Maybe it’s a bit too niche for most audiences, but the idea of bringing Midway Games’ (R.I.P.) “Rampage” series to the big screen thrilled me when it was announced last year. At least in theory. Slapping Dwayne Johnson in the lead and adding a tone too serious for its own good slammed the breaks on the hype train because it’s kind of antithetical to the spirit of those games. “Rampage” games were dumb in a lovably mindless and self-indulgent way that spoke to its arcade roots. The heroes were goofily stylized kaiju who ate humans to replenish their health, toppled buildings and made scrap metal out of army vehicles — there was no room for a beefy human protagonist to eclipse the Wrecking Crew. Unsurprisingly, the film adaptation throws this spirit out the window in a move that begs the question as to why Warner Brothers went out of the way to purchase the rights and shamelessly allow its writers to bastardize it, rather than simply making an original monster mash movie of their own.
I mean, it’s still fun … but give original ideas a chance, lay off franchises people actually care about.
Now, I’m not the type of person to give credence to criticism of film adaptations on the basis of diverging from source material. What works in other mediums doesn’t always translate to film, and railing a movie because it didn’t translate as a perfect one-to-one is invalid in film criticism. Because tonal and thematic translations (as opposed to content) and, to a greater extent, holistic transformations go a long way in making something resonate with fans of the source, movies like those in the “Harry Potter” series and Stanley Kubrick’s’ numerous adaptations (“The Shining,” most notoriously) serve as excellent audio-visual re-imaginings. While “Rampage” doesn’t get everything right about its series’ story, it’s an action-packed Hollywood thrill ride that occasionally hits the right explosive notes.
“Rampage” stars Dwayne Johnson, the most infuriatingly charismatic man on the planet (seriously, let us dislike you, it’s not fair for everyone else lacking in charm) as Davis Okoye, a primatologist based in a San Diego animal sanctuary who holds more stock in his animal friendships than his human ones. His best friend is an albino silverback gorilla named George, whom he rescued in Rwanda from poachers who slaughtered his mother. The two communicate by signing to each other, and the film doesn’t take long to establish their accord.
A capsule containing a powerful DNA-splicing growth serum, which fell out a careening space station escape pod, lands in the sanctuary’s gorilla enclosure one day and infects George. Rapidly growing in size, agility and aggression, George breaks from the sanctuary and is captured by government personnel, led by Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, adopting a fun, if not odd, southern drawl), but not before a woman claiming to know the source of George’s transformation appears at his doorstep offering help. The capsule, she explains, contained an experimental agent that splices DNA and causes its subject to grow at an unprecedented rate —- and the only cure lies with the head of the company who created it, Energyne’s Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy). As it turns out, George is only one of three giant animals scattered throughout the United States: Ralph, a wolf from Wyoming, and Lizzie, a crocodile from Florida, also got infected. The Wydens lure the trio to their building in Chicago with a radio frequency triggering their rage, and what remains of the film is Okoye and his new friend, Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), following George’s tail in hopes of using the Wydens’ reversing agent on them before the military nukes him (his 50-ft companions and the city of Chicago along with them) to smithereens.
“Rampage” is at its best when it’s centering on monstrous brawls, either between the Wrecking Crew themselves or between themselves and their human opposition. For what it’s worth, Ralph and Lizzie’s designs are eye-catching and refreshing compared to George’s simple King Kong appeal. Because the agent mixed their DNA with that of other harder, better, faster, stronger creatures, they gain new perks that help in their destruction: Ralph has webbed gliders like that of a flying squirrel and can fire quills that spurt along his spine; and if the crocodile Lizzie couldn’t become any more intimidating, her armored skin becomes exceedingly spikier and elephant tusks grace her maw.
It’s too bad we don’t get to spend too much time with either of them, however. This is especially true with Lizzie, who is in the film for possibly less than 10 minutes of total screen time despite being the largest of the three, and the most capable of making a mess out of Chicago. More monsters is really what this film needed on the whole, and less of the cheap attempts at emotional resonance from human characters. While The Rock offers a solid performance that adequately builds his connection as “The Good Human” in the eyes of our true, monstrous heroes, no amount of charisma can make him more interesting than a couple of big dumb animals.
Verdict: Never fully realizing the campy potential of its source, “Rampage” takes a safer route that weighs it down where it matters. Some major tweaks to the tone of the movie and a shift from humans to monsters as the main characters could have done wonders for this big, dumb action-adventure sci-fi picture, but where it stands it’s another Hollywood cliche that takes itself too seriously.