In a startlingly blunt profile piece for Rolling Stone recently, it came to light that Dwayne Johnson’s mantra upon tackling any new project is “elevate and dominate”, a philosophy you can’t help but respect when you walk away from his latest blockbuster offering, Rampage. You respect it because it brings to mind that moment at the onset of Johnson’s 2003 actioner The Rundown (hilariously – in hindsight – retitled Welcome to the Jungle for UK audiences) in which Arnold Schwarzengger put in a rather amusing meta-cameo to literally wish the up-and-coming star “good luck”, a moment that appears to have meant more to the former Rock than anyone quite expected.
Schwarzennegger, you see, hit something of a professional sweet spot in the early nineties – not by becoming the biggest action star on the planet – that was incidental – but instead by unearthing just what it might take to become the biggest star on the planet, full stop. That secret, surprisingly, was to embrace the full-blown family movie audience, and drag them along to the next project with you – laughing all to the way to the bank as you went. Where Arnie fell flat, however, was in never finding the right projects to maintain that audience post-Kindergarten Cop, and it’s a defeat Dwayne Johnson emerges from Rampage with no sign of ever falling victim to himself.
Rampage is, for the most part, Monster Movie 101 – an unashamed, smash-a-minute, explosion-heavy kaiju flick that just happens to include a “don’t you dare mistreat animals!” subtext and plays equally well to both children and adults as it romps along with the heir apparent to the Fast & Furious franchise front and centre. It’s also, and it’s easy to forget this, an adaptation of the classic eighties arcade game that’s become a staple of background imagery in 80s-set pieces such as Stranger Things and IT – meaning that, mere weeks after releasing the best video game to film adaptation in history, Warner Bros. have brilliantly managed to top their own achievement with nary a spark of fanfare for doing so.
With the video game story (or, realistically, lack thereof) being shunted to the third act, the set-up of Rampage sees Johnson as military man-turned-zoologist (suggesting there was a West Point class at some point that included only Johnson and Jurassic World’s Chris Pratt character) Davis Okoye, San Diego animal handler and best friend to albino gorilla George. When a secret genetic experiment taking place on a space station (just roll with it) causes a manmade virus to rain down on the Earth, George is one of three animals across the United States to come into contact with it, and, soon enough, begins to grow at an extraordinary rate – with his aggression rising correspondingly. As George’s behaviour becomes increasingly dangerous, it’s down to Davis and disgraced geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to pursue the unhinged gorilla as he makes his way toward his creators’ homing beacon in the city of Chicago. But, unbeknownst to them, George isn’t alone – and there are two creatures afflicted by the same toxin headed to the same destination.
Reuniting Johnson with director Brad Peyton was always going to be an obvious no-brainer. The pair delivered impressive disaster movie results with San Andreas a couple years back, and the idea of revisiting that movie’s tone and four-quadrant tentpole appeal with the added spectacle of a Godzilla flick is an insanely easy sell for an audience in 2018 – particularly when it’s delivered by way of yet another vessel so imbued with the personality of Johnson himself, that it could have just as easily been retitled Dwayne Johnson vs the Monsters and likely not have lost out on a single ticket sold. Johnson is a movie star through and through, so much so that – if there were a special sauce that made movie stars – he’d presumably be marinating in it overnight before his 4am shift in the Iron Paradise (no joke – actually what he calls his gym). Is he the greatest actor of his generation? Hell no – and Jeffrey Dean Morgan continually shows up to remind him he’s not even close to being the most fun – but his presence is so integral to the feeling that makes Rampage so enjoyable that you know full well it could never in a million years have hit the family-friendly bullseye that it does were it not for the baddest of the bald.
On the action front, Peyton’s the pitch-perfect man to helm it all – his action set-pieces impressively coherent considering the sheer volume of activity taking place in any given moment, his character scenes are tight and engaging, and, though it’s yet another tentpole blockbuster that succumbs to that increasingly tiresome trend of bleached-out colour, it’s reigned in just enough to offer quite a lively palette too. Hats off, as well, to the motion capture work behind George, with Jason Liles’ performance not quite up to Andy Serkis’ grade, but an admirably engaging and likeable turn that nonetheless shines through the many layers of computer animation needed to bring the gorilla hero to life. It’s a shame that Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy bring an even more animated sensibility to their would-be antagonists, but, considering they’ve sold the gorilla, a giant flying wolf, and a mega-crocodile, the pair are just one cartoonish black spot among an otherwise pretty glowing roster.
It outdoes the Transformers franchise for “a man and his monster” action, it laps San Andreas for disaster movie cred, and it might be the most Dwayne Johnsonish Dwayne Johnson movie to date – Rampage is a helluva time. A pulse-pounding building-levelling rollercoaster of a summer blockbuster led by the movie star of our time. An unbelievable amount of fun, with likeable characters, an engaging dunder-headed story that’s in it as much for the fun as it is the animal rights message, and a healthy dollop of requisitely saccharin Hollywood emotion to boot. If you’ve been on tenterhooks waiting for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom to come along and light up your summer, take a break and embrace the Rampage, cos if the raptors and the Rex can top this…
Rampage is in cinemas nationwide from Thursday, April 12th; rated 12A. Check out the trailer below.