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Review: Rampage

Sarah Ward

This monster mash lurches through its cartoonish carnage, relying heavily upon Dwayne Johnson’s charms.
Review: Rampage

Movie still image of Dwayne Johnson in Rampage via Roadshow.

Thanks to the Fast and Furious films, Moana and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Dwayne Johnson’s fame now bulges bigger than his biceps. And, as the former wrestler’s star keeps expanding, so too do the on-screen scenarios he faces. Various high-octane heists couldn’t stop him, and nor could an earth-shattering fault line, so the man also known as The Rock is now grappling with mutated, super-sized animals. There’s humour in the setup, of course, with Johnson taking on creatures that actually eclipse his own towering bulk – something that his human co-stars just can’t manage. And yet, while Rampage tries to serve up laughs and spectacle in tandem, the video game adaptation often lurches through its combination of comedy and chaos.

Johnson plays San Francisco Wildlife Sanctuary employee Davis Okoye, an ex-solider turned anti-poaching operative turned primatologist. He’s more comfortable with animals than people, and particularly fond of albino gorilla George, who he has raised since the simian was an orphaned cub. Then experimental research material comes plummeting down from space, seeping its way through George’s enclosure. Overnight, the ape transforms from affable and caring to enormous and angry, setting Davis on a search for answers. Geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, Moonlight) arrives to assist, as part of her own quest to stop the ruthless, money-hungry siblings (Malin Akerman, TV’s Billions; Jake Lacy, I’m Dying Up Here) responsible. 

If the film’s intergalactic introduction didn’t establish its tone, then its exposition-spewing corporate villains and cross-country monster chase certainly do. Cartoon meets carnage in Rampage, a feature thoroughly unconcerned with grounding its tale in reality or couching its approach in naturalism. That’s understandable in a movie about a larger-than-life action hero tackling an outlandish sci-fi scenario, as based on an ‘80s arcade game about beasts toppling cities, and filled with multiple genetically enhanced critters. Here, every rousing shot of Johnson is offered with a smile, each cutaway to the one-dimensional antagonists is accompanied by a wink, and every special effects-powered destructive onslaught is packaged with a sense of glee. 

Indeed, director Brad Peyton (Incarnate) seems to be crafting a jovial foray into smash-‘em-up creature feature territory –and, if that had remained his aim, a pleasing-enough B-movie might’ve proven the end result. Alas, he also tries to pair the film’s overblown fun with sombre disaster theatrics. Watching the world crumble at the hands of careening critters has previously given rise to satirical, silly and serious flicks alike: sharks whirling through the air, tornado-style on one side; thoughtful accounts of apes scaling the Empire State Building and radiation-resistant lizards scrambling through Tokyo on the other. It’s not that Rampage genuinely endeavours to emulate the latter duo, or even imitate more recent incarnations of King Kong and Godzilla, but that it tempers its tenor to fit the current monster movie standard. 

As such, the feature becomes a weakened blend of goofy and grim, rather than throwing its full might in its preferred direction. It’s a choice that only highlights the screenplay’s clumsiness; though given three passes by Ryan Engle (The Commuter), Carlton Cuse (Jack Ryan) and Ryan J. Condal (Colony), and Adam Sztykiel (Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul), the script advances through its level-like developments in a dutiful-at-best manner. And, with underwritten characters and little ear for dialogue, Rampage also demonstrates its excessive reliance upon its leading man.

Oozing charm and amusement in a ridiculous situation, confronting a seemingly planet-ending challenge with steely determination: Johnson, Peyton’s now three-time star after Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and San Andreas, is an actor who can do both. More than that, he can achieve all of the above while drenched in affection and empathy – displaying it as he convincingly interacts with a CGI gorilla, turning their bond into the movie’s most meaningful relationship, and inspiring it from the audience in response. As cinematic glue constantly asked to hold together a piecemeal package, he once again lifts an average effort, but it’s a filmmaking strategy that doesn’t always stick. While there’s joy to be found in Johnson’s work, and even the simultaneously cheesy and routine feature around him has its moments, Rampage is content to fulfill the minimum requirements of its premise. It’s the rollicking barrage its title intimates, yet amounts to merely passable entertainment; a minor critter in its habitat, rather than a behemoth.

★★☆

Rampage

Director: Brad Peyton

US, 2018, 107 mins

Release date: April 12

Distributor: Roadshow

Rated: M

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay

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