax where it really looks like George is hurling piles of roughly-human-shaped rubber around, but once we get to Windy City, the effects are gleefully photo-realistic.
To be sure, the film only comes to life once all three monsters go to town on Chicago, throwing vehicles and people alike through the air, smashing through windows, and generally destroying everything they touch. Nobody plays Rampage because they want to explore the nuances of the characters. They play to break stuff. When the film remembers this crucial aspect of its own existence, it’s a giddy, exhilarating ride. It’s just a shame that there’s about 65 minutes of movie where the only thing that’s destroyed is the audience’s patience.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C