Review – Rampage

Here we are with another new video game adaptation in the form of Rampage from director Brad Peyton and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  The Rampage video game came along in the eighties, when video games were simpler (and arguably more fun, in many cases).  In the game, the player chose one of three massive monsters – George the gorilla, Lizzie the lizard, or Ralph the wolf (the Atari Lynx had an exclusive fourth monster in Larry the rat) – and then proceeded to rack up points by knocking down buildings, eating soldiers, and fighting each other.  That’s it.  Pretty straightforward.  And there certainly isn’t much there upon which to base a movie.  So, the narrative needed to be filled out substantially for this adaptation, if only as an explanation for the premise so that audiences can get to the wild action that they came to see.

In a way, Rampage also contributes to the recent eighties revival, alongside the likes of Netflix’s “Stranger Things”, Atomic BlondeIt, and Ready Player One.  It’s in a different way – Rampage doesn’t have an eighties vibe to it, as those other projects do.  But it’s based upon an eighties property and fueled by eighties nostalgia.  I’m still waiting for that long-rumored Masters of the Universe reboot and, even if I wasn’t into it as a kid, I have to admit that a live-action Voltron movie could be pretty cool.  But Rampage beat them to the punch and, from the perspective of someone who was a kid in the eighties, it’s just another cog in a very enjoyable wheel of fun and excitement.

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In the film, Johnson plays primatologist Davis Okoye.  When a biological agent crashes to Earth and infects his favorite gorilla George, Davis seeks to find a way to cure George while also dealing with the threat of other infected and mutated animals that are posing a danger to millions – particularly in the city of Chicago.  Johnson is surrounded by a strong supporting cast with Jeffrey Dean Morgan (in three-fourths Negan mode), Naomi Harris, Joe Manganiello, and Malin Akerman, but this is unquestionably Johnson’s movie.  Johnson has become the kind of classic action movie star that appeared to have faded away over the years.  He reminds me of Schwarzenegger and Stallone back in their glory days, with the exception that Johnson is generally a better actor (certainly better than Schwarzenegger) and unquestionably more versatile than the action stars of yesteryear.

Johnson makes for a strong lead, but he’s assisted by the screenplay, which provides some equally strong characters, at least for this type of mass appeal spectacle film.  Only Akerman’s Claire Wyden (evil businesswoman) and Jake Lacy’s Brett Wyden (goofy sidekick and Claire’s brother) are overly stereotypical.  As a primatologist with a personal connection to one of the monsters/animals Johnson’s Davis spends the entire movie in a state of internal conflict, knowing that George needs to be stopped but not wanting to hurt his friend.

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It’s these kinds of inspired creative choices that provides the film the substance that keeps it engaging even when there’s no on-screen action.  It would have been very easy to simply make all of the creatures storyless villains with no history or development.  But George becomes as important a character as any of the humans and just as easy to invest in, if not more so.  George has a true personality and reminds me of a hybrid of the recent theatrical incarnations of Caesar from the Planet of the Apes series and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Hulk.

But have no fear, once the action kicks in, it delivers in a massive way.  No matter what you’re looking for from this movie in terms of gigantic action set pieces, you’ll get it.  The film builds, giving little teases of what’s to come, until it delivers a super-scale climax that is sure to please those hoping for some pure escapist entertainment.  I would even wager that the film delivers to the point where it will have indie wrestling marks chanting, “FIGHT for-EV-er!  *clap* *clap* *clapclapclap*” before remembering that they’ve sworn to hate anything that the Rock is involved in.  (I can’t imagine the identity crisis they’d be faced with if they went to the movies and begrudgingly realized how great John Cena is in Blockers.)

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I saw a headline for a review of Rampage, earlier today, that declared it to be the funniest film of 2018.  That’s . . . well, that’s absurd.  The film has its funny moments but it is in no way a comedy.  It doesn’t aim to be a comedy.  The world in this movie reacts to the events unfolding around it in an appropriately serious way.  And there are stakes.  People die.  People you don’t expect to die die.  And they often do so in brutal fashion.  The film is PG-13 and it works within that rating, but it manages to do so without presenting a watered-down Hollywood version of violence without consequence.

I’ve seen other reviews declaring Rampage as the best movie ever to be based on a video game.  I wouldn’t go that far (I’m still extremely enamored by Silent Hill) but I do agree that it exceeds expectations.  Not only does the spectacle dazzle, but the unforeseen complexity in the characters and their relationships is an added element that gives the movie just the extra boost it needs to stand out.  Yes, the narrative has to jump through some hoops to bring all of the elements together and, yes, a couple of the characters are cookie cutter in nature.  But most aren’t and the film still gives audiences what they came to see and then some.  For large-scale entertainment with a charismatic lead and some unexpected depth, one can’t go wrong with Rampage.

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