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Rampage (2018)

DIRECTOR: Brad Peyton

CAST: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello

REVIEW:

Is it possible for a movie to embody the adage “go big or go home” and miss it at the same time?  Rampage (loosely based on a 1980s arcade game) takes too long to rampage.  Like many a “meh” disaster/monster movie, entirely too much time is spent on the “storylines” of one-dimensional human characters scurrying around underfoot and getting in the way of the monster-on-monster rumble that, let’s face it, is the part of the movie everyone bought a ticket for.  Fans of pseudo-Godzilla/King Kong giant mutant monster action might find enough here to wet their appetite, but maybe not enough for a full course.

The obligatory plot feels like it could have been assembled by a not particularly precocious ten-year-old.  Generic Evil Corporation led by Generic Evil CEO (Malin Akerman) is conducting experiments with genetic modification onboard a space station in orbit, but when one of its creations get loose and wreaks havoc, all that remains of the station—and its hapless crew—is several canisters of Plot Device that crash land on Earth, one in the Wyoming wilds where it infects a wolf, one in the Florida Everglades where it infects an alligator, and one in the gorilla enclosure in the San Diego Zoo, where it infects George, a hulking albino gorilla and the BFF of its misanthropic gym rat keeper Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson).  When we first meet George, he’s 7 feet tall and weighs 500 pounds.  Come morning and the poor confused guy is 9 feet tall and 1,000 pounds and counting, along with exhibiting uncharacteristically aggressive behavior.  Soon, George breaks loose like a pseudo King Kong, leaving Davis and scientist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) trying to find a cure.  Enter Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), one of those shadowy government agents who won’t say which agency he belongs to, some mercenaries (led by True Blood‘s Joe Manganiello), Evil CEO’s superfluous idiot brother (Jake Lacy), and some other randoms who eat up too much screentime en route to the three-way smackdown as all three monsters converge on Chicago (as Tokyo breathes a sigh of relief at being left out of these pseudo-Godzilla shenanigans, one may presume) and proceed to Rampage.

One doesn’t go into Rampage expecting profundity.  But one does go in reasonably expecting big, dumb monster fun, so it’s a little disappointing that the movie doesn’t serve up enough of the titular “rampage” quotient.  Too much time is spent on things like the rather feeble “tragic backstories” of Davis and Kate, the dastardly machinations of Evil CEO (she has a name, but it doesn’t really matter what it is), the token General/Colonel/Who-Cares (Demetrius Grosse) who stands around staring at monitors and looking serious, and the military’s completely ineffectual attempts to stop the monster mayhem in its tracks (one wonders if the military resents these kinds of movies for making them look so utterly useless).  There’s some generic action sequences with Fast and the Furious levels of realism, like Davis and Kate making a narrow and unlikely escape from a crashing plane, but while Dwayne Johnson does a fine job of flexing his humongous biceps, that’s not what we’re here for.  We’re here for an all-out over-the-top monster brew-ha, and unfortunately it takes until the eleventh hour for that to kick into full gear.  When it comes, it’s satisfactory enough (the final smackdown between our King Kong stand-in and a giant and nigh indestructible mutated alligator feels like an appetizer for the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong grudge match), but doesn’t occupy enough of the movie’s screentime.  The other problem is the movie takes itself entirely too seriously.  The movie wants us to be moved by the “tragic backstories” of Davis and Kate and the bromance between Davis and George, but these human elements are utterly perfunctory at best, melodramatically eyeroll-worthy at worst (the movie even chickens out of a climactic “heroic sacrifice”).  This is inherently silly material, and one wishes there’d been a lot more tongue-in-cheek moments like when the mutated wolf glides through the air like a flying squirrel and Johnson deadpans “of course the wolf flies”.  Embracing its inherent campiness might not have made Rampage a “better” movie, but it at least might have made it a more entertaining one.

Like Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose career trajectory he has often seemed to be attempting to emulate), one of Dwayne Johnson’s biggest attributes (besides, of course, his bulging biceps) is a willingness to poke fun and at times outright spoof himself.  No one would consider Johnson a great thespian (probably including Johnson himself), but at first glance this might seem the kind of campy action flick where he could be enjoyable (like the recent Jumanji sequel).  Alas, the self-serious material here holds him back (not to mention scurrying around underfoot while giant monsters duke it out makes him feel like a rather superfluous action hero).  Likewise, Naomie Harris is relegated to the thankless disaster/monster movie archetype of the obligatory expert scientist (who happens to be an attractive female sidekick to tag along with Johnson, of course), who has to rattle off a bunch of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook with a straight face.  To make matters more tonally inconsistent, while Johnson and Harris are all flatly earnest seriousness, the supporting cast seems to have gotten the memo about being in a campy movie.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan chews into his lines with Negan-esque satisfaction, taking the time to savor every utterance like it’s a delicious lollipop (considering the script doesn’t give him any especially memorable one-liners, he rather seems to be relishing his dialogue more than it deserves).  Malin Akerman plays her entirely one-dimensional Evil CEO like a villain straight out of a Captain Planet cartoon, managing to be even more hammy and mustache-twirling than Ready Player One’s Ben Mendelsohn among recent entries in the always well-populated Evil CEO archetype.  As her extraneous dim-bulb brother, Jake Lacy’s cartoonish overacting makes us wish he’d get swallowed whole a long time before anything of that sort actually happens.  Throw in Joe Manganiello’s crack team of mercs who don’t fare well against a thirty-foot wolf, and Davis’ supporting entourage of buffoonish zoo assistants (Breanne Hill, P.J. Byrne, and Jack “son of Dennis” Quaid), who drop straight out of the movie after seeming to be built up as sidekicks (be thankful for small favors, perhaps), and there’s too many humans scurrying around.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Rampage reunites a lot of the people who brought us the disaster porn extravaganza San Andreas, including star Dwayne Johnson, director Brad Peyton, screenwriter Carlton Cruse, producers Beau Flynn and Hiram Garcia, editor Bob Ducsay, and composer Andrew Lockington.  Rampage tries to up the ante by throwing in three giant monsters, but overall they’re of roughly equal quality.  A-level special effects can’t boost a B-movie out of the placement to which it belongs.

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