You’d be hard pressed to find an arcade classic coded with a thinner story than the city smasher Rampage, in which players controlled one of three giant monsters in a bid to level several skyscrapers, so the fact that the big-budget movie version has any discernible plot at all is something of an accomplishment in itself. But for all the scripted theatrics of Brad Peyton’s big, bashable blockbuster, the repetitive mechanics of the game prove an obstacle that the movie wants to embrace and yet needs to overcome.
This is about as pure an adaptation of the narratively vacant game as anyone could ask for, which is certainly a bold move considering Hollywood’s many struggles to successfully transform playable games into watchable movies. Various efforts are made to ensure that the game’s primary focus is faithfully adhered to while remaining within the strictures of a consumable action movie, which usually requires an explanation of sorts, some human characters with heartfelt motivation, and a clear line drawn between good and evil.
Peyton’s Rampage achieves all of this with a sense of ease, probably because the idea of monsters trashing a city is so generally vague in today’s movie market that coating the conceit in some good ol’ Screenwriting 101 is a relatively undemanding task. The explanation for the sudden embiggening of an albino ape, forest-dwelling wolf, and Everglades-lurking alligator involves a science experiment gone wrong, as established in a raucous space station-set prologue.
The requirement of some emotional connection between the people on the ground and the monstrous destruction on the side of city buildings is achieved by making growing gorilla George the best buddy of hulking human hero and pumped-up primatologist Davis (Dwayne Johnson), who only wants to ensure that George survives the carnage. There are even some comic bits indicating that Davis is seemingly disinterested in romantic relationships, being clearly more comfortable around his ape pals.
All of this establishes the Davis/George friendship as the heart of the movie, which lends it a dose of huggable goofiness that’s aiming for cutesy-but-cool in a wide demographic-pleasing sort of way. It’s the kind of thing that Johnson has built much of his booming acting career on, a mix of adrenaline-fueled action and testosterone-filled charm. The problem here is that the ingredients are starting to blend together into a bland blur.
If Rampage had only its fellow video game movies to be stacked against in a competition of comparisons, then it would likely fare quite well, given the lowness of the bar. It’s a smoother, more confident, less contortioned adaptation than nearly all of its subgenre predecessors. But the movie’s actual contents draw less parallels to 90s junk like Street Fighter or Double Dragon than to more recent ubiquities like other Dwayne Johnson flicks and CGI-laden spectacles of mass destruction.
Up against those things, Rampage is too recycled an experience and never as good as the movies whose large footsteps it’s following in. It falls well short of the gasoline-guzzling madness on display in the increasingly bonkers Fast & Furious sequels and it lacks the clever commitment of Johnson’s recent Jumanji reboot, itself a riff on video games come to life. For city destruction, Marvel movies have done it better with more purpose and memorable characters, but it’s also been a staple of blockbusters for over a decade now, since digital effects improved enough to scale up the mayhem to significantly larger areas than before.
Rampage can’t make much of an impression when it’s merely emulating a long list of modern Hollywood hits with a brand of spectacle that has now become the norm. Johnson’s starry screen presence, all chiseled charm, remains mostly intact here, but as he keeps tackling the same role in similarly constructed action flicks, the weaker and more derivative titles on his resume inevitably feel like bargain bin iterations of the same performance we’ve already seen several times. Look for him this summer in the Die Hard-esque Skyscraper and next year in Disney’s Jungle Cruise, which should look like a mashup of Jumanji and Rampage.
Perhaps for the especially dedicated Johnson fan, his latest appearance will be enough to tide them over until the next time he flashes that great big grin alongside his rippling biceps, but it’s tough to imagine that anyone will single out Rampage as a Johnson highlight. The supporting cast mostly coasts on auto-pilot, too. It’s certainly nice to see Naomie Harris as the female lead, playing a genetic engineer with a connection to the corporation that’s responsible for this mess, but she’s basically just there for Davis to have another human to talk to while George is off smashing stuff.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays
Walking Dead villain Negan a government agent tasked with containing the threats, but unfortunately, he can’t contain his painfully stale shtick. Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy offer a pair of loopy performances as the sibling heads of the aforementioned evil corporation, except they’re only cogs in the plot-churning machine until they’re eventually chew toys for the giant monsters.
Peyton, who previously helmed other Johnson-starring adventures Journey 2: Mysterious Island and San Andreas, is really banking on his star to do all the heavy lifting here, but Johnson’s big arms can only do so much to hold up a flimsy script. Of course, as far as button mashing and building smashing go, Hollywood has done much worse. Rampage is a passable attempt by Johnson’s standards. It’s just a primitive primate picture that flexes its muscles with little to show for all the effort.