Once in a while, a film can pull you in opposite directions.
“Rampage,” in basically every respect, is absolutely ridiculous. Its action set-pieces are nonsensical, its characters are one-dimensional, and its narrative could’ve been cooked up by any elementary student with a decent imagination. I’m not even certain that it’s a particularly good video game adaptation.
I am certain, however, that I thoroughly enjoyed it, anyway.
I’ve grown to love “action-schlock” — it’s a high-wire act of a subgenre, constantly teetering so as not to fall head-first into self-seriousness or self-parody. When it works (largely fueled by irony, I admit), it’s as entertaining to me as filmmaking can get. There’s something about the unbridled audacity of putting something insane on film “simply because they can” that soothes my soul in its dimmest corners.
From the first viewing of “Rampage’s” theatrical trailer, I thought it seemed a good candidate for successful schlock. It’s not the best I’ve seen on this front, but it hits more than it misses.
Based upon a Midway arcade game from the ’80s, the creative team behind “Rampage” wisely kept the storyline simple and linear throughout its runtime (which, at 107 minutes, is mercifully short.)
When a scientific laboratory orbiting the planet explodes, three capsules containing biogenetic pathogen crash to Earth. By sheer scripted convenience, each capsule lands directly into the habitat of a different animal — namely, a gorilla in San Diego, a wolf in Wyoming, and an alligator in the Everglades — who inhale the pathogen and proceed to grow into much larger, more monstrous versions of their former selves.
In an attempt to capture the progeny of their dastardly research, the evil corporate science firm that invented the pathogen (conveniently located at the top of the tallest building in downtown Chicago, by the way) switches on a bio-sonar radio signal (or whatever) to draw the three mutated critters into the city.
Extended sequences of rampaging ensue.
One of the film’s great strengths is the casting of actors sharp enough to play it straight in the face of constantly absurd circumstances, and charming enough to remain likable even when spouting silly dialogue.
Dwayne Johnson is playing his standard “action man” role here; he’s ex-military, he knows how to operate high-powered rifles and fly helicopters, he dresses in shades of light brown, etc. The one unique thing brought to the table is his simpatico dynamic with wild animals, providing the movie with its single most important relationship between Johnson and one of the film’s resident monsters, George the albino gorilla. Despite the inherent cheesiness, it’s difficult not to crack a smile at the earnest sign-language exchanges between Johnson and George; a project like this absolutely needs an actor with the charisma of Dwayne Johnson to fully fly.
Along for the ride are Naomie Harris as a disgraced scientist who’s an expert on the mutagenic serum, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a snarky government agent (basically just playing his famous Negan character in a suit and tie), and Malin Akerman as a greedy corporate something-or-other who rivals Cruella De Vil in bombastic behavior.
I don’t remember most of the character’s names, but luckily, their names don’t matter much. All these actors are portraying archetypes that are shallow and accessible enough for the eight-year-olds in the audience to understand, which is forgivable, because that’s entirely by design.
This brings me to my next point; I think this film is largely being reviewed wrong. I get the feeling that a lot of critics struggle with a piece’s subjectivity, and either mistake or ignore what exactly the makers of the piece were going for.
“Rampage” is a lot of things that, out of context, would be considered detrimental. It’s loud and ostentatious, with a relatively unclever script and a boisterous prioritization of CGI spectacle, but “Rampage” is all of those things on purpose. It is dumb, without a doubt, but it’s also guileless, and because it doesn’t match the across-the-board expertise of classier action movies doesn’t mean “Rampage” is a failure.
“Rampage” is aiming for something streamlined and succeeds. Up against other blockbusters of late, that gives this film a special sort of purity.
Few will say so, but one of the most important factors in good storytelling is honesty, or perhaps, genuity. Viewers can tell when they’re being lied to, and they can especially tell when they’re being pandered to.
Take Zack Snyder’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” for example, or Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films, or the godforsaken tire-fire known as “The Emoji Movie.” All of these films, along with countless other recent tentpoles, are overstuffed with sociopolitical babble, misused pseudo-intellectual philosophy, and shameless shilling of products or services that have little to do with the film itself. “Rampage” manages not to join these ranks; its primary goal of showcasing silly monster action never wavers.
Don’t get me wrong; “Rampage” is not without a laundry list of issues. Most of the green-screen shots are obvious and under-rendered, a lot of characters jump to convenient conclusions for the sake of tidy storytelling, and a little too much humor is derived from animals making obscene hand gestures.
This is not even bringing up the absurd made-up movie technology on display or the blatant defiance of the laws of physics during the film’s most exciting moments.
These factors are forgivable, though, because of “Rampage’s” genuity. There’s never a sense that the film is trying to sell its audience on anything that the movie isn’t. Outside of one particular shot, there isn’t even much obnoxious product placement.
We live in a very cynical world, but the further into adulthood I get, the more I realize that the only thing worse than a purely dumb blockbuster is a dishonest one.
“Rampage” isn’t perfect — it’s even pretty stupid — but it avoids haughty self-importance with flying colors. Maybe that’s what some of us need the most right now.