It’s time for a monster-sized mea culpa. Earlier this year, I made the mistake of assuming the worst about Rampage. The April film, directed by Brad Peyton and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is based on the arcade games of the same name, which is already a bad start, since that franchise ranks well below the likes of pretty much any other game license ever slapped onto a film. (What, Mr. Do was unavailable?)
And its pre-release hype and trailers consisted mostly of Johnson alternating between agony, screaming, and sympathizing with a giant CGI ape. What hope did this film have?
Turns out, filmgoers had no idea what a treat Peyton and co. delivered. Hindsight is already incredibly kind to Rampage‘s tongue-in-cheek fun and action, and that’s thanks to the triceratops-sized dump that the Crichton empire laid in June with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
Do gorillas eat cheese?
Both films revolve around questionable DNA editing techniques applied to wild animals—and their destructive results. They each also include sniveling corporate goons in charge of these ill-informed experiments. And in both films, the villains are put in their place by handsome, muscular men who can only open their hearts to the creatures they take care of.
But where Fallen Kingdom couldn’t make its mind up between over-serious drama, all-out intensity, and maddeningly silly leaps of horror-film logic, Rampage manages a perfect landing with its monster-sized feet. The secret is how seriously Peyton takes his film’s cheese.
Rampage understands a beat-by-beat playbook for strapping viewers into a relatively predictable ride. Johnson’s character of David Okoye quickly establishes a master-and-puppy relationship with George, who starts the film as a reasonably sized gorilla (and a rare albino one, at that) in a wildlife conservatory. A breezy, humorous sequence sees Okoye and George eyeing each other slyly as the gorilla pranks one of his newer caretakers, and this does as much to sell enjoyable jokes as it does to establish why Okoye will risk everything for his albino buddy once things go, you know, ape.
All the while, we meet the brother-sister duo who are responsible for irresponsible DNA experiments, and this combo-platter villain treatment is so much more slick than Fallen Kingdom‘s ludicrously “hidden” basement lab. We get to laugh at the doofus brother Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy) who rattles off the kinds of bad-henchman logic that would get most movie criminals caught, all while the smarter sister Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman) licks her chops with confident delivery and logically sound ways to beat her bad rap. Claire stands to gain everything from her experiments destroying an entire city—including convenient destruction of all the incriminating evidence. Brett nods eagerly while munching on a Pop-Tart.
And Peyton sprinkles salt into the proceedings by adding Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a southern-drawl government operative who shows up to make things right no matter who he pisses off. It’s no surprise, then, when Okoye and Russell eventually unite to thwart the Wydens, but Peyton strings this second-tier conflict along just long enough to add some tension between the more bombastic monster-crushing sequences.
Snarling-tortoise thing going on
Since Rampage borrows from the video games of the same name, that means you can expect three giant beasts in all: George the gorilla, Lizzie the lizard, and Ralph the wolf. We see George terrify his former caretakers as his body begins multiplying in size and strength, while Ralph takes out an entire black-ops cleanup crew in the kind of hilarious “of course” fashion you might expect from a Troma Films classic.
But it’s the Chicago-smashing final scene, broken into a few parts, that emerges with the right amount of momentum and climactic buildup that we so desperately want in a good monster movie. Fallen Kingdom wants so badly to cram action and giant dinos into its every scene, but Rampage pulls back often enough to properly sell its protagonists—Okoye, Russell, and a determined geneticist (Naomie Harris)—and make us care about why they’d want to save the world.
Plus, Ralph and Lizzie eventually emerge with enjoyably stupid creative license. The wolf has somehow been cross-bred with a flying squirrel, which puts a few surprise tricks in its flying sleeves, while Lizzie has a spiky, carnivorous, snarling-tortoise thing going on, which makes it an incredible against-all-odds final boss for Okoye and George to eventually team up against. I’ll take these two gonzo monsters over the ho-hum “T-rex head on a raptor’s body” climax of Fallen Kingdom any day.
That geneticist character, by the way, is fed enough dialogue about genetic engineering and about uncovering the Wyden siblings’ hidden files to stitch the silly proceedings together with just enough logic so that you’ll have little reason to angrily throw Goobers at the screen. Rampage is proud about how silly it is, but that doesn’t make it a dumb movie. This is a movie that does its best to respect the patience and intelligence of its fun-loving moviegoers, because its aspirations are transparent: it’s a movie that wants you to get a kick out of its human-gorilla bonding and have you shout with glee when a monster crushes a helicopter with its jaws. Rampage is proof that, yes, you can have both extremes with your popcorn.
Rampage is now available on major digital distribution platforms. Its Blu-ray and DVD versions will arrive on July 17.