Sunday, May 6, 2018

Review: Rampage (2018)

Rampage (2018)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language, and crude gestures

Score: 3 out of 5

How is it that one of the best video-game-to-movie adaptations ever made wound up being based not on a modern, "cinematic", AAA release from Ubisoft or Square Enix designed to emulate the production values and epic storylines of Hollywood blockbusters, but rather, a plotless, quarter-munching old-school arcade game that emulated the sci-fi monster B-movies of the '50s and '60s? If you ask me, that's precisely why it succeeded where the recent adaptations of Assassin's Creed and Tomb Raider failed, and for that matter, where the Need for Speed movie and the '90s Mortal Kombat movie also went right. Even discounting questions over the quality of the stories being adapted in the first place (which can vary from the outstanding to the pulpy to the hackneyed), these epic video games, with storylines that stretch for anywhere from ten to fifty hours, are less like movies in structure and more like TV shows, especially modern, mytharc-heavy shows that are built for binge-watching. Trying to compress that into a two-hour movie means that some of the meat of the story is going to have to be cut for time. Old arcade beat-em-ups and racers, however, only had enough plot to explain why you were doing what you were doing. Ninjas have kidnapped the President. You're in a deathmatch fighting tournament. You're in a cross-country road race. And in this case, chemicals released by a dastardly corporation have mutated you into a giant, angry monster. When the plot is that simple, the writers can basically do whatever the hell they want with the property, creating characters, motivations, and more from whole cloth, and still convey the broad strokes of what it's about.

That's exactly what happened here, with the film adaptation adding human characters in the form of Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Malin Åkerman but otherwise staying faithful to the games' basic setup: a trio of giant, mutated animals (a gorilla named George, a wolf named Ralph, and a crocodile named Lizzie) are on the loose rampaging across the country. Between the stars' charisma, the special effects, and an unpretentious attitude that recognizes and pays homage to its inspirations in both the games and classic monster movies, Rampage is a gloriously cheesy, modern-day American kaiju flick that's basically cinematic junk food, but still offers up a violent, over-the-top, and quite enjoyable spectacle of destruction.

Dwayne Johnson plays Davis Okoye, an animal-loving primatologist at the San Diego Zoo and former Special Forces operative (because Dwayne Johnson), has developed a bond with an albino gorilla named George who he had rescued as a baby in an anti-poaching operation. So when there's an explosion aboard a space station where genetic experiments were being performed by the biotech company Energyne, and a canister of green mist from that station crash-lands in the zoo and causes George to start rapidly growing in both size and aggression, Davis is worried, especially when a black-ops team shows up to capture the rampaging gorilla and bring him to Energyne HQ in Chicago. Together with Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a disgraced former Energyne scientist, and Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a tough-talkin' Texan who works for a top-secret government agency, they must work to save George, stop his rampage, and uncover the nefarious plot of Energyne's CEO Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman) and her brother Brett (Jake Lacy). Given that two other canisters from that space station landed in Wyoming and the Everglades, creating a giant mutant wolf and crocodile that are themselves on the warpath to Chicago, that job is not gonna be so easy.

The tagline for this movie is "big meets bigger", and it lives up to it. It knows that the audience is here to watch fifty-foot monsters climb and smash buildings into rubble and eat the people inside, and boy howdy, does it deliver. While it opens with a horror-inspired sequence aboard a doomed space station playing host to a doomed Marley Shelton and a giant mutant rat, any pretensions of being a horror movie are abandoned from there as we're introduced to the enormous muscles of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a zookeeper who prefers the company of animals over people -- and given that everybody in this movie is a two-dimensional caricature, you can't blame him. We get a giant gorilla smashing up the San Diego Zoo, a giant wolf eating mercenaries at Devils Tower and tourists at Mount Rushmore, a giant crocodile stalking the Everglades, and eventually, all three of these freaks of nature being lured to a final showdown at Sears Tower in Chicago because of the villains' hare-brained plan. Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy as Claire and Brett are here to basically cackle like Mr. Burns before they both get what's coming to them, but they do it well (and their deaths are indeed gratifying), as does Naomie Harris as a scientist who wants revenge on her bosses and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (in as close to full Negan mode as you can get in a PG-13 film) as the jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold secret agent. Johnson is obviously the star, though, at least as far as the humans are concerned, carrying the non-special effects portions of the film on the strength of the People's Eyebrow even if his story feels at times like a parody of the sort of character he'd usually play.

But the real star here, of course, is the giant monsters. Brought to life with beautiful, beautiful CGI, this is basically the American Godzilla movie that people were expecting from the 2014 reboot of that series, only to complain about the title character not being on screen long enough. George, Ralph, and Lizzie trash everything in their path in a series of violent and explosive set pieces that thrive on collateral damage, and director Brad Peyton (reteaming with Johnson after the equally silly disaster-movie fun of San Andreas) knows how to make it look spectacular. Much like San Andreas, this isn't a movie you should think about too hard, the film hinting at grotesque bodily harm sustained to the many human bystanders about as much as it can given the rating; on more than one occasion, we outright see the monsters eating people. It's a shallow and flippant movie when it comes to the value of human life, but given that Davis' philosophy in life seems to be that humans suck anyway, it probably understood this very well.

The Bottom Line

The sort of movie that thrives on basic cable and streaming, Rampage is an empty-headed, empty-calorie blockbuster that still makes for good times about as big as its towering stars. Many other video game adaptations wish they could be this much fun to watch.

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