Review: Rampage

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Brad Peyton

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Why did the gargantuan albino gorilla, the armor-plated alligator and the spiny bat-wolf cross the road? To get to the evil-frequency-emitting beacon atop the corporate assholes’ skyscraper of course.

Bless Dwayne Johnson. He’s become Hollywood’s official Most Charming Man. When he’s not sticking up for mental health issues on social media, he’s grinning his way amiably through a roster of feel-good action adventure movies, making them all slightly better in the process. And you just have to look up from your smartphone (or even, no, just look at your smartphone) for a second to see that what we could all use, just for a moment, is a big dollop of charming escapism. Johnson’s happy to be your go-to-guy on this. And we should all be happy to have him.

I don’t know if anybody really expected Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle to be such a huge success, but a lot of that film’s good game can be attributed to Johnson. It’s still playing theatres following a Boxing Day release. You can go down to your local multiplex and double-bill it with this movie. And, you know what, you should. Because Rampage is (and I feel like I should be being sarcastic here but I’m not)… a total blast.

Yeah. It’s great. The world is coming apart at the seams, but Rampage is a little gift of pretend chaos in all this scary real chaos. For two hours you can shut all that out and watch a big muscly man (“It’s a big arm, don’t fight it”) chase after some giant genetically altered monster animals and have supersized popcorn levels of fun in the process. True enough, the real world will be there baring its teeth when you leave the cinema. But those two hours in the dark will have been worth it.

Johnson plays Davis Okoye, an expert on primates at a San Diego zoo and (handily) an ex-special forces type dude who can also fly anything. His best friend is the formerly mentioned albino gorilla, George (one of many great feats of CG present). When (wait for it) an escape pod from an exploding space station containing illegal genetically engineered pathogens (yup) falls to earth and (part of it) lands within George’s enclosure (what are the odds?), George gets a super dose and starts to grow and grow. And get angry. The big bad corporation behind all this realises what they’ve inadvertantly set in motion and they activate a signal to draw George and other similarly affected beasts across the US to Chicago. Bingo, you’ve got yourself a city-trashing monster movie.

Along the way Davis meets an ex-con biologist who engineered the pathogen, Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), and an OGA (“other government agency”) cowboy named Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan playing Negan with a badge and loving every second of it). They form an unlikely and uneasy trio, circling one another in a friendly game of lies as planes fall out of the sky. And helicopters. And buildings.

If you didn’t know prior to watching it that Rampage was adapted from a video game, the movie itself wouldn’t tip you off. That’s to its credit (and pretty much makes this the best video game movie ever made). It even makes up for Johnson’s other notable foray; Doom. Instead, what Rampage most keenly conjures is the warmth and feel of mid 90’s high-concept action movies; all big heart, big emotions and big, big explosions. But not to the detriment of all those yummy feelings.

Johnson’s a big softie, as is Davis. Gosh darn it, he’s so lovable. His relationship with George is the cornerstone of the movie and the only romance it needs. They sign together (second big movie to arrive this month heavy on sign language – nice!) and they kid around together. There’s precious little of this before the plot kicks in like a mule, but what we’re afforded is enough. With economy director Brad Peyton gives us everything we need.

Things remain pacy and action lovers will be sated by a mid-film fireworks display aboard a military plane (trumping for thrills anything Tom Cruise has jumped / fallen out of lately). Johnson is even asked to act while seemingly hurtling toward the ground for real. And he does so. It’s no big thing.

Yeah, some scenes in a military base somewhere (all darkness and high-tech screens) come dangerously close to reminding the audience that this is closer to an Aslyum-style feature than anyone would like to admit, but then things get right back into gear when the shit hits the fan in Chicago.

And it’s during this effortlessly inventive and smoothly flowing sequence (which connects together multiple set pieces) that it hits you; this is the movie that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla should have been, and this is the movie Kong: Skull Island should have been. It’s tight, it’s fun, it looks the business, and it has a huge beating heart that keeps you in the moment with the characters – human or otherwise. It’s the dumbest movie of the year, but it’s not suggesting it should be received as anything other than that. And so on its own terms… it’s great. This type of thing has a glass ceiling, but Rampage comes awfully lose to smashing it to pieces.

Because it’s not so dumb when it counts. Yes, the plot is ludicrous. But there’s care and attention in here, too. The kind of care and attention that remembers that buildings collapsing = tons of rubble, so incorporates those dangers into the geography of the action. The kind of care and attention that ensures that said action scenes have structure and enough spacial information to remain clearly comprehensible. These things might sound like no-brainers, but a lot of movies in recent years have argued that they’re not.

So I was sold on giving this one the mark below pretty early on. And a sequence involving a particularly suggestive gesture (not the one at the start of the movie) sold me on adding the Seal of Approval strap up the top.

Rampage is the big spectacle movie to beat as the summer silly season gets started. Bring it.

Score:  4

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