Review: ‘Rampage’ hits hard in action, pulls punches everywhere else

James Preston Poole

After engaging in death-defying car stunts, getting lost in two different magical jungles and fighting a hurricane, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson starring in a movie involving giant monster isn’t much of a stretch.

“Rampage,” directed by Johnson’s “San Andreas” collaborator Brad Peyton, seems to have one major thing going against it — it’s a loose adaptation of an 1980s arcade game of the same name. Peyton’s film isn’t as terrible as most video game movies, but it sure fits into the mold of the generic action movies that flooded the cinemas around the time the original game came out.

You wouldn’t know it from the opening, however, because “Rampage” starts with a sequence that feels ripped straight out of a different movie entirely. After a space station science experiment goes wrong, a scientist played by Marley Shelton struggles to escape from the most unusual of enemies: a giant, mutated rat. As silly as that sounds, Peyton elevates this sequence from confusing to intense.

As soon as the space station blows up, three canisters of the research hurl down to Earth, and with their crash comes the fall of “Rampage.” One of the cannisters lands in a wildlife reserve where primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson) works, infecting his beloved albino gorilla George and causing him to mutate.

In other parts of the United States, the same fate befalls an alligator and a wolf, causing the brother-sister creators of the pathogen, played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, to emit a signal that draws the newly minted “monsters” to Chicago. In order to save George, Okoye teams up with disgraced scientist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) and government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to save George and stop the gang of monsters.

You may be asking, “Why are the villains emitting a signal to draw monsters to Chicago?” Because there needs to be a huge action sequence towards the end, of course! 

To be fair, this film delivers on the action front. The Chicago smackdown involving all three of the monsters is awe-inspiring in its ambition, and a sequence where George gets loose on an airplane is surprisingly suspenseful. Yet, between these set-pieces is a whole lot of nothing.

The screenplay is written by four different writers, and it shows. The story recycles cliches straight out of the “Independence Day” playbook, rarely making sense between lackluster one-liners and contrived conflict. To make matters worse, Peyton directs this script with no sense of irony, trusting the material far too much.

The actors at least seem to know what type of movie they’re in.

The serious Harris is instantly forgettable as Caldwell, while Akerman and Lacy have the opposite problem — they’re over-the-top to the point of being unbearable. Soap opera performances are more subtle than the ones these two provide. 

Thankfully, “The Rock” and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are here to salvage what’s left of this film. The two leads are clearly having the time of their life, and it’s hard not to have fun as well. In particular, Johnson sells interactions with a CGI ape like a pro, and for that alone he deserves commendation. Morgan, on the other hand, is tons of fun as a Southern-accented G-man who provides much needed warmth.

Ultimately, “Rampage” is exactly what it’s expected to be. The action and some of the performances are fine, but the script feels like a hodgepodge of nearly every blockbuster ever written. Looks like the video game movie curse continues.