Just a few weeks after gargantuan aliens and cyborgs squared off in Pacific Rim: Uprising, massive apes and crocodiles crashed into theaters last weekend in Brad Peyton’s Rampage. In his third collaboration with the filmmaker, Dwayne Johnson delivers another round of muscle and magnetism alongside a gorilla with even more brawn than he has. Featuring mutated creatures stampeding across the U.S. to Chicago for an epic brawl, Rampage is one rocky rumble, but it certainly delivers better monster warfare than Uprising managed to serve up last month.
Rampage is based on the 1986 arcade game of the same name in which ordinary humans undergo transformations into giant destructive creatures, and level cities and devour people as fast as they can. Players can control George, a giant gorilla inspired by King Kong, Lizzie, a Godzilla-like lizard, and Ralph, an enormous werewolf. When casting a character who morphs into a massive gorilla, Dwayne Johnson is the obvious choice, but considering it would be odd to expect audiences to root for a catastrophic, man-eating primate, the film alters the premise a bit.
We open on the destruction of a space station, where experiments on DNA-editing are taking place. Canisters containing a mutative pathogen rain over America, where animals discover them and experience violent transformations. One of those creatures is an albino gorilla named George, who lives in a zoo and is looked after by primatologist Davis Okaye (Johnson). Energyne, the gene manipulation company that developed the pathogen, takes notice of the mutations, and activates a large beacon to lure the animals to Chicago so scientists can harvest the samples.
A film involving giant destructive creatures can be a fun concept, but a clumsy execution and an uneven script limit the exhilaration on this ruckus. It’s fine that main story writer Ryan Engle (The Commuter) chose animals as subjects for the transformations, but the way they are drawn to the same location is utterly brainless. The villains at Energyne aren’t depicted to be very wise, but nobody becomes CEO of a gene manipulation company and thinks it’s smart to make their skyscraper the target of horrific cataclysmic beasts, destroying half the city in the process.
The adaptation is directed by Brad Peyton, the man behind such artistic and profound works as Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, and San Andreas. In case you didn’t pick up on the sarcasm there, I’ll clarify: the Cats & Dogs sequel was just horrendous, Journey 2 was so absurd you had to see it to believe it, and San Andreas was a conventional disaster movie in all the worst ways possible. Unless the campy delights found in Journey 2 were by design, Rampage is easily Peyton’s best picture yet, but that’s certainly not saying much.
Neither Journey 2 nor San Andreas represent anything close to the brightest spots of Dwayne Johnson’s career, but considering San Andreas made him the top performing star of 2015, Johnson’s surely back working with Peyton for the money. It’s a perfect role for him, however. He fits lighthearted action like a glove, as his comedic chops far and above outrank his skills with dramatic content. Unfortunately, the writers don’t make the best use of him here, as a world weary cynical backstory is unwelcome and competes with his ability to flash his goofy grin.
When he’s going Rambo on a colossal crocodile with a Mark 14, however, the thrill in that moment alone might be enough to get your money’s worth. During the early proceedings, the action is few and far between, but the brief all-out assault we are treated with in the climax features some glorious takedowns, as sloppy as it’s all put together. It just depends how much the lack of realism bothers you, as Johnson gets pummeled by hundreds of pounds of metal, takes a gunshot to the abdomen, and still manages to go to war with titanic mutants in the end.
Where The Rock’s ability to ham it up is greatly restrained, Peyton lets Jeffrey Dean Morgan go to town as the wise-cracking, carefree cowboy of a government agent that swoops in to oversee the mutant monkey situation. The path to the epic clash of critters is a frustrating one, but Morgan’s hilarious mischief nearly makes it bearable. What doesn’t is Dr. Kate Caldwell, an exaggerated character thrust upon Naomie Harris, who shoulders forced romantic tension with Johnson and spends the film unreasonably agonizing over the pathogen she helped create.
You can’t really blame Peyton and Engle from deviating from the source material to develop Rampage, but it would be more justifiable if the modifications were better conceived. George and company still topple buildings and devour bystanders, but the effect is much darker outside the context of a rudimentary arcade game, and especially when our giant ape is established early on as a friendly gentle creature. The end product might be the hasty work of a hack, but if all you’re looking for is The Rock and some solid creature carnage, Rampage should meet that quota.