It can be misleading to call a movie “critic-proof.” When this critic humbly concedes that “Rampage” is critic-proof, it’s not because the Rock could open a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes score of negative 12% and still cook up a small fortune. No, “Rampage” is only critic-proof because it’s one of the few studio films in recent history that’s too hollow to support any critical thought. Trying to say anything of substance about this standard-issue spectacle is like mounting a flat-screen TV on a shower curtain.
Reuniting the dream team that brought you “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” and “San Andreas” (the only 9.6 degree earthquake that anyone has ever slept through), “Rampage” isn’t bad so much as it’s barely even there. It’s the placebo version of the glorious drug that Warner Bros concocted with 2014’s “Godzilla,” the majesty and grace of which the studio has been trying — and failing — to replicate across a half-dozen monster movies over the last four years. It’s an empty golem of multiplex entertainment so bland it will make you beg for Michael Bay to direct the sequel. This is one of those rare times when a toxic personality would’ve been preferable to not having one at all.
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In all seriousness, it’s almost inconceivable that such a boring movie could be made from a story that starts with a mutant rat terrorizing a space station, ends with a 60-foot crocodile devastating Chicago, and peaks with a scene where a silverback gorilla flips off the star of HBO’s “Ballers.” It genuinely hurts to pan a movie that contains even one of those things, let alone all three.
Very loosely based on the video game franchise of the same name, “Rampage” manages to screw up the source material’s signature idea: The 1986 arcade cabinet was so popular because it flipped “King Kong” on its head and allowed players to control a trio of gigantic monsters as they fended off military forces and reduced Earth’s cities to rubble. The movie — boasting stunning effects work on par with “War for the Planet of the Apes,” but none of its courage — flips that idea back to its default position by putting the humans front and center. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will care all that much (are there “Rampage” super fans?), but the decision makes you wonder if it was necessary for Warner Bros. to buy Midway Games for $33 million in 2009, or if this film’s premise is so generic that the studio could have just made it from scratch.
Anyway, a mutant rat has gotten loose in a space station owned by the evil Engyne corporation, and poor scientist Marley Shelton isn’t going to make it out of there alive. As her body erupts upon re-entering our atmosphere, three vials of the crazy animal growth serum pop out of the escape pod and scatter across the planet. One is chomped by a croc in the Everglades, one lands near a wolf in Wyoming, and the third crashes into the California wildlife sanctuary where muscular primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) cares for an albino gorilla named George (brought to life by Jason Liles’ exquisite motion-performance work and WETA’s digital magic).
Overnight, all three animals grow really huge and get really mad. The humans chase after them. Cue a handful of bloodless CG-driven setpieces that feel like cut-scenes from a next-gen “Rampage” video game, as the action builds towards a colossal showdown at Sears Tower. There’s nothing more to it than that. “Big meets bigger” isn’t just the tagline; it’s practically half the screenplay.
Director Brad Peyton knows his way around animal-on-animal violence — after all, he got his start by directing “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore” — but he shoots the carnage with little imagination. So many buildings quake and shatter, so many animals are thrown against things. There’s no poetry here, no personality or sense of purpose. It’s just one shot after another. The special effects are almost photo-realistic, and yet whenever George and Davis are in the same shot it feels like you’re watching a joyless modern riff on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” An average run through the original arcade game offers more excitement and surprises for the price of a quarter.
If the monsters can’t be the heroes, “Rampage” compromises by making George into something of a co-lead. Brought to life by sign language so fluent that Koko could follow the film without subtitles, the friendship between Davis and his primate pal is the closest thing this story has to an emotional core. Sure, the bond they share is interrupted by the fact that George is essentially possessed for most of the movie, but the gorilla’s sense of humor — along with Davis’ general distaste for people — allows for a semi-believable bromance.
Most of the human characters, on the other hand, are lame enough to explain why Davis has written off the whole species. “The Wolf of Wall Street” star P.J. Byrne is given some limp material as the shrimpy comic relief who’s there to make Johnson look even more swole, while a perky blonde named Amy (Breanne Hill) disappears once as soon as it’s been established that she wants to summit the Rock like a mountain. Joe Manganiello drops by just long enough to make you wish you were watching “Magic Mike XXL,” while the great Naomie Harris collects a well-deserved paycheck in a major role as the former Engyne scientist who developed the growth serum.
Harris has to carry too much water to have any fun, but some members of the cast are totally free of such restraints. Malin Akerman acquits herself as the older of the siblings who run Engyne, while Jake Lacy — a magnificent young actor who’s so perfected the tight-ass type that he can play one in any period or genre — has the time of his life as the disinterested Donald Trump Jr. of the family. He’s just smart enough to be truly stupid. It’s almost worth the price of admission just to hear him screech lines such as: “There’s a reason we were doing those experiments in space!” As for Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s hillbilly secret agent, it’s hard to fully explain what he’s doing, but letting him get away with it might be the best creative decision that Peyton has ever made (and maybe the only one).
It’s Johnson, of all people, who always sucks the air out of the room. Arguably the only true movie star that Hollywood has produced in the 21st century (he may not be able or willing to launch an original property, but his personal box office appeal is on par with many of today’s major franchises), Johnson has proven that he’s one of the most charismatic performers on the planet. His collaborations with Peyton, however, feel like the work of a man who’s being swallowed alive by his brand. Johnson wants everyone to love him — he wants to be the glistening international symbol for a good time at the movies — but the bigger he gets, the smaller he appears. As edgy and entertaining as a political campaign ad, Johnson’s performance in “Rampage” is so aggressively inoffensive that it almost seems to confirm the rumors that he’s running for President.
Much like the hero Johnson played in “San Andreas,” Davis Okoye is so stiff and sexless that he feels reverse-engineered from his own action figure. There are no sharp edges here: Davis is noble, but he’ll knock you out. He’s an animal-lover with a heart of gold, but he’s also a shredded ex-soldier whose arms are so large that he’s only allowed outside in states with open-carry laws. His sarcastic sense of humor is limited to jokes that are too basic to be lost in translation or misunderstood in Chinese. Johnson is a Herculean demigod whose biceps could were listed second and third on the call sheet, but Davis remains sexless from start to finish, even while every other character drools over him like he’s a fleshy mound of catnip (at least “Jumanji” contrived an elaborate excuse for the actor to be so neutered and nonthreatening).
It’s hard to reconcile with the actor’s charm and physique, but there’s a palpable fear to Johnson’s performance, as though he’d be mortally wounded by losing even a single one of his fans. Achilles had his heel, and Dwayne Johnson has his image. He has Peyton, too.
What does “Rampage” have? No satisfying action beats, no memorable images, and so little to say that it’s virtually impossible to say anything about it in return. It’s not a movie for critics, that much is clear. The problem is that it’s not for anyone else, either.
“Rampage” opens in theaters on April 13th.