Review: 'Rampage'

A giant wolf, a giant gorilla and a giant bear tear up Chi-town
Dwayne Johnson stars, along with Naomie Harris, in monster mayhem movie 'Rampage.'

There's wit in the giant-monster movie Rampage, but it's certainly scarce. In it, King Kong and Godzilla have a frank exchange of opinions. Not the actual Kong and Godzy, but knockoffs. King Klong and Gorezilla. It took four credited writers to explain why the critters got real big. Aboard a space station, a nefarious corporation was testing its gene-splicing program, CRISPR.

Kaboom, says the space station. Chunks of flaming DNA canisters fall from the sky and to Earth, where they squirt out their contents right into the faces of three animals. At the San Diego Zoo, George the Albino Ape gets it first. At Devil's Tower in Wyoming, a wolf is the next victim. Next one down is Lizzy, the alligator that grows to the size of a cruise ship, sprouting a macelike tail and poisonous spines. All three beasts converge to have a round-table discussion about the important issues facing us all.

Dwayne Johnson plays Davis Okoye, who rescued George from poachers when he was a baby and has a rapport with the massive ape. Davis is charged with talking the animal down from the rageoholism destroying him. (George knows sign language, like Koko.) Tangled up in the mission is a government man from some unknown agency. He's played in an imitation Tommy Lee Jones manner by Jeffrey Dean Morgan—better known as Negan from The Walking Dead—and keeps a pearl-handled pistol tucked in his waistband, just like every stud who wants to accidentally shoot his balls off.

Meanwhile, at the HQ of the Very Evil Company that developed CRISPR, the scheming mannish sister Claire (Malin Akerman) and sniveling brother Brett (Jack Lacy) confer. These villains' absolute best plan to handle the problem was to broadcast a radio signal from a Chicago skyscraper in order to draw the giant beasts into the city by giving them blinding headaches. Fortunately, an ex-scientist with a score to settle, played by Naomie Harris, is on hand to give Davis some tips on how to cure George.

Director Brad Peyton (San Andreas) has been saying he didn't want to use King Kong's backstory. Problem is, there's no front story, either. As Peter Biskind observed in his book Seeing is Believing, the 1950s monster movies were fantastical escapes from the anxieties caused by nuclear proliferation and Communism. But it's unclear what the point of Rampage is—except to watch a rampage. In this way, it's very much akin to the videogame from which the film draws its title. In the sidescroller, originally released in 1987, the entire point was to control one of a handful of massive beasts and destroy as many buildings as possible.

This Rampage induces kaiju fatigue. It's the most boring monster movie since the Emmerich Godzilla, even if Chicago usually isn't the city that gets demolished—yes, there was a recent alien bombardment in Jupiter Ascending. There's nothing electrifying here, no human faces that anchor the fantasy of destruction. An ape face, yes. If there's something done well in 2018 fantastic cinema, it's animating and playing a gorilla, but this is still a movie based on a video game based on an arcade game based on movies. And seemingly the freshest gag, according to the audience reaction, is the giant monkey flipping the bird (1976's A*P*E* did it first, with the giant gorilla giving the Finger of Honor to a helicopter).

All that's left here is to watch The Rock. As he ages, Dwayne Johnson is bound to get more interesting, as that preposterous body starts to decay a bit. He was fascinating because of his physical perfection, and he'll be more fascinating when it starts to wane. When fissures of self-doubt start to crack The Rock, he'll be doing his best work.

He's not at that stage yet, but the filmmakers seem to see that fade coming. Why else are there so many lines in the script about how hot Davis is, how much time he spends in the gym, and how the ladies can't resist him?

It's easy to resist the irresolute director Peyton, who again demonstrates the problem of scattering the forces—scenes shift without much point, the removal of dramatic cause and effect, in favor of a story about critters being hit by stuff falling out of the sky. There's no guilt in store for Davis, the human who befriended a wild creature. Contrast him with Robert Armstrong's feelings about bringing King Kong to his death, as described in Son of Kong, also about a giant albino gorilla. Worse, Rampage goes upbeat at the end. The movie is as hollow as a chocolate bunny.

PG-13, 107 Mins.

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