MOVIE REVIEW: Rampage
RAMPAGE-- 2 STARS
The dignified art form of cinema may not need a dumb and dazzling film like Rampage, but what escapist audiences do seek out and need are larger-than-life stars. There will always be an ass-kicking place for brawny men like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the Arnold Schwarzeneggers, Charleton Hestons, and John Waynes that came before him on the silver screen. The former WWE superstar has become the center square of any year’s blockbuster Bingo card. The fully-formed persona that is Dwayne Johnson is always a welcome treat, triggering this returning and automatic life lesson from this writer:
LESSON #1: THE ROCK MAKES EVERYTHING BETTER-- Citing this website’s raucous 2015 review of San Andreas (one of the most widely read reviews in this site’s history), Dwayne Johnson “can make terrible movies OK, OK movies good, and good movies great.” After the huge hit of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, this lesson still remains true. Johnson has the charisma and clout to hit the cinematic strongman game enough to make a terrible movie OK when it comes to Rampage.
As loose as a toddler’s shoelaces, this pre-summer tentpole was inspired by Midway’s 1986 original arcade game where the goal of the adventure’s enormously amplified animal monsters was to reduce cities to rubble before advancing to the next challenge. The chemical catalyst for the movie version is CRISPR. No, it’s not the non-nutritive, semi-permeable, and non-osmotic cereal varnish from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (I giggled too at the non-intimidating sounding moniker). This is an airborne super-pathogen cooked up by the secretive and filthy rich corporation Energyne.
Run by the icy Claire Wyden (current Billions star Malin Akerman) and her imbecilic brother Brett (The Office alumnus Jack Lacey in a resume-destroying role), the company’s goal is to weaponize the DNA of animal test subjects for untapped scientific gains. When Energyne’s space station lab is destroyed by one of those guinea pigs run amok, three preserved samples of CRISPR survive the re-entry to crash in the wolf pack Wyoming wilderness, the gator country of the Florida Everglades, and the silverback gorilla habitat of the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary. Each broken capsule unwittingly infects the unlucky animal that discovers it, leading to rapidly mutated size, features, and destructive temperament.
After the 30-foot wolf and the even-larger alligator heavy arriving in the third act, the afflicted victim we are directed to care about the most is George, an intelligent, rare, and rescued white-haired albino silverback gorilla (portrayed by Jason Liles in performance capture). The physical and behavioral changes in George alarm his primatologist handler, Davis Okoye (Johnson, borrowing heavily from Chris Pratt’s job duties from Jurassic World). The burly man in a beefy Bronco (advantageous product placement from Ford) is, naturally, an ex-military anti-poaching operative now dedicated to the civilian work of George’s care.
The incidents in San Diego bring forth optimistic help and pessimistic oversight. The hopeful Dr. Kate Caldwell (Moonlight Oscar nominee Naomie Harris, slumming it to a degree), a discredited former genetic engineer, comes forward to offer Okoye help in curing George. Meanwhile, the activated military, led by Texas rambling man and spook-in-a-suit Agent Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, deliciously chewing every bit scenery possible), seek to contain George and stop the wolf on the loose tearing through the Midwest prairie. The beasts and the human forces of Rampage giving chase descend on Energyne’s headquarters atop the Willis Tower in Chicago above a downtown teaming with citizens and skyscrapers ready to get squashed.
Plain to see, the convenient contrivances and preposterous predictability couldn’t be more clear in Rampage as the roller coaster takes over. Re-teaming Dwayne Johnson with his San Andreas and Journey 2 director Brad Peyton, Rampage is all about mashing its movie buttons to punch, destroy, bite, growl, and explode our senses and our thrills. The spurts of humor, violence, and the mixes between the two create a shaky imbalance of cheers and jeers. The lead conductor of the creature feature chaos and monster mash magic is 2nd unit director and visual effects supervisor Colin Strause. He and his teams deserve strong credit for the sparkling spectacle that unfolds. Call this more coherent, not much but more, than a Michael Bay film.
As always, Dwayne Johnson has the gravitas and screen presence to lead these kids of films with a sweaty straight face. Rampage is a lesser entry than others on his resume (especially the daddy feels he put into San Andreas), but his fun factor is undeniable. We should all expect nothing less from the man with 25 combined MTV Movie Award, Teen Choice Award, Kid’s Choice Award, and People’s Choice Award nominations, including five wins. Someday, audiences may grow tired of these assembly line actioners, but it won’t be because of his consistent and immense charm.
LESSON #2: DO NOT BELIEVE THE EVACUATION CAPABILITIES OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO PORTRAYED IN THIS FILM-- Alright, I will admit full red-ass bias on this one. I live and work in the Windy City and there is a level of devious glee to see its buildings and streets torn to shreds. However, there's an action sequence in the city where invisible military assistance reports that they have evacuated the downtown area within an hour or so. That's impossible in this town. We get gridlock on a precipitation-less spring day if there is one single lane of construction on a freeway or a beer-related 5K happening downtown. You're out of your element, Brad Peyton. I call bulls--t.
LESSON #3: THE IGNORANCE OF "MOVIE MILITARY"-- Since I’m calling back to previous lessons from old reviews, I might as well borrow this gem from 2011’s Super 8. The predictable "ignorant movie military" stereotype is in full effect. To quote the review, “the movie military that shoots first, asks questions later are the same ones always trying to control what they can’t and boss around the equally-if-not-more intelligent members of the public and scientific fields around them when those people are trying to tell them they are wrong.” Sigh, they never learn.
LESSON #4: FIST BUMPS FROM THE ROCK ARE LIKE TOUCHING THE ROBE OF JESUS-- Let’s explore the history of the Fist Bump in this TIME magazine article. Howie Mandel and former President Barack Obama may be purveyors of this greeting of bonding, but we may have an new champion in The Rock. In Rampage, a fist bump from him confirms all loyalties and seals divine protection. It’s holy, I tell you!
LESSON #5: TRUE FRIENDS CAN SHARE THE MIDDLE FINGER WITH NO DISRESPECT-- Let’s now digress from the halo to the horns. Wikipedia has its historical notations and Adam Blank’s The Field Guide to the North American Bird may be the seminal instructional tome on all things “the finger.” That said, two individuals who can share this grand gesture with a hearty smile and bonding camaraderie are on another level of friendship and connection.
LESSON #6: REMAIN CALM-- You have to love the oxymoron that arises when this repeated mantra of Davis Okoye's character is the humanistic core of a movie titled Rampage. He’s not wrong, though. Overreactions cause trouble, from the smallest person to the largest monster. Keep your s--t together and chill. Yes, that’s as deep as this movie is going to get.