The prospect of watching one of Hollywood’s most likeable action heroes teaming up with a giant gorilla to take on rampaging mutated animals is undeniably enticing, and Dwayne Johnson’s latest action adventure gets a lot of mileage from its star’s breezy charisma, winning smile and total commitment to buddying up with a massive CGI character.
But his third team-up with director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, San Andreas) finds itself torn between celebrating the titanic silliness of its premise and putting Johnson’s commitment to finding the emotional core of the film above all else. This is a movie in which evil billionaire siblings have used gene editing (CRISPR, handily explained on a cellphone) to give animals the awesome attributes of other species with the inevitable side effect of making them aggressive, colossal and grow wings, but it’s also a film which has something serious to tell us about the brutality of poaching. Doing both successfully would be a hell of a feat and, despite giving some fun on the way, Rampage can’t pull it off.
Johnson plays primatologist Davis Okoye, a man more comfortable with the honesty of wild animals than the lying and manipulating that comes from human contact (although he’s still charming as hell). His lifelong best friend at the San Andreas Wildlife Sanctuary is George, a playful albino gorilla rescued from poachers as a baby. But when the aforementioned dastardly science experiment crashes to earth from an exploding space station, poor George is promptly infected.
Can Davis and rogue geneticist Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) find a way to get his buddy back? Will the evil Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy) get away with their plan to make billions from playing god? How well is Joe Manganiello’s grizzled mercenary really going to fare when his barely-introduced team is faced with a 30-foot wolf that can fly? Will Chicago become the battleground between a giant ape, wolf and alligator? When the film acknowledges just how ludicrous this all is, it kind of works.
The problem is that it is so torn between anarchic self-aware chuckles and big-hearted responsibility that Peyton and his four writers flip tones with almost every scene. Earnest dialogue and dumb plot devices are painfully noticeable when the filmmakers have only just finished winking at the audience, despite the hard work of Naomie Harris (who is unfortunately lumbered with the bulk of it). You can tell that no one involved is taking it entirely seriously, just seriously enough to make you feel like you’re suddenly laughing at, not with the film.
With that being said, Jeffrey Dean Morgan swaggers in as a mysterious twinkly-eyed government agent, sporting all the required cowboy clichés and each of the film’s best lines, and threatens to get the whole thing back on track. As he smirks, drawls and wise-cracks through every second of screen time, it’s clear that he knows exactly what kind of film he’s in and he’s also a reminder of what it should be.
The action sequences are solid enough. There are some inventive moments in the city-crushing carnage of the film’s final act, but it’s not capable of or not interested in conjuring the awe of something like Godzilla and it doesn’t have the delightful monster love of Pacific Rim. It should be noted that George is an adorable and finely crafted performance capture creation (that’s Death Note’s Jason Liles).
Despite all its flaws and clumsiness, there is some fun to be had. It’s funny (sometimes on purpose), Johnson is as watchable as ever, Morgan deserves some kind of medal, and the opening sequence is so ridiculous (That rat! In space!) that it sets an impossibly high bar. Taken as a whole, Rampage just doesn’t come together, but while the joys are fleeting they are at least memorable in their ridiculousness.