It seems there are many people in the film community who feel like only certain films are worth their time, much less worth being made. There are the prestige pictures, like The Shape of Water and The King’s Speech. Then there’s your indie darling character studies, such as Lady Bird or Moonlight. There’s also your prestige animated films from Pixar, Studio Ghibli, Laika. Lastly are your high-quality studio mega-blockbusters, including franchises such as Marvel, Star Wars, or The Dark Knight trilogy. It feels like any film that falls out of the range of these four categories is either dismissed as ‘acceptable’ and forgotten if not outright completely dismissed at all. I’m here to tell you that The Rock has something to say about mid-budgeted Spring action films having their place, and he’s brought his albino gorilla friend George along to help spread the message.
Directed by his San Andres helmer Brad Peyton, Dwayne Johnson’s latest film Rampage is an adaptation of the 80s Midway video game of the same name that featured player-controlled giant monsters destroying various city buildings to ramp up the score. Backed up with a supporting cast of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, and Joe Manganiello, Johnson shines in this throwback to the genetically modified monster movies of the past, offering up plenty of violence and destruction while also planting it’s tongue firmly in cheek, knowing what it is an embracing it.
Rampage the video game was a simple affair: wreck buildings, get points, try to stay alive. Obviously this needed a little beefing up if it was to become a movie, and so a plot of genetic editing gone wrong and the friendship between a primatologist and a gorilla serve as the engine moving this cotton candy bonanza forward. The plot and dialogue borderline on the ridiculous, but it’s all just an excuse to get to giant monster action, and in that respect, the film delivers in spades, while offering up a few surprising moments of emotional depth that caught me a little off guard.
Part of what makes Rampage so fun is the performance of Dwayne Johnson. If anything else, this is yet again proof that the guy has endless amounts of charm and can carry any type of movie. One of his biggest assets is his characters relationship with George, played by motion caption performer Jason Liles. Liles makes George a genuine, honest-to-God character in all of this, rather than just another monster. One of the most surprising parts of Rampage is the heart that comes from the genuine and well-realized relationship between Johnson’s Davis Okoye and George the albino gorilla.
Johnson’s fellow co-stars fair with thinner characters and less depth, which is to be expected in a film like this. Naomie Harris does what she can with the female scientist sidekick role, and both Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy are cartoonishly evil as the films human villains. Joe Manganiello and Marley Shelton show up and collect a paycheck for what are essentially extended cameos.
The co-star that comes out head and shoulders above everyone else is Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Agent Harvey Russell, a g-man with a cowboys drawl, belt buckle, and ivory-handled pistol. Morgan is having the most fun of anyone on screen, playing a cocksure asshole of an agent who just so happens to be fighting for the good guys. He’s entertaining as hell, fun to watch match wits with The Rock, and deserving of maybe even his own spinoff.
When it comes to a film like Rampage, I feel like it needs to be graded on a curve. Objectively, the film is not on the level of the mega-blockbusters that are racking up billions of dollars worldwide. The script just doesn’t pack the punch, the characters are weak, and the action is bombastic, violent, and frankly, glorious. You know what? Rampage is aware of all of these things as well, and it makes no apologies, leaning into the nonsense for some laugh out loud moments that are intentional and effective.
The monsters of the film, the aforementioned George, as well as Ralph the wolf and Lizzie the crocodile, have unique, memorable designs, splicing in features from other animals, such as porcupine barbs or a flying squirrels wings. They’re monsters that any 11-year-old would go nuts over, and I can see this being a gateway film for younger audiences into the world of monster movies in general. The CGI destruction brings the goods, and the film even goes into a more violent territory that I appreciated, throwing a little PG-13 blood and carnage into the mix. Really, that’s what your here for. To discuss cinematography (it’s good!) or editing (it does the job!) seems to miss the point that this film is out to have three giant monsters wreck Chicago and toss The Rock in there to help sort it out. That’s what it’s here for, and it nails it.
Brad Peyton has come a long way from Cats & Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (not kidding) and he and Johnson seem to have a firm grasp on how to maximize the assets given to them both in this and their previous collaboration San Andreas. There’s also a decent variety to the action, with a scene featuring a mercenary team playing like a more intense monster movie, then others playing to the strength of big dumb action fun. Peyton shoots the action with confidence, pulling back for wide hero shots of his monsters wrecking the city and then each other.
As mentioned above, the real surprise of Rampage comes in the little details, particularly in the relationship between George and Johnson's character. With George being such a well-realized CGI character, their friendship and bond seems genuine, played out with believable moments of sign language and facial tics. The facial expressions on George, particularly, are fantastic, showing a range of emotion from happiness to sadness, and from laughing to rage. Beyond the massive destruction on display, the biggest success of Rampage is building this believable relationship not just between man and beast, but between The Rock and a CGI gorilla. It really is one of the films most impressive feats.
Rampage is a film that knows what it is and doesn’t take itself too seriously, so why shouldn’t the film community do the same? Instead of holding a delicious cheeseburger to the same standards of a 3-star Michelin meal, why don’t we enjoy the cheeseburger for what it is? Rampage isn’t trying to be The Shape of Water, and it’s not trying to be Lady Bird. It’s here to party, have fun, and wreck some buildings, and it does it very well. Sure it’s dumb, it’s supporting characters are thin, and it’s science is questionable at best, but if it doesn’t care, then why should you? Come and enjoy the ride, because that’s all that Rampage wants you to do. Have fun.
The Final Pop
Rampage is big, loud, dumb, and a lot of fun. It’s crowd-pleasing monster destruction embraces the ridiculousness of it’s concept for a rollicking good time that’s peppered with expectedly thin characters, questionable science, but a surprising amount of heart in it’s core relationship. The Rock can make anything fun, and with George the giant albino gorilla as his tag-team partner, Rampage is no different. Movie Theater Popcorn.