RAMPAGE. Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Joe Manganiello, Jake Lacy, Marley Shelton, Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Directed by Brad Peyton. 107 minutes. Rated M (Action violence and sustained threat).
In Brad Peyton’s ‘San Andreas’, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson played a heroic helicopter pilot called Ray Gaines. In ‘Rampage’, the latest collaboration between the star and director pairing, Johnson’s part has gotten some upgrades; not only can his character, Davis Okoye, pilot a chopper, but he’s also a world-leading primatologist, a former special forces soldier, and best friends with the world’s only albino gorilla. Given this steep escalation, if in his next project with Peyton, Johnson doesn’t play a character who fulfils all the above and is a Michelin-starred chef to boot, audiences worldwide can feel justifiably short-changed.
Indeed, one ought to question whether the musclebound wrestling star-cum-blockbuster stalwart can continue to defy both age (Johnson is 45) and changing audience tastes (his last “flop” came in 2013, and he’s starred in nine hits since). However, there is no denying his intense charisma, a charm tinged with decency that oozes from his screen presence. From where I’m sitting, it looks like the Rock’s place in modern cinema is as solid as his namesake. Imagine my surprise, then, when Johnson’s Davis Okoye is upstaged by a motion captured gorilla named George (Jason Liles).
After Davis rescued a baby George from poachers, the pair took up residency at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary. The film picks up with George fully grown and the leader of his own troop. George and Davis share a special bond, and Johnson and Liles totally sell the friendship. Indeed, thanks to top notch special effects, George is a more believable character than Davis, and walks away with most of the film’s funniest moments (who knew that a gorilla signing with ASL could be so hilarious?). When they’re not making cheesy quips, Davis’ offsiders, Nelson (P.J. Byrne), Connor (Jack Quaid) and Amy (Breanne Hill), deliver the necessary exposition to tell audiences that Davis might not be a people person (he prefers the company of animals, naturally), yet still manages to inspire a mix of envy and desire wherever he goes.
One day, Davis is called to work for an emergency – George has escaped, breaking into the grizzly bear enclosure. Davis and Nelson find him there, significantly larger than when they last saw him, a dead bear at his feet. Unbeknownst to them, three canisters containing a genetic editing pathogen have re-entered the atmosphere above North America after a space-based research facility was destroyed, one of which landed in George’s pen. Genetic engineer Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) sees a news report about George’s escape and recognises her own research, which has been misused by her former employer, Energyne. Caldwell teams up with Davis to stop George’s increasing growth and growing aggression, though not before U.S. government agent (and part-time cowboy) Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) takes George into his own custody.
Meanwhile, at Energyne HQ, high-flying executive siblings Claire (Malin Åkerman, dripping with camp) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy, goofy) realise that they need to contain the fallout from their company’s illegal experiments. After footage emerges of a giant wolf loose in Wyoming, they mobilise a team of private military contractors led by Burke (Joe Manganiello) to kill the beast and bring back a sample of its DNA. When this attempt goes south, the Claire activates a radio signal which summons the mutant creatures to a tower in Chicago, and the creatures rapidly begin to converge upon the city. Other than George and the wolf, nicknamed Ralph, viewers are treated to occasional glimpses of an enormous, water-dwelling threat, which makes a beeline from the Florida Everglades towards the Windy City.
‘Rampage’ is loosely based on an 80s arcade game in which up to three players can take on the roles of giant animals – a gorilla, a lizard and a wolf – and work together to destroy cities while avoiding military attacks (the game actually makes an incongruous cameo in the background of an office set). An adaptation of a game like ‘Rampage’ is designed, as a big-budget, mindless actioner boasting a solid gold star, to be somewhat ‘critic proof’; it doesn’t matter what reviews say, certain people will still see the film. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, this situation is entirely amenable to me. Filmgoers that don’t care whether the film is good or bad will have their fun unspoiled, while pickier viewers seem unlikely to be seeking out a film in which giant mutant animals destroy entire city blocks. When the destruction finally comes (and there’s plenty of it), it’s home to a handful of truly awesome set pieces. If viewers are going only to see the Rock face off with hundred-foot-tall monsters, they will leave satisfied.
The biggest problem with this brand of disaster film is that there is an increasing impetus for these movies to appear smart. Before any destruction can occur, loads of exposition laden with bad science and nonsense geek speak needs to be levelled at the audience. Where ‘San Andreas’ crammed in a seismology lecture, ‘Rampage’ dips into the early 90s to talk about CRISPR, a gene editing technology recently labelled as a WOMD by U.S. Intelligence. Why? It’s an inherently silly premise and that’s okay. It’s frustrating when a film adopts airs to justify its guilty pleasures. No one is going to leave ‘Rampage’ feeling smarter than when they entered the theatre, nor were they hoping to. It is enough to just set the world’s biggest blockbuster star against an assortment of computer-generated, city-levelling threats, and watch what happens. It also helps to have an albino gorilla on his team as well.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out April 12.