Video game film adaptations haven’t had the best track record. They’ve been historically maligned by critics; some justly (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is, in fact, that bad), others unjustly (Mortal Kombat remains a 90s camp classic). Now we have Rampage, based on the classic giant monster arcade game, being marketed as “the best-reviewed video game movie of all time.” But despite this dubious designation, Rampage can barely be called an adaptation. It deviates from and adds so much to its narratively sparse source material that it’s essentially its own beast. Sure, there are the obligatory Easter eggs (the clunkiest by far being the presence of a Rampage arcade cabinet in the villain’s corporate office), but beyond a handful of names and the most basic of premises, the two share nothing.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Rampage games are all but storyless, their only narrative a few seconds-long cutscenes of exposition. And casting the giant man-eating monsters as protagonists (though something I’d love to see) would be far too creatively risky for a big-budget tentpole like this. Enter action hero of the hour Dwayne Johnson as Davis Okoye, a primatologist at the San Diego Zoo. Davis’s albino ape pal, George, begins to grow at an exponential rate after being exposed to a mysterious gas from outer space. Elsewhere in the country, a wolf and a crocodile ingest the same substance, and experience similarly rapid growth. As the three mega-beasts converge on Chicago, it’s up to Okoye to find a way to save George (and a city of millions).
I’ll say this for Rampage: it never falls prey to overambition. It’s hugely, almost proudly mindless; the perfunctory plot is nothing more than a frame on which to hang its main attractions: three giant animals and one giant human. There’s almost a strange nobility to it; there are no delusions of grandeur (or even goodness) here, but Rampage knows what its audience wants and delivers it with respectable efficiency. Same goes for the actors; Dwayne Johnson’s larger-than-life screen presence makes him a perfect leading man for the material, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, acutely aware of the kind of movie he’s in, gives us a delightfully hammy performance as a cowboy-drawling government agent. Rampage‘s many set-pieces are rousing-if-familiar, and it’s fun to see Chicago get the movie-disaster spotlight for once. But the best of these by far is the first appearance of giant wolf Ralph, a Predator-like standoff between the monster and a group of mercenaries; it’s the only moment in the movie that evokes real tension.
My main complaint about Rampage is that – despite its best efforts – it’s not goofy enough. Take lead villain Claire Wyden, who is comically, stupidly evil, but played relatively subdued by Malin Akerman. The part begs for an over-the-top, mustache-twirling performance – think Moore-era Bond villains, or Jon Voight in Anaconda – but it’s delivered with mere adequacy. Rampage is at its best when it commits to its essential idiocy, such as its indulgence in sign language gags involving George that seem squarely aimed at twelve-year-old boys. This might sound like a criticism, but in this case I’d classify it as a moment in which the movie is fully assured of its tone. It certainly worked better than the jarring midsection flashback to the death of George’s mother at the hands of poachers, which is so out of place that it can’t even elicit distaste.
Still, Rampage is so big, dumb, and shameless that it’s hard to feel any real ill will towards it; its gigantic creatures may be fearsome, but its true spirit animal is a lovably dimwitted great dane. It’s the kind of movie where our heroes can emerge from the rubble of the climax sharing some light-hearted laughs, despite having just witnessed a disaster whose death toll must have been many times that of 9/11. If that sounds unappealing to you, steer clear, but if you find yourself chuckling at the thought, grab a ticket and enjoy.