You have to give credit to a movie like Rampage for featuring a scene in which its lead character—in this case played by Dwayne Johnson—gazes upon one of its C.G.I. creations and says “you’re big shit.” That line invites a lot of easy expansions. Rampage is, it turns out, just about a bunch of big shit. And it is itself a big pile of, well, you get it. So coming right out and speaking its core truth aloud like that is reckless, but maybe respectable. I wish only that the rest of director Brad Peyton’s film had that same half-conscious moxie. An entire movie of that could be a lot of fun.
The bulk of Rampage is, alas, a slog, as passionless as I’d imagine the fandom is for the I.P. the film is based on. Some of us remember Rampage, a 1986 arcade game about generic King Kong and Godzilla types knocking down buildings, but do any of us love it? Rampage the movie doesn’t really seem to care either way, relying some on half-assed nostalgia (there’s a Rampage arcade console glimpsed in the background of the villain’s office, about as lazily direct a nod as could be) but mostly hoping that audiences will thrill to the movie’s wan energy because it’s a Dwayne Johnson vehicle, and he’s basically the biggest movie star there is right now.
Which is true. Johnson ended 2017 and began 2018 with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, an action comedy that has made nearly a billion dollars worldwide and is the latest in a nearly unbroken (Baywatch, whoops) string of hits. He’s a big, bankable name. And yet as Rampage proves, his charisma can only take him—and a movie—so far. Rampage dumps Johnson into a blank role and figures that’s enough to make things work. “It’s The Rock, doin’ stuff!” Yeah, sure, it is The Rock doing stuff. But it’s stuff we’ve seen him do before, in better movies. Rampage probably needed more of a built-in joke to put Johnson to good use, some device or wink that gestured toward the obviousness of his casting. That never arrives, and so we get a Johnson performance that’s about as bored as we are watching the movie.
Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a former special ops Army guy turned primatologist who’s tasked with saving the world—or at least Chicago—when a mysterious substance from a top-secret space-station laboratory crashes to Earth and makes oversized monsters out of a Wyoming wolf, a Florida gator, and a beloved albino gorilla named George, who is also Davis’s best friend. Rampage starts off as a kind of workplace comedy, with Davis training two young scientists (Breanne Hill and Jack Quaid) who seemed destined to hook up by the end of the movie, and palling around with a dorky sidekick played by P.J. Byrne. We figure that when the ape gets big, all that stuff will travel along on the adventure.
But, nah. Once the monster mash gets going, Rampage forgets about all that and becomes a mostly serious action story, assiduously avoiding a lot of its camp potential. The film hurries toward a city-destroying climax that arrives about one set piece too early, before pausing to gravely take in the destruction wrought and lives lost, and then closing things out with an ape making the S-E-X hand motion familiar to most third-graders. (You can make it with emojis. That one.) I in no way wanted the movie to be longer, but it probably should have been—maybe with another action sequence or something the movie could have stumbled upon some idea of itself.
And it could have done more with 2017 Oscar nominee Naomie Harris, who plays the regretful scientist who cooked up this wicked serum. She and Johnson aren’t really given much opportunity to build a rapport, and Harris—one of the more reliably engaging actresses working on-screen—goes to waste.
As for the monsters? They’re fine. George is a motion-capture creation who, while credible, cannot match the stunning detail of his cooler, older cousins from the Planet of the Apes films. (It’s weird to arrive at a point where I’ve grown tired of slow-motion shots of apes flying through the air, arms in attack position.) The wolf and the alligator are more cartoonish, and I didn’t really care about them, as nuisances or villains or just cool things to look at.
I wish, too, that the film spent more time with its archvillain, Claire, a steely corporate don played by Malin Akerman (wigged and willing, if not entirely able). Same for Jake Lacy, who plays Claire’s whinging brother. Theirs is a weird, unexpected dynamic to find in a movie like this, and it bears further teasing out. Perhaps that will happen when this is remade or rebooted in 30 years, the people of the future clamoring for it as much as we were clamoring for this one.
Rampage spent a reported $120 million to get this all done, and I guess I see it—in a should-be-more-dizzying plane-crash scene, in the toppling of the Willis (née Sears) Tower, in the monsters’ articulated movements. But none of it has any ingenuity or weight or purpose behind it. Another rude little trick George the gorilla does is occasionally flip his pal Davis the middle finger. I wish Rampage had that same puckishness, that it would say nyah nyah as it gave us the bird. At least that would be a mood. But the movie would need a large dose of space gas for that to happen. Without it, Rampage doesn’t even have the energy to be a little aggressive.