Summer movie season 2018 is upon us, which means hours upon hours of bloated examples of filmmaking by committee- chock full of superhero spandex and market tested “edgy” PG-13 jokes that are sure to get the kids laughing- will soon be stinking up the local multiplex like a truck stop bathroom with no ceiling fan. Rampage kicks off the festivities early after jumping up two weeks on the calendar to avoid the wake of Disney’s guaranteed Tomatometer bonanza, Marvel Movie 19: Thanos is Finally Here! Fortunately, Rampage starts things off right by delivering a decent Dwayne Johnson monster mash that doesn’t take itself too seriously and reinforces the idea that video game adaptations don’t have to be terrible.
Midway’s Rampage video game was one of my favorites to play at the arcade when I was growing up because of its simplistic design and interesting critters, but it wasn’t the kind of game like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter where I felt like I had to know everything about the characters’ backstories and the nuances of their interactions with each other. Rampage simply wasn’t that kind of game, and all I needed to know about George, Ralph, and Lizzie was that they liked to smash things. For the movie version, George’s storyline is beefed up to establish a proper Dwayne Johnson vehicle, and the closest reference we get to the game itself is the fact that a mint condition arcade cabinet sits in the villain’s headquarters. And, frankly, that’s okay for this kind of movie. Director Brad Peyton (who worked with Johnson before on San Andreas and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) delivers a lean, under two hour movie that plays more like Godzilla (2014) meets Kong: Skull Island instead of feeling beholden to the sparse source material or the unfortunate tropes of early video game/movie crossovers.
Warner Brothers likely changed the color of George and altered the appearance of Lizzie (the Godzilla-like green meanie of the franchise) to keep audiences excited about their inevitable Godzilla vs. Kong film that’s scheduled for 2020, but turning her into an alligator creature is simply not enough to avoid comparisons between the two franchises. Rampage is packed with big monster action and Hollywood favorites caught in the scuffle, just like both recent Godzilla and Kong films. While I liked both of those movies, they had their faults. I wasn’t really a fan of how Gareth Edwards largely avoided dwelling too much on the monster mayhem of Godzilla (2014) and instead relied too heavily on the film’s one-dimensional characters and their forgettable storylines. Somehow, Bryan Cranston wasn’t all that interesting even at the height of Breaking Bad mania… and Kong: Skull Island handled its superstars even more poorly. Besides John C. Reilly (who delivers such solid character acting that it looks like he’s in a different movie than everyone else), A-listers like Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and Samuel L. Jackson have nothing original to say or do in between Skull Island‘s moments of monster carnage, and their characters’ personalities rarely reflect what audiences have come to expect from their on-screen roles and personas. Rampage tackles this issue head-on by allowing the actors’ natural personalities to shine without getting too caught up in pointless backstories or pesky inauthentic character studies, while constantly acknowledging that monster action is an equal partner in the film.
Dwayne Johnson plays Davis Okoye, whose name doesn’t matter because it’s the same Dwayne Johnson character who appears in every Dwayne Johnson movie. He starts off the film wearing the tan canvas safari shirt he had on when he walked off the set of Jumanji, and he delivers the same level of brute force he brings to all of his roles along with his patented charisma that could sell snowballs to the abominable snowman. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is Harvey Russell, a “Negan in a suit” feller who keeps a pearl-handled revolver clamped to his hip and spits hackneyed words of wisdom every time he opens his mouth. Naomi Harris rounds out the good guys as, Dr. Kate Caldwell a no-nonsense scientist who does a nice job of playing opposite Johnson in the same way that strong female leads always balanced out Arnold Schwarzenneger’s characters in the first wave of big budget action movies. As for the movie’s paper-thin villains, Malin Akerman plays Claire Wyden, a greedy corporate monster who hits every mark on the bad guy checklist outside of laughing maniacally into the camera, and Jake Lacy plays her buffoon of a brother who looks like he’s a background character from The Wolf of Wall Street. As you can see, I’ve just described a stable of caricatures… but that’s okay for a movie like Rampage. I can take a movie more seriously when it unashamedly presents a larger than life muscle man battling cartoon villains rather than spending twenty minutes on Captain America chopping wood on Hawkeye’s farm, pretending to be something it clearly isn’t. In this movie, the bad guys set off a chain of events where animals get super-sized and then carnage ensues, no questions asked. For better or for worse, Rampage knows what it is and it doesn’t try to hide it.
So what do viewers get to see instead of scenes where the protagonists reveal their deepest regrets? Gory monster action, of course! The creatures repeatedly pummel each other, eat people and body parts, and destroy their environments… and the camera never blinks as it soaks up all of the slimy details. Even the necessary moments of plot in a military headquarters building have big screens in the background which continue the frantic action at the core of the film. What’s even more fun is the fact that Johnson somehow equally participates in the monster romp as if he’s a member of the group of beasts! Even though the giant armored gator, the monster wolf with a mane made of spears, and the super-sized albino ape dwarf his impressive frame, Johnson battles them one-on-one, and it somehow never looks weird or hokey when he’s going up against something fifty times his size and winning. The scenes where he ultimately fights alongside his pal George are some of the highlights of the movie, and they’re shot and choreographed in a clean and visually appealing manner (so long as monsters stabbing each other with pointy things is appealing to you).
Rampage is a solid mindless action movie with big beastly battles that rival the more popular competition like Godzilla and Kong. It slips in the familiar requirements of the PG-13 tentpoles without overwhelming the audience with too many lackluster jokes by sticking to its strengths: Dwayne Johnson action pieces and monsters rampaging. It’s also one of the few decent video game adaptations to date, and I know I will have worse experiences in the theater this summer movie season. The movie knows exactly what it is (it won’t be printing any “for your consideration” ads in time for the Academy Awards); and so long as monster fans keep in mind what it is too, they’ll have a good time watching it.