It’s been almost fifteen years since I first walked into a film purely out of the promise of Dwayne Johnson in a leading role. The film was Walking Tall, the year was 2004, and I wasn’t even a wrestling fan – I just couldn’t deny what The Rock was cooking. Over a decade later, watching Rampage, I came to two realisations.
One: I haven’t really liked a single Dwayne Johnson movie in those years.
Two: Every Dwayne Johnson movie has the same problem. They’re not funny enough.
You see, on the small screen, Johnson is an undeniable movie star. He’s handsome, engaging, enthusiastic. Physically, he’s the epitome of masculinity. He oozes charisma and likeability; he’s like a more refined, more articulate Arnie. I could watch him promote his movies on mediocre entertainment programs all day long.
But that version of The Rock is somehow lessened on the big screen. His screenplays find occasional opportunities for him to flex his comedic chops as well as his muscles, but too rarely. Baywatch, Hercules, Jumanji, Central Intelligence– they all have these moments where they briefly channel their star’s charisma, but then they go right back to emphasising action over laughs.
Rampage is, sadly, no different. Maybe the idea of adapting a goofy arcade game from the mid-‘80s where humungous monsters try to destroy a city while besieged by military forces sounds a tad ludicrous, but in an era where we have The Angry Birds Movie and The Emoji Movie making good coin, I’m not even raising an eyebrow at its existence. And who better to shoulder a patently ridiculous premise like this than the paragon of blockbuster solidity, The Rock himself?
Sitting down to watch Rampage, I was more than ready for some silly fun and some ridiculous one-liners. What I wasn’t prepared for was the kind of tonal whiplash exemplified by the contrast between the opening scenes. The film begins in space, with a five-minute long recreation of Life (the swiftly-forgotten Alien rip-off, not the James Dean movie nor the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence one), complete with ravenous rats and severed heads floating past the camera. When we return the Earth, the tone is lightly comedic as Johnson, playing primatologist David Okoye, roasts a greenhorn colleague (Jack Quaid). This scene is legitimately funny, anchored by Johnson’s inimitable ability to make the clunkiest comedic dialogue hilarious.
As the film progresses, however, the balance shifts more towards severed heads than one-liners. Director Brad Peyton speeds through establishing scenes and before long we have a trio of oversized, genetically-enhanced animals rampaging (yes) their way towards Chicago: a kind of alligator amalgam, a flying wolf, and an albino primate called George. George, of course, was in Davis’s care before the aftereffects of an ill-advised genetic experiment turned him into a fearsome, aggressive super-ape. Along the way, we’re introduced to cocky government agent Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), our corporate antagonist siblings Brett (Jake Lacy) and Clare Wyden (Malin Akerman), and Davis’ obligatory love interest, geneticist Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris).
The plot is paper-thin, that’s no surprise. What is surprising is the way Peyton – who also helmed Johnson’s San Andreas – emphasises the gruesomeness of the action. The scenes of gigantic monsters tearing apart cities rack up a bloody bodycount that the camera refuses to omit; given modern blockbusters’ tendency to slide away from the realities of civilian casualties, it’s genuinely shocking how gory Rampage is. And part of me thinks, hey, great! If you’re going to evoke September 11 imagery, why not really dig into the damage and loss associated with destruction on this scale. But … is a goofy-looking film like Rampage, pitched at family audiences in the wake of Jumanji’s success, really the home for this? I was expecting laughs, not savagery, and while it’s maybe unfair to criticise the film for not meeting my expectations, it made it difficult to enjoy.
Credit to Rampage, though: the special effects are legitimately impressive. While the trailers might lead you to expect something cartoonish, the action sequences are actually remarkably realistic, particularly when contrasted against the deteriorating standards of blockbuster CGI over the past few years. I suspect anyone hoping for little more than huge-scale action will be impressed by Rampage. But for me, I just wanted to have a bit of fun at the movies and Rampage just didn’t deliver.