Rampage review: Dwayne Johnson's new film has completely lost the plot

Surely it’s time to give the Rock a role that takes him to a harder place than he finds in mushy, by-the-numbers fare like this

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 11 April 2018 22:12
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Rampage - Trailer 2

Brad Peyton, 100 mins, starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Will Yun Lee, Malin Akerman, Joe Manganiello, Naomi Harris

It’s when a giant crocodile, a huge wolf and a King Kong-sized ape scurry up a Chicago skyscraper that it becomes clear that Rampage, the new monster movie starring Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, has completely lost the plot.

The film, loosely based on a video game, must have cost a fortune – but its crummy storyline would barely pass muster in the creakiest Ed Wood-style 1950s B movie.

Director Brad Peyton follows pretty much the same formula as in his previous (and equally far-fetched) San Andreas. The slight difference here is that it isn’t earthquakes which are rumbling America but gigantic, mutant animals.

Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a conservationist who works at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary. Imagine a pumped up, more muscular version of David Attenborough and you’ll get the sense of his character. He is especially close to the albino ape, George, whom he rescued when the little chimp was only two years old. He has taught George sign language.

The animal knows how to give him the finger, how to fist bump and how to share a joke. Davis gets on far better with his simian pal than with any of the humans he works with. Girls love him, but Davis is too busy with the monkeys to have any time for romance.

Just in case we think Davis is too much the professor type, we learn that he was once in special forces and knows how to throttle his adversaries so hard that they will wet themselves. Like George, he always strives to be the alpha male in any group in which he finds himself.

For no particular reason, Rampage opens with a scene in outer space. A scientist is stuck in a spaceship with a giant rat which has been “genetically edited” through the “CRISPR” programme and is now trying to kill her.

The programme is run by the Cruella De vill-like businesswoman, Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman), and her sleazy brother, Brett (Jake Lacy.) After a big explosion, by one of those utterly random coincidences without which the film would make even less sense than it already does, the growth serum blasts across the universe and lands in the wildlife sanctuary.

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George takes it and, in no time at all, the friendly ape has grown to King Kong size, escaped from the sanctuary and gone on the rampage. Cops and special forces are after him, but are powerless to stop him. Nor can they do anything about the enormous wolf, which has also quaffed down some of the growth substance and is likewise on a wrecking spree.

The special effects are the film’s strongest element. We get to see the monsters munching on aeroplanes and helicopters as if they’re chocolate snacks and scattering armies as if they’re toys. The wolf has a ravenous appetite which it can only satisfy by eating as many soldiers as possible. George, the great white ape, survives plane crashes, fires, explosions and as many bullets as the humans can fire at him.

Naomie Harris was Oscar-nominated last year for her brilliant performance in Moonlight. It’s dispiriting to see an actress of her calibre lumbered with some of the lines she is given here in her role as Dr Kate Caldwell, the genetic scientist who is continually trying to explain to the other characters (and to the audience too) just how the growth serum works. Her main achievement here is to keep a straight face when the script calls for her to utter lines of unspeakable banality.

While some of the other actors appear unsure whether they’re in a drama or a comedy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays his role as special agent Harvey Russell entirely tongue-in-cheek. “When science shits the bed, I am the guy they call to change the sheets,” the agent explains, in a Texan drawl that makes him sound as if he has wandered off the set of a nearby John Wayne western.

Dwayne Johnson is same the likeable, impassive presence he is in every other action movie. All the death and destruction around him never upsets him. The most agitated he becomes here is when he is when he reminisces about the poachers in Africa who killed George’s mother while the young ape cowered in the background.

“They cut off her hands so they could sell them as ash trays,” he says with disgust. He is far more upset about this than about the soldiers massacred by the mutant animals. Nor does he seem especially bothered by the plight of the citizens of Chicago whose lives are ripped apart when these animals arrive in town.

The final reel offers the now familiar exercise in mass destruction. Skyscrapers collapse. Vehicles are flattened. Fire rages. Davis stands blithely in the middle of all the chaos, entirely in his element.

A generation ago, a film like Rampage would have been made have been made with Ray Harryhausen papier maché monsters and stop-motion action scenes. This is throwaway popcorn entertainment that could fit comfortably in the bottom half of a double bill aimed at a Saturday morning kids’ audience.

In today’s Hollywood, though, it is presented as a main attraction, with full fanfare, big-name actors and overblown visual effects. There is an obvious mismatch between the huge scale of the project and its very modest, very cheesy screenplay.

Thanks to Johnson’s ever-likeable, ever-monolithic screen persona and the film’s sense of its own ridiculousness, Rampage retains a certain charm. It works on the audience by thrilling them one moment, and then making them groan at a bad pun or an especially silly piece of monkey business the next. But sophisticated storytelling it isn’t.

Surely it’s time to give the Rock a role that takes him to a harder place than he finds in mushy, by-the-numbers fare like this.

Rampage is out in UK cinemas now.

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