The bar is set very low in order for a film to become the best Video Game Movie Ever Made — outside of the 2006 Silent Hill, there really isn’t very much competition from any corner — but Brad Peyton’s Rampage come awfully close to clearing it. Peyton’s a bit of a journeyman hack, who created a snoozefest with San Andreas, his last outing with American’s Favorite Movie Star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and expectations were set accordingly.
This, to many, was simply supposed to be a cash-in on a license, a quick buck made in order to placate global audiences before they were distracted by Infinity War two weeks later. But, shockingly enough, it’s a pretty solid blockbuster, one worthy of comparison to the single greatest crafter of Kaiju in the world: Toho Co., who released a little movie called Godzilla back in 1954 and made a mint crafting monster throw-downs for a worldwide audience of eager fans.
Rampage, for all of its many flaws, is perhaps the best translation of the Toho ethos to the American multiplex: You won’t find the self-serious boredom of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla here or the garbage and generic disaster-movie structure of Roland Emmerich’s attempt at capturing the King of Monsters on screen. It’s charmingly presented to us by the always-compelling Johnson, a great motion capture performance by actor Jason Liles as the Rock’s gorilla friend, and features incredible choreography by Terry Notary, who became a name of note to the less technically-minded after being the most memorable thing about Rueben Ostlund’s The Square last year. It never truly embraces that Toho weirdness: No twin children summon monsters to battle, and walking pollution or robot versions of the kaiju in question attempt to down our heroes, but it comes awfully close. The movie’s a hoot and a half, one that wears its stupidity proudly as a soldier might wear his medals in his dress uniform, and it’s a shame that it didn’t come out on 4/20.
The plot feels ripped straight from the Japanese studio’s playbook, and you’ll know pretty fucking quickly if you’re picking up what this film is putting down. An evil corporation, headed by the evil Wyden siblings (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, the latter seemingly crafting his performance from an amalgam of Billy Zane classics), has created a serum — codenamed, of course, Project Rampage — that will mutate any given animal that it comes in contact with, making them grow many times their normal size and also endowing them with traits from the DNA of other animals. They’re cognizant of how terribly trials might go if they conducted them on land, so they’ve been testing the formula aboard a private space station, one that quickly falls into the atmosphere after a rat grows to be the size of a person and kills all the astronauts on board in a rage. Three containers of serum survive and land in a few different places: A wolf gets a glancing dosage of it out in Wyoming, a crocodile eats the whole fucking thing out in the Everglades, and another lands in the primate pen of the San Diego Zoo, where a giant albino ape named George (Liles) comes into contact with it.
Enter Davis Okoye (Johnson), a veteran-turned-primatologist who happens to be George’s best friend (he prefers the company of animals to people, he likes to point out) and caretaker, who discovers one morning that his primal pal, now twice the size he was the day before, has somehow gotten into the Grizzly enclosure and killed a bear in a fit of rage. Davis has no idea what the fuck is going on with his pal, but help comes to him in the form of Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, who is charming despite her slight struggles with the accent), a former employee of the Wydens who helped to invent the formula. She hints to him that she might be able to save George’s life, but George manages to break out of his cage and cause a giant ruckus at the Zoo. Homeland security steps in, and a government agent named Russell (Jeffery Dean Morgan, having the time of his life) with a heart of Texan gold tries to take the Ape and his two friends back to Washington. On a plane. Yes, that giant ape who proved himself so capable of destroying shit back at the Zoo now needs to get airborne. This couldn’t possibly be a bad idea, right?
The Wydens decide, in a fit of stupid rage, to bring the monsters to their headquarters in Chicago by broadcasting a low-frequency signal from the top of their building that only the infected can hear, which is a good plan that totally couldn’t possibly go wrong. So, George crashes the plane, and Okoye, Caldwell and Russell barely manage to escape with their lives. And, as you might expect, it’s a race against time between the three humans, the US Military (who are super eager to bomb Chicago into the ground) and the monsters, who are looking to, well, rampage through the city in order to stop the signal. More importantly, though, Okoye just wants to get his friend back and to safety, and he’s willing to do anything that it takes.
The final 40 minutes are one action set-piece after the other, each crazier than the last, occasionally punctuated by the kind of fuck-yeah catharsis that only a movie about people-eating monsters can provide. A helicopter rooftop escape, a brawl between two of the giant monsters, the annihilation of a Dave and Busters (more like Dave and BUSTED, lol): Anything you could possibly want in a popcorn action flick that isn’t, you know, character development or a logical plot, this film has in spades.
It’s not as handsome an affair as Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, as Peyton basically establishes his color palette as varying shades of grey (one imagines him going through a Pantone color guide, and only picking out the colors of rubble), but it is a serviceable one, and the action is better structured and choreographed than Michael Bay’s similar sequences of Chicago’s destruction in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. To compare those two is completely unfair to both films: for Rampage, it implies that it’s on a similar plane of quality as that piece of shit, and for Transformers, it is given a modern standard that it could never possibly live up to.
When I mentioned that this film adequately lives up to the Toho formula, it also inherits its flaws as well. The monsters are occasionally side-lined for thinly-written human drama and the quick interjection of “Look! We know what we’re talking about!” pseudoscience, which this time involves gene editing and CRISPR, which characters shout about without ever managing to effectively explain it to idiots like me in the audience. But then again, you have Johnson and company reading these lines, so they’re automatically more watchable than with another cast: One fears the version of this film, residing in a parallel universe, that has Scott Eastwood in the lead role. Like those Toho movies, Rampage is at its best when these characters are providing color commentary to destruction and monster fights, and Johnson has better mic skills than nearly anyone in the business (that includes you, Phil Simms).
There will be some turned off by the Snyder-like destruction in this film: It isn’t particularly subtle about the fact that these creatures are killing thousands of people in the process of getting to Chicago, and there are a couple of shockingly gory — and somewhat cruel — deaths for a PG-13 affair like this. The ethics of this kind of on-screen destruction has been openly and more thoroughly explored elsewhere, and I somewhat favor this approach than the generic and bloodless devastation of something like Edwards’ Godzilla, which attempted to replace the reality of death by torturing Bryan Cranston and masking its cityscapes in darkness. But, after all, it is somewhat harder to root for George, once you see the harm he has caused, after his inevitable face turn near the end, but the film hopes you’ll accept that he’s better now.
Yet, if there’s anybody in the business who could make you feel for this damn animal after killing all those people it’s Liles, who, with Notary’s help effectively captures primate behavior in his typically expert fashion and endows George with a gentle soul. His work comprises what heart there is in Rampage, which is short on feeling and long on spectacular chaos, and I wished we could have spent more time with him and Johnson outside of the Chicago battleground: A glimpse of their past together goes a long way to making that relationship work, and it’s better than it has any right to be. This goes for the whole of Rampage, honestly. It won’t be the most memorable action film released this year, but it’s a worthwhile and fun entertainment worthy of your attention, especially if you’re still trying to see a movie on 4/20, and hey, it’s better than Doom.