I had no idea that Rampage was based on a video game until, somewhere around the point where a giant flying wolf eats Joe Manganiello, an arcade cabinet makes an extremely conspicuous cameo in the background of the villains’ penthouse lair. I have since learned that Rampage, a King Kong knockoff starring a trio of city-smashing mutant animals, was an arcade staple in the mid-’80s, and more importantly, one of the many properties acquired by Warner Bros. when they bought Midway Games in 2009. Nearly ten years later, the first fruit of that iconic deal has arrived on our screens, starring the Rock. It’s trash, but it’s trash with context.
If you ignore its acquisition pedigree, Rampage, directed by San Andreas maestro Brad Peyton, feels like something that accidentally got sent down the wrong tube to a slightly-too-fancy casting director (Manganiello, Naomie Harris, and Malin Akerman are all here, bafflingly) and a guaranteed wide release. Despite its insistent name-checking of CRISPR gene-editing to … root the flying wolf in scientific reality, I guess … this is in fact way more SyFy than Sci-Fi, one shark short of a Sharknado. (There is a giant alligator, though.) It’s aggressively dumb, and I’d feel safe in the assumption that everyone was in on the joke if it weren’t for the absence of any good ones. (Evil biotech boss Akerman casually asking her brother “Remember that private military firm we acquired last year?” counts, maybe.) I’m not terribly convinced that the overtly campy version of this film would be any better, but I’m very certain that this one is bad.
Dwayne Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a San Diego primatology expert with a checkered past and a mistrust of humans, who has a special relationship with an albino Gorilla named George. The opening act of the film, in which we meet Davis and his band of beta sidekicks, who gush about the “kale bread” they made last night while he pacifies the beasts, is so transparently dictated by Johnson that I was tempted to feel embarrassed for him. It’s an incredibly unpleasant ten or so minutes to get through, and I wondered if I had accidentally wandered into a narrative adaptation of a Mike Cernovich book, all the way up to the point where a blushing blonde, impressed with Davis’s handling of the gorillas, asks if they can discuss his “submission techniques” over drinks sometime. It doesn’t come off as a joke about Johnson’s cartoonish Superman persona so much as an earnest advertisement for how not to be, in his words, a “candyass.”
Luckily, we don’t spend too much time with this pitiable gang. When an orbiting lab owned by the shady Wyden Technologies explodes in space, canisters of a special neon-green gene-enhancing goo fall back to Earth, where they are promptly gobbled up by an alligator, a wolf … and our dear friend George. The animals get big and essentially indestructible; some get new abilities (have I mentioned the flying wolf) and they all want nothing more than to destroy. Davis ditches the skinny boys and teams up with Kate Caldwell (Harris), a disgraced geneticist who makes a far better foil for him, not least because Harris is the best part of this thing by a mile. They go on a hunt for a possible antidote, while the trio of beasts converge on Chicago, inevitably leveling it in their rage-y rampage.
A quick digression: When I was in high school and we were learning about the principles of flight, we used Microsoft Flight Simulator to model lift, drag, and some other ideas I have since forgotten. Flight Simulator, for whatever reason, is anchored around a model of Chicago, and one of our exercises to demonstrate our accuracy was to fly our planes into Sears Tower (now Willis Tower). This was in 1999, two years before flying planes into buildings became more specifically frowned upon. I only bring this up because the Sears Tower has always been a bizarro World Trade Center in my imagination, making the climax of Rampage as tough to watch as its toxic-masculine opener.
Or to put it another way: your possibly self-consciously stupid Rock-starring pre-summer actioner is all fun and games until you invoke 9/11. The three mutant animals, drawn by a radio frequency being emitted by Wyden Technologies from the Willis antenna (whatever, just go with me) all scale the building, smashing it as they go up, and inevitably bringing it down in a cloud of debris and smoke. Plenty of movies have dredged up our anxieties of death and destruction in American cities since 2001, but few have re-created them with such faithfulness, and even fewer in service of a giant flying wolf. I’ll admit I had eased myself into a kind of pliability in order to get through the film (talk about submission techniques), but at this point, it was too tacky to enjoy in any good conscience. As ash falls from the sky and distant screams are heard, Davis and Kate emerge limping from the dust cloud. There’s still about 15 minutes of movie left. “I need a drink,” quips Johnson. I hear that, buddy.