Of the many belabored video game adaptations that have made their way to movie screens, Rampage might be one of the biggest stretches of all. The 1986 arcade game was built around a perfectly simple premise for a multi-player smash-’em-up: you take over one of three genetically modified humans, which have turned into a giant lizard, a giant wolf, and a King Kong type by the name of George. You go to various Midwestern towns as these creatures (Midway was always a staunchly Chicago company, after all), and you destroy them. That’s it. Sometimes you’d punch a toilet, and be jettisoned from the side of the building. Pretty simple stuff, for all of its entertainments.
There was nothing in Rampage the game concerning genetic editing, military superweapons, or the indomitable friendship binding a reclusive primate expert and his hyper-intelligent albino ape friend, but Rampage the movie definitely finds time for those, as well as the piecemeal destruction of at least one major Midwestern landmark. Rampage feels very much like a property that’s been sitting on a studio shelf for years, waiting on the right hook to finally sell it. And as has been the case a few times in recent years, the hook in this case is the onetime most electrifying man in sports entertainment Dwayne Johnson, who’s managed to become the kind of box office draw that convinces studios of his ability to open even the most unsellable vehicles with his signature mix of charisma, bravado, and a willingness to look thoroughly absurd in front of global moviegoing audiences to sell a film.
Rampage makes vigorous use of all of Johnson’s attributes, being that it’s somehow one of the most ridiculous films in which he’s starred to date. As much as anything, it recalls the paper-thin, custom-tailored action star vehicles of the ’90s, which puts Rock somewhere in the Eraser phase of his Schwarzenegger trajectory. It’s a film built to showcase his charisma at every turn, in part because Johnson is about the only particularly magnetic or noteworthy thing about it. As Davis Okoye, an ex-Army Special Forces soldier who took to primatology in his civilian years, Johnson is all glowering presence. There’s not a great deal of the light touch Johnson lends to his comic turns here; he’s full of one-liners, but Davis is a sterner kind of lone wolf. “Animals get me,” he insists early on, and his generally brazen manners toward his colleagues only underline this.
Davis’ one true Earthly companion is George, a rescued albino gorilla at the San Diego Zoo who demonstrates a remarkable wealth of intelligence. He’s picked up American Sign Language to communicate with Davis, knows how to recognize and diffuse hostile situations in the enclosure, and isn’t even above a prank or two. Until Rampage gets on with its gauntlet of bellowing action sequences, much of the film is built around Johnson’s rapport with the impressively animated George. There’s a ceiling for how much audiences will be able to take Johnson’s soothing, paternal exchanges with the gorilla with more than a grain of salt, however. Rampage is a thoroughly silly film in a number of ways, and the volume of emotional weight saddled on Johnson gazing with stern empathy into the middle distance is only just one of them.
The others pile up fast. When several samples of a DNA-bending science experiment fall back into orbit from a demolished space station (it’s a whole thing), George and two other unlucky animals find themselves pumped with lungfuls of a compound that rapidly increases their size and aggression. Soon George is bigger than Davis can handle, paramilitary forces have been tasked with containing the growing animal menaces, and it’s up to Davis and Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a disgraced genetic scientist with ties to the compound, to save George, the city of Chicago, and anything else that finds its way into the animals’ path. Along the way, they get some help from Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan in full Negan mode), a drawling federal agent with sympathetic containment goals, and match wits with Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman), the nefarious CEO of the company that created the whole catastrophe.
Those character synopses are about all that Rampage offers about each, instead opting to focus on the stuff that’ll put bodies in seats: Dwayne Johnson, and massive CGI beasts destroying glistening buildings until each shot is flooded with a torrent of dirt and rubble and impenetrable dust. To that end, director Brad Peyton (who worked with Johnson on San Andreas as well) goes heavy on monster presences, whether that’s the film’s numerous onscreen beasts or Johnson himself, who Peyton often frames as being roughly equivalent in height. Rampage grows exhausting before long, ramping up quickly from plane wrecks to explosive detonations to, once again, the demolition of Chicago, Illinois by otherworldly beings. That one of Rampage‘s key stylistic influences appears to be Transformers: Dark of the Moon is just one of its problems; that its onscreen action often turns muddy to the point of near-unwatchability is a far bigger one.
You might find yourself occasionally struck with the thought that Rampage, as a movie, feels like it’s screaming at you. Between the omnipresent orchestral swells, Johnson’s increasing back-of-the-house delivery of his lines, and the sheer cacophonous noise of its final act, you’d be forgiven for that impression. There’s a lot of visual and aural noise alike to be found in every corner of Rampage, but it’s not always of a digestible shade. In particular, as was the case with San Andreas, Peyton tends to heighten the gritty realism of his city-smashing death tolls to an unnerving extent, and there are points in Rampage at which the campy fun of it all is undercut by the oddly unsettling reality of a boat full of meticulously animated tourists being dropped to their screaming deaths, or a hapless sidekick being bloodily smashed to death by skyscraper debris for a late-film laugh. It’s as though the creative think tank behind Rampage watched that inexplicably grisly mid-film evisceration of a harried assistant in Jurassic World and decided that they’d build a whole film out of that tone.
Rampage will give many what they want, as it’s a fairly brisk watch by the standards of movies like it. But there’s a sense of fun that’s crucial to otherwise destruction-heavy films like this that Peyton never entirely finds, and not even Johnson’s masterfully delivered mugging can drag it over the hump. He’s a movie star of higher wattage than stuff like this, and too little of Rampage rises to meet his presence. (At least the actors seem to be having fun; Akerman, in particular, makes a meal of every fleeting line of dialogue she’s offered as a quirk-heavy villainess.) All around, Rampage feels like a studio doing what it’s comfortable doing these days (monster movies) with a star who can make even the most middling fare into an expense-recouping global hit. Once again, it’s also entirely ridiculous, but it’s the worst kind of ridiculous: not enough so to be memorably fun, but far too much so to be taken with any degree of gravitas.