We have plenty of examples of super-rich, immensely powerful dudes at the height of their careers considering the view from the top of the world and thinking, “Yeah, this is pretty good. But maybe I should be spreading my greatness even further and conquering OTHER worlds.” As a result, we had a chance to see Michael Jordan in a baseball cap instead of a basketball jersey, and we were subjected to the “Chris Gaines” era of Garth Brooks’ career. Like Jordan and Brooks, most of those who seek to soar to new heights end up flying too close to the sun and then backing away as gracefully as they can from these brief journeys outside their wheelhouses.
Not so with Dwayne Johnson. In one of the most successful high-profile career transitions in recent memory, the one-time WWE superstar has spent the last couple of decades becoming a legitimate movie star. In fact, the erstwhile “The Rock” has been so successful as Hollywood’s go-to muscly mass of charm that you might wonder if he’d be tempted to pivot again into more sophisticated indie films that would require a different type of dramatic acting. If Rampage is any indication, he will be doing no such thing: Johnson could not be more in his lane in this movie if it was a bowling alley and the bumpers were down.
Frankly, that’s very good news. The greatest strength of Rampage is that everyone involved seems to know exactly what this film is: an action extravaganza based on an old arcade game that featured giant monsters set on destroying cities. The movie has slightly more nuance than that game, in that one of the animals that’s inadvertently exposed to the mutation-causing pathogen is George, a gorilla who has a life-long bond with Johnson’s character, a special forces officer turned primatologist named Davis Okoye. So, Davis becomes worried when the pathogen falls from space and infects George, causing George’s body and temper to become more monstrous at an exponential speed. Everyone else gets worried, too, especially when they find out that George wasn’t the only creature infected, and the others don’t have tight t-shirt wearing badasses trying to keep them calm.
Fortunately, Davis has the help of brilliant but disgraced scientist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, in a very different role from the one in Moonlight that scored her an Oscar nomination). But he’s also got to grapple with a bunch of military dudes and government agents who don’t seem nearly as interested as he is in saving George. The latter group is led by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Harvey Russell, an absolute caricature of a southern good ol’ boy/shadow agent: he’s got the big accent, the bigger longhorn belt buckle, and his dialogue is heavily dosed with things his “grandpappy used to say.”
Whether or not all of that works for you is going to depend very much on whether you’re taking this movie more seriously than its taking itself. This is a movie wherein the deepest conversation about feelings happens between Davis and George after a newly-infected George kills a bear, and that conversation essentially just involves George signing words like “sad” and “sorry.” There’s not a lot of dimension here. There’s a lot of action, some pretty good jokes, and honestly, Johnson has a lot of chemistry with that gorilla even at it’s most CGI-ed. Still, you can make a popcorn flick with better writing than this one – even Rampage deserves better than lines like, “I have a PhD in calling people on their shit.” And the film’s rich mad scientist bad guys, a sister-brother pair played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, seemed oddly superfluous right up until each was given an admittedly satisfying send off.
Even as big-budget action movie that centers on animals being mutated by a toxin that falls from space, Rampage could have been a tighter film and a more cleanly told story. But I get the sense that no one involved is really all that worried about it: it’s an entertaining movie wherein helicopters get destroyed by monsters on multiple occasions, and that may well be its highest aspiration. That’s OK. If this is the kind of film Dwayne Johnson wants to make for many years to come, I’m here for it. Beats the hell out of him trying to pull a Chris Gaines.