Even in stupidity there can be poetry. In the Midway Games’ Rampage series, released across arcades and consoles since 1986, the player controls a giant rat, ape or alligator whose sole objective is to destroy as much urban landscape as possible. Smash, smash, smash. Totally, blissfully uncomplicated. Things like ‘plot’ and personable characterisation weren’t pressing priorities. But a writer room abhors a vacuum, and the big-screen Rampage, the latest vehicle for one-man industry Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, expands the building-bashing conceit into a messy, tonally wild and strangely restrained man versus monster blockbuster.
The focus of Rampage is a hulking biped, an impossibly proportioned creature produced by some science experiment gone awry. But… enough about The Rock! Johnson plays primatologist Davis Okoye, a former Special Forces man not big on human interaction, who heads up the ape unit at a San Diego conservation centre, turning the heads of hot young animal lovers and having sign language banter sessions with his best friend, an albino silverback gorilla named George who Davis saved from poachers as a cub.
Davis is the latest in typical leading man roles for Johnson: an essentially good dude, handsome but never sexually threatening, who’ll go to bat for family and friends. He’s a solid grounding presence in a generally batty film.
Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy play the bratty Wyden siblings, who run a sinister genetics company, conducting animal mutation experiments so dodgy they have to be done in space (wouldn’t some nowhere third world country be cheaper?). An accident on board sends canisters of their specially designed pathogen (the word ‘pathogen’ is used a lot) plummeting to Earth, infecting George, a wolf and an alligator, turning them into unstoppable, super-sized versions of themselves. All turn ever wilder, but George retains some of his good guy status, and eventually switches sides to the humans — Davis, jargon-spouting geneticist sidekick Dr. Caldwell (Naomie Harris) and The Walking Dead’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan, having fun as a strutting government gunslinger.
The CEO brother and sister activate a low-frequency signal that sends the berserko animals high-tailing it for the centre of Chicago, the central peril of the third Act, an awkward plan to that the military can kill them and the schemers can somehow retrieve DNA…or something…even though the guys in camo barking in screens are going to drop the mother of all bombs and obliterate downtown….even though there’s obviously still military personnel on the ground…sorry, did I mention this is a film has a giant wolf in it who can also fly?
There are four credited screenwriters, a case of too many cooks. Laidback dialogue mixes with jerky, random flashes of violence, like George dropping Akerman into his gaping jaw, shot in top-down slow-motion that echoes Jurassic World’s famously unnecessary side character death.
Rampage is ludicrous, but nowhere near as ludicrous as it needed to be. Like a roided-up George sulking in Homeland Security’s puny cage, the essentially insanity of the film is confined and neutered, its material ripe for a wild-eyed creature feature with B-movie abandon. The Chicago scenes don’t really capture scale or movement, lacking the eye of the modern Godzilla, which, for all its faults, understood the importance of communicating relative sizes. What we get is bland computerised devastation of ash and debris, now the default language of save-the-world finales.
Maybe the presence of Johnson, whose ascent to blockbuster everyman demonstrates the forward-thinking carefulness of a small nation coup, acts as an inoculation against excessive weirdness, against potentially brand-bending straying from broad, likeable action hero beats (‘I need a drink’).
Whatever the case, cinema’s uneasy relationship with videogames continues. This thing is a bit (ape) shit. Conor Smyth
Rampage is out on wide release.