Wednesday, April 11, 2018

'Rampage' (2018) Movie Review

Rampage, the latest opus of urban destruction from director Brad Peyton (San Andreas) and mega-star Dwayne Johnson, may legitimately be the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen. And I watched Air Bud last weekend for some reason. It’s also 100% the movie it looks like, with zero deviation. That’s not to say it’s without a certain level of fun, thanks almost entirely to The Rock, who does what The Rock does best. Only this time there are giant monsters, too. It’s somehow completely bonkers and totally forgettable in the same moment.

When Johnson charms and cracks wise and basically plays his smart-aleck self—which is, graciously, most of the movie—nRampage offers a lunk-headed wild ride. The frontman of the whole shebang knows precisely what movie he’s in. As does Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who slimes and smarmy grins his way through the film as a shady government agent who likes to play cowboy—he seriously has a pearl-handled pistol he carries strapped to the front of his pants and that he regularly strokes.

When Rampage lets loose with the mayhem, things move at a nice clip, it’s easy to gloss over the idiotic bits, and it’s possible to bask in the absurd audacity of it all. But for a movie based on a plot-less 1980s arcade game, it has an insanely convoluted plot that bogs the entire thing down. Its key mistake is slowing down so the audience has time to recognize how idiotic it truly is.

The game is simple, a mutant ape, mutant wolf, and Godzilla-ish lizard eat Chicago. (In the game, they’re also people who turned into these creatures, a fact glossed over on screen.) In order to get to this point in the movie, the four credited screen writers cook up a cockamamie narrative that involves illegal biological weapons, a barely mentioned backstory about banned genetic engineering tech, a thread about mercenaries that goes nowhere, industrial espionage, a momentary anti-poaching screed, and a whole lot of other nonsense.

You can forgive the ridiculous nature of the story and the ludicrous set up. After all, this movie is about monsters destroying a major metropolitan city—thought obvious 9/11 call backs are…in poor taste. But when this absurdity drags the pace and tempo to a dead stop, which happens multiple times throughout, Rampage just tanks. There’s simply nothing else to prop it up.

Dwayne Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a primatologist who rescued an albino ape named George from poachers and raised him. They’re buddies who do things like prank the new interns at the animal sanctuary where they work. I’m not kidding. Davis is also an ex-military special forces badass. Then there are the Wydens (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy), a brother-sister duo of cartoonish industrialists who fund off-the-books experiments in space. Which of course come crashing down to Earth and kick-start everything. We also have Dr. Kate Caldwell (a tragically squandered Naomie Harris), a now-disgraced geneticist with her own links to both these experiments and the Wydens. And it goes on and on and on.

Where Rampage completely shits the bed, is when the script derails all the forward momentum with a five-minute scene where people stand around in a lab and say science words in an attempt to sound smart. (Also, at one point, Dr. Caldwell uses Wikipedia to prove her point, like a real scientist!) Or when the villains stand around in a boardroom and recount, in depth, their villainous plan to each other. It’s not quite, “Hey, brother, we have been conducting illegal genetic experiments in space and we could go to jail,” but it’s not much better.

Rampage is only 107 minutes long, but there’s so much superfluous filler that you could hack 25 minutes off the run-time and vastly improve the movie. For a movie that wastes so much time, there’s nothing going on. Everything gets the most slapdash, convenient explanation—oh, the wolf is named Ralph because weirdoes on the internet, the monsters need to be in Chicago, of course the bad guys have a thing that calls them directly to Chicago. Lazy seems mean, but... It’s not even that these pieces are unnecessary or dumb—though they are, the villains’ plan is truly, truly moronic—it’s that they damage the one thing the movie has going for it, fast-paced spectacle-level action.

The action is at least passable. Peyton and cinematographer Jaron Presant (who worked in the camera department on San Andreas) are most comfortable when razing cityscapes. (Again, the 9/11 parallels are, in this situation, not great, and as egregious as anything Zack Snyder did in Man of Steel, though with even less purpose.) They have a firm grasp on the geography of building collapses.

They’re less sure-footed, however, when it comes to action choreography involving giant CGI monsters. The staging isn’t always on point, and like so many movies of this ilk, the relative size of the creatures often doesn’t match. From scene to scene, even shot to shot, consistency proves an issue. For instance, in one scene, Lizzie, the mutant alligator, dwarfs George, only for them to be roughly the same size a few cuts later.

It’s really the Rock that carries everything worthwhile about Rampage. Without his charisma and winking charm in every scene, it would be an utter disaster. And not the intended kind of disaster. The script hits hard the relationship between Davis and George, with little success. It’s fine and does what it needs to, but there’s never much emotional investment, and that’s the only place the film could cram any in. But for his part, Johnson shoulders through. He can shrug, say things like, “Of course the wolf flies,” and it slides. While every other character basically serves to deliver exposition, he just teams up with a great ape (frenz!) to fight a giant lizard and a spine-covered wolf. If someone has to, I guess I’m glad it’s him. [Grade: C]

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