Game-Based Monster Pic "Rampage" Bites

Born as an arcade game in 1986 and rebirthed in 1997 as a cross-platform smash, video game franchise Rampage brought interactive skyscraper-leveling, human-chomping monster action to the masses. In many ways the property was readymade for the big screen, its larger than life antiheroes George (giant ape), Ralf (giant wolf), and Lizzie (giant lizard) obviously derived from some of cinema’s most well known behemoths. Director Brad Peyton and “Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle” star Dwayne Johnson seem like a logical enough fit for the material; Johnson was long rumored for a film adaptation of fellow Midway arcade game Spy Hunter as early as 2002. (It never materialized.)

Except, the last team-up between the director and star yielded truly insipid earthquake movie “San Andreas.” Their “Rampage,” only loosely based on the games, ends up every bit as inert and hardly more fun, failing to capture more than an iota of the colorful fun of its source material.

The pic’s first and biggest gaffe: it desperately wants us to care about buff zoologist Davis Okoye (Johnson) and his best animal friend, George the albino gorilla. Screenwriters Ryan J. Condal, Carlton Cuse, Ryan Engle, and Adam Sztykiel lay on the sentiment early and thick, playing George’s eventual growth spurt and increased aggression (caused by a gene-mutating pathogen that fell to Earth from a space station) into something tragic and heartrending. Woof.

Cut to a wolf in Wyoming and a crocodile in Florida absorbing the same pathogen, neither of which is given anything close to the same touching backstory as George, and we’re off. If nothing else, the monsters definitely rampage, eventually winding up in Chicago to predictably lay waste to the city’s skyline.

If all this sounds decidedly kid-oriented, it actually isn’t. The battle scenes are hyper-violent, as a live-action adaptation of Rampage might be, featuring a few genuinely surprising instances of gore and an excess of curse words. It all feels like it was ghostwritten by fifth-graders, testing the MPAA to see what they could get away with. Considering its PG-13 rating, the movie gets away with a lot.

Actor Naomie Harris (“Moonlight”) is no stranger to big budget frivolity – she was arguably the highlight of Gore Verbinski’s “Pirates Of The Caribbean” sequels. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating to see her talents circle the drain here. She plays disgraced genetic engineer Kate Caldwell, a character whose main purpose might be defined as giving Johnson’s character someone to talk to. To hold hands with.

Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy play white collar villains poorly, but at least they’re not taking the material as seriously as Johnson and company. Only Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Watchmen”) really has a grip on what the tone should be, imbuing generic stock government agent character Harvey Russell with a generous dose of charisma. The actor swaggers through the film having the kind of fun no one else is having – us included – wringing out the soggy screenplay each time he enters the frame.

The computer-generated imagery is admittedly superb – significantly better than in “San Andreas” – and the final throwdown between monsters nearly justifies the price of weekday matinee ticket. But the fragmented storytelling and oozing mawkishness so wildly out of place in a movie about monsters eating people signals the death rattle for the project. Johnson’s big opportunity for a memorable one-liner comes and goes with a sheepish “Well, that sucks.”

Touché, “Rampage.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: April 13, 2018
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Brad Peyton
Screenwriters: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykiel
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Marley Shelton, P.J. Byrne
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language, and crude gestures)