Growing up I was one of many who enjoyed a certain violent video game franchise involving destruction and Godzilla-like terror on the masses. I am of course talking about “Rampage” and like many classic video games “Rampage” now has a cinematic adaptation that brings its monsters to life and adds science fiction elements and human action to the mix for some spice. As a fan of the games I went into this movie expecting destruction and mayhem galore and I was not disappointed. It’s actually one of the better video game adaptations, but that’s not saying much. So is “Rampage” worth the watch or is it just another subpar video game film in a genre filled with blah adaptations? Well you’ll have to read on to find out. This is my review of “Rampage”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Rampage” is inspired by the 1980s videogame of the same name by Midway Games, a product that spawned a franchise and involved giant beasts destroying cities and eating people. In the film primatologist and head of an anti-poaching unit Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) helps manage a pen of rescued gorillas including a rare albino gorilla named George with whom he has a special bond. Okoye is not much of a people person, but after a container of experimental gas falls into George’s pen, causing him to increase in size and become aggressive, Okoye must team with Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a discredited genetic engineer, and government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to discover what’s wrong with George and how to change him back to normal. However the plot thickens when the company that created the gas using Caldwell’s research, led by brother and sister duo Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy), tries to recover the creatures infected with their gas using sonic waves to lure them to Chicago. As George, Ralph the wolf and Lizzie the crocodile wreak havoc on the city Okoye and his team must conjure up a plan to stop them.
“Rampage” does include several human characters instead of making it just about giant beasts destroying things. Starring in the film is Dwayne Johnson as Davis Okoye, a man who’s not much of a people person and is more in tune with animals. Johnson does manage to make this clear through character development, snappy one-liners, and a forced anti-social nature. It’s not Johnson’s worst acting job, but it’s nothing we’ve haven’t seen from him before either. Okoye captures everything the former wrestler brings to the table and like many characters in this film lacks much originality in terms of presentation. It’s still the same old song and dance Johnson has given us before, a buff guy whose personality goes beyond his muscle, although I have to say as the leading man he carries the weight very well here and he doesn’t really get a lot of help from the other actors on that front.
Naomie Harris plays Dr. Kate Caldwell, a scientist whose research has been weaponized to create the giant monsters in the film. Harris is a talented actress. Want proof, just watch “Moonlight”, however, this role isn’t really for her. Caldwell is a generic female lead and lacks substance beyond being a source of exposition and quick explanation for the convoluted science involved in the film’s “giant monsters” concept. It’s not terrible, but it’s just not a role fitting of the talent Harris brings to the screen. She does well with what she’s given, but in the end this isn’t a character that stands out any more than women from any other garden variety action movie. She takes a back seat for most of the action, can’t fend for herself much and adds little to the film beyond emotional subtext and some science babble to keep Okoye in the loop. It’s harmless enough and we’ve seen it before, but there lies the problem. In a word, Caldwell is generic at best.
Another disappointing performance is from one of my personal favorites, Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Morgan is not actually bad in this movie…he’s actually pretty damn good. Unfortunately he’s uninspired. Morgan plays rough and tough government agent Harvey Russell, but really he’s just playing his “Walking Dead” character Negan in a more heroic light. It’s the same character with snappy one-liners, quirky nicknames, and an unbiased willingness to tell anyone what he thinks in pretty colorful ways. The entire film I was actually irritated because having seen Morgan play this character before, several times in fact, all I could think about was how unoriginal this performance is. I believe Morgan has quite a range, but you wouldn’t know it here. He leans on the same tropes and character traits he has perfected from the past and shows no variety in his role here. It’s a fun character and Morgan NAILS it, but it’d be a whole lot more fun if we hadn’t seen it time and time again from him.
I guess I should start by saying “Rampage” does embrace the spirit of the videogames that inspired it. There’s a LOT of death and destruction in these monsters’ wakes as they make their way to the source of the sound drawing them in. Innocent lives are lost and yes we do see the monsters eat people the same way they do in the video game. While it does take a while to get to the destruction, “Rampage” manages to effectively recreate the excitement and danger of its source material giving us a Godzilla-like action film with memorable monsters that cause mayhem without prejudice. This is what “Rampage” is all about. While the story does take liberties with the origin of George, Ralph and Lizzie this movie feels true to the idea of the games and we even get a cameo appearance from a giant monster rat, a fourth beast from the games that has had many iterations, most famously Larry who was an extra character in some versions of the first game.
I give “Rampage” credit for being an effective and shamelessly fun action movie. I was fully engaged throughout the whole experience and really did have fun watching it. As a long-time fan of the original game I did enjoy its fresh take on the concept and credit the film for staying true to itself. Yes it’s loud, confusing and sometimes over the top, but that’s the point and unlike similar films like “Pacific Rim” and the “Transformers” franchise it doesn’t get lost in the mayhem. It balances itself out with a tender story involving its main male lead and George the gorilla that eventually plays into the beast versus beast matchup we all know is coming. Many times having humans involved actually takes away from the action and fun of movies like this, but “Rampage” seems to do the impossible and uses its human character to add something of substance to the story. It’s not perfect, but “Rampage” succeeds in being harmless action fun with a little bit of heart.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While I give credit to “Rampage” for actually adding some depth to the story with its human characters, it counteracts this by leaning way too heavily on loosely explained science fiction to justify the existence of its animal antagonists. There is the making of a great sci fi origin story here, but the script leans too heavily on buzz words like “weaponizing” and “genetic editing” to explain its science. As a result it lacks substance in its setup. It’s very clear the writers just wanted to cut to the chase and get to the monster mayhem. There’s very little thought put into explaining the gas or chemicals that help create the monstrous animals and the way the explanations are delivered, fast and off the cuff, clearly tells you that the screenwriters knew we didn’t care how the animals were created we just want to see animals destroying buildings and killing people. As fun as this movie is, the setup feels contrived and phoned in although I do have to admit it doesn’t really take you out of the film as much as it could have.
There are a lot of other minor issues I have with “Rampage” that makes it a messy film overall even if it is one of the best examples of movie escapism we’ve seen all year. I already mentioned how the human characters aren’t really that original, but on top of that the script is very bland, the human villains are underwhelming and the pacing can be all over the place at times. It takes quite a bit of suspension of disbelief to watch “Rampage” and that’s fun and all, but beyond the simple enjoyment of the destruction and mayhem it doesn’t really offer anything of substance. “Rampage” only does just enough to escape generic territory, but it’s hard not to appreciate its dedication to its theme of animal-based chaos and its willingness to incorporate some brutal and amusing death moments and legitimate chaos into the action. You get what you came for, but you don’t really get a whole lot more to appreciate beyond that.
“Rampage” may not be the cure for the video game movie curse, but it’s definitely one of the better entries in a genre infamous for bad films. It’s a whole lot of fun and sticks true to the theme and identity of the game that inspired it making for one of 2018’s best escapism movies to date. As a fan of the original “Rampage” game I found myself satisfied with the final product but as a critical thinker when it comes to cinematic movies I felt “Rampage” didn’t really offer me much more substance than what I already expected. The actors aren’t at their best, some of the characters are downright lazy clichés by some very talented performers, the script is bland and the science behind it all is barely explained in hopes that the audience won’t care enough to realize how ridiculous it all is. In the end though we came for the monsters and the destruction and there’s plenty of that to go around with well-designed representations of the monsters from the game and even a human element to the story that kind of makes sense. It’s not gold, but for what it is “Rampage” is shameless fun at its best and if that’s all you’re looking to find then it gets the job done and, if it’s not too bold to say, is probably the single most entertaining video game adaptation to date.