Studio: New Line Cinema
Director: Brad Peyton
Writer: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykiel
Producer: Beau Flynn, John Rickard, Brad Peyton, Hiram Garcia
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Civilians duel with the military to save Chicago when a corporation’s secret experiment mutates three animals into giant monsters.
Honest to goodness, “Rampage” features a fine first act that is nearly a textbook case study in how to set up a feature film with entertaining efficiency.
During an appropriately “Alien”-ish opening, a mutant rat goes full xenomorph in a space station conducting a clandestine genetic experiment. Explosive destruction subsequently sends the Energyne Corporation’s proprietary pathogen samples hurtling toward Earth.
Before the deadly DNA can transform the three behemoths who go on the titular trek, we first meet primatologist David and San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary’s prized pet George, an albino gorilla so full of intelligent personality he would make Dian Fossey’s head spin. In a cinemascape plentifully populated with Andy Serkis incarnations of “King Kong” and “Planet of the Apes,” “The Jungle Book,” “Kong: Skull Island” (review here), etc., you might logically think CGI apes passed their peak and no longer have the capacity to impressively pop eyes. “Not so,” says George. “Rampage’s” cornerstone creature molds a beautifully believable blend of human and animal behavior into a distinctly developed character that more than echoes its predecessors. George arguably surpasses them.
“Rampage” does a terrific job of establishing sympathies and accomplishes that task for George using only two scenes. Within the first 15 minutes, George’s jokiness, alpha male assertiveness, and capacity for compassion are illustrated in organic interactions with Dwayne Johnson’s Davis. I can have a hard heart when it comes to filmic phoniness, yet I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly “Rampage” convinced me to care about George.
One of the movie’s carefully concealed strengths involves how skillfully it conveys origin information early on. Sure, circumstances can be classified as “on the nose” when the intro to hardened mercenary Blake involves close-ups of hand and face scars, or the camera pans to a photo of Davis’ future ally Kate with a sick boy in a hospital bed. It’s all exposition, but “Rampage” delivers these subtle backstories visually, as a movie should, instead of relying on overlabored conversations.
Attention to detail truly fleshes the film. When mutant wolf Ralph lunges to take out an attacking helicopter, the filmmakers/artists think to have its back clip the rotors to cause the crash. This may be comparing two disparate levels of production, but a Syfy monster movie is only going to have a creature bite the vehicle or conclude on a simple explosion. Here, there are smaller stories told within minor moments of individual scenes, evidenced again when background rescues take place during the finale.
Taking a toll on the tempo, Act Two finds itself filling in plotting blanks with lulls that pause the intensity’s pulse. The approach to keeping the audience up to speed on developments old and new switches so drastically, I have to guess this must be one aspect where the shooting script shows the fingerprints of four different credited writers.
The story’s previous simplicity ends up caught up in wordy exchanges complicated by numbered formulas, competing government agencies, multiple military men, and assorted dialogue dumps. Something previously established with three seconds on a photograph now feels the need to have someone specifically elaborate, “she blames us for putting her in prison and the death of her brother.”
Having gotten initial introductions up in the air swiftly, “Rampage’s” midsection suddenly feels more of the sting from following formula. For all of its enjoyable popcorn spectacle, “Rampage” was clearly engineered by committee according to Hollywood blockbuster boilerplate.
We get the pat protagonists of a man and woman whose faint hint of romantic chemistry conflicts with a momentary misunderstanding (entirely interchangeable with Owen and Claire from “Jurassic World”), corporate cutthroats motivated by money, an air force officer whose stiff sternness can’t tolerate a civilian interfering with his operation, and so on. Some of the stars, such as Dwayne Johnson naturally, overpower cardboard characterizations with impassioned charm. Relative qualities of other performances fluctuate on weirder wavelengths.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan seems to have simply put “The Walking Dead’s” Negan in a suit for his shiftily smirking man in black who flip flops allegiances. Malin Akerman manufactures most of her villainess role by biting dialogue between perpetually pursed lips. Jake Lacy tunes her flustered brother to the toadie stereotype, always positioned several steps behind his sister so he has to huff and puff to keep pace. Whether making a personal choice or directed to do so by helmer Brad Peyton, Lacy also takes a curiously more cartoonish route than anyone else in the cast, which sticks out as odd.
Not too little and not too late, Act Three picks energy back up considerably. The climax features nearly a full half hour of colossal creatures crushing pedestrians and knocking downtown Chicago’s skyline to the ground, almost exactly as depicted in the classic arcade game upon which “Rampage” is based. It may be more than is necessary, and more than anyone wants, but no one can complain that the finale doesn’t fulfill what the premise promises.
Considering the fighting monster fatigue setting in by this point, “Rampage” could stand for one more trim. As is, you still get The Rock being The Rock, excellent FX that are as seamless as practical mixed with digital can get for 2018, and a fair amount of fun that occasionally gets old only to become young again when momentum swings. If not for its casual cussing, “Rampage” comes close to consideration for a family-friendly “Godzilla” alternative whose ham-handed drama only sometimes gets in the way of creative creature feature carnage.
Review Score: 65