Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Naomi Harris, Malin Ackerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello
Written by: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse and Ryan J. Condal (screenplay); Ryan Engle (story)
Directed by: Brad Peyton
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Reviewed by: Rob Vaux
The words “best video game adaptation ever” is a joke of a title, like the world’s cleanest cockroach. Again and again, we dive into that well, and again and again, we come up with bitter ashes. But Rampage feels like they finally cracked the code on the whole “based on a video game” problem, and it’s a surprisingly good fit.
I’m still trying to puzzle out exactly why. Rampage was an arcade game after all, possessing only the barest hints of story and consisting of a fairly simple repetition of the same basic task. The movie’s secret weapon is the way it cuts through the surface of the game to get to the DNA, then adds the surface details once it’s made some tweaks.
Rampage, the video game, essentially gave players an excuse to act out their Godzilla fantasies. You had a choice of three monsters – a gorilla, a giant wolf-man and a ‘Zilla-like lizard – then pounded buildings into oblivion while dodging (or eating) the army guys trying to stop you. It was deceptively simple and a whole lot of fun, but hardly the stuff of movie material.
Past game adaptations grappled with the same dilemma and failed miserably. In trying to craft a story out of such gossamer-thin material , they glommed standard Hollywood playbook stuff onto it… then crashed and burned. But the Rampage game started with Hollywood playbook stuff – unlike a lot of video games – and it happens to be more or less in vogue, thanks to Warners’ revitalized Godzilla franchise.
Hence, a somewhat lighter variation on a theme, sprinkled with the simple details of the game as a garnish rather than the main course. It sets up some hand-waving plot exposition about canisters full of Science Gone Wrong falling from an orbital lab. The gas infects three unlucky fauna – an alligator, a wolf, and a friendly gorilla named George – with the dreaded Grow Super Larger and Eat Buildings virus Throw in an evil corporation, an icy villain (Malin Ackerman, all gleeful sneers) and a radio signal from the top of Willis Tower, and the rest just writes itself.
Naturally there’s other things going on, but they hardly matter, and Rampage seems to know it. It gives us a lot of people rushing to and fro, most of it involving Dwayne Johnson’s primatologist (who works with George at a San Diego animal sanctuary). He develops a genuine rapport with the ape, taking a cue form Mighty Joe Young and giving the movie a relationship worth rooting for. When George gets hit with gas from the canister, The Rock follows him in an effort not just to save lives, but to keep his friend from being killed.
That glue allows the other bewildering (and often unnecessary) plot threads to more or less come together. (He gets a lot of help from Jeffrey Dean Morgan, playing one of the actor’s patented “what me worry” sociopaths.) The remaining humans fight through the exposition as best they can: basically there to fill screen time between money shots. Rampage also ends up being a little more violent than you might expect – younger kids should stay away
But that also gives the action some bite and helps what could be a very clichéd storyline find the right mixture to engage us. Surprisingly, the unnecessary story still carries a lot of energy, and though most of it is obvious padding, it’s more fun and engaging than you’d expect. A lot of that belongs to Johnson, whose movie-star charisma keeps the film bubbling, and from the monsters themselves who look just enough like their video game counterparts to evoke the right sense of nostalgia.
In the sum of things, it’s nothing overwhelming, and it can’t stand up with the likes of Skull Island. But it finds its own way of doing the same thing, which makes it more than just a cheap knock-off. This movie is fun, which is the name of the game, and as long as you accept that you won’t see anything groundbreaking, the fun can be infectious. And just like that, it nabs the title: finally, a video game adaptation does what it’s supposed to do. What more can you ask from a giant gorilla?