REVIEW – ‘Rampage’

Gargantuan animals running riot in a big city is hardly a new cinematic trope. From a giant ape in 1933’s King Kong to an ancient sea creature in 1954’s Godzilla, we’ve seen this schtick many, many times before, including just a few weeks ago with the kaiju of Pacific Rim: Uprising. Taking hefty guidance from monster movies of the past, and a dose of inspiration from the 1986 8-bit arcade game of the same name, along comes the so-ridiculous-it’s-kinda-awesome Rampage.

Our tale begins onboard a space station orbiting our planet where the dastardly Energyne have been experimenting on a rat with a volatile pathogen known as “Project Rampage,” or, in more scientific terms, the CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) experiment. The pathogen foolishly combines genetic elements from various other animals, causing rapid growth in size, strength, and, of course, aggression. Why this experiment needed to be done in space is anyone’s guess. But, naturally, it all goes horribly wrong. After the now super-species rat inevitably escapes, and the space station is destroyed, three samples of the Rampage pathogen are sent on a crash-course back to Earth.

At a San Diego wildlife sanctuary, we meet Davis Okoye (the ever-reliable Dwayne Johnson), a primatologist and former leader of an anti-poaching squad in Rwanda. During his time in Africa, Davis rescued an albino ape known as George, who now calls San Diego home after his parents were brutally slaughtered by poachers. Davis, a devoted animal lover who despises social interactions with people, has formed a strong bond with George, teaching him sign language and seemingly being the only one who can connect with the imposing silverback gorilla.

Late one evening, those pesky space canisters come crashing down in three locations, each conveniently arriving right near a different species of ferocious animal. One lands in a forest, subsequently spraying the pathogen into the face of a wolf. Another touches down in a swamp in the Everglades of Florida, and is quickly swallowed by a crocodile. And, as expected, the final canister plunges into George’s enclosure, where, after curiously inspecting the meteorite, he too is infected with the serum.

Overnight, the virus causes George to almost double in size and weight, and unwittingly slaughter a grizzly bear in a neighbouring section of the sanctuary, in a rage-induced frenzy. Desperate for answers, Davis is soon joined by Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a discredited genetic engineer who once worked with Energyne on the CRISPR project before mysteriously being fired by the company’s CEO, Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman). Kate knows too well the unstoppable consequences of the Rampage virus, warning Davis of the danger facing his primate pal unless she can administer an antidote as soon as possible. Right on cue, George flips out and escapes the sanctuary, leaving a wake of destruction in his path.

Naturally, this catches the attention of the government, the military, and the surreptitious Agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a secret agent of a group known only as the OGA or “other government agency.” Think Men In Black, and you’re on the right track. While it remains unclear of his intentions, he’s determined to capture George, dead or alive. But that proves complicated when the now ginormous primate joins forces with the mutant wolf, who has been dubbed “Ralph” by the online world, as they both head towards Chicago to meet up with the bigger-than-both-of-them crocodile, as she makes her way up the coast. No one ever says this, but her name is Lizzie, apparently.

Drawing them to the Windy City is a daring plan by Claire to use the Energyne building’s antenna to broadcast a sonic frequency which drives the creatures crazy, thus forcing them to arrive right on her doorstep. Claire and her dimwitted brother, Brett (Jake Lacy) want their pathogen back, and bringing the monsters to them is the easiest way to extract a sample from the presumably dead corpses. But their plan is flawed, and as the trio group together, it becomes an epic showdown between monster and man, as the battle to save Chicago begins.

Look, there’s not a whole lot of point in critiquing a film like Rampage with a fine-tooth comb. You know exactly what you’re getting yourself in for when you plonk down your cash for a ticket to a film like this. A whole stack of epic set-pieces with plenty of carnage, destruction, explosions, and mayhem. Rampaging animals tearing up anything which dares get in their way. And the obligatory bone-crushing battles when the beasts start to turn on each other. On that level, the film completely delivers. It takes an exhaustively-long amount of time to get there. Far too long for a film of this nature. But once it does, it’s game on.

The final 30-odd minutes of the film are solely dedicated to George and co. ripping apart Chicago and, soon enough, each other. Sure, it can be a hell of a lot of fun, even if it’s difficult not to find some uncomfortable 9/11 parallels in a few of the film’s city-bound sequences. Perhaps it’s just a personal reaction, but there’s still something rather jarring in seeing skyscrapers toppling down and civilians running for their lives through ash and debris. It’s the typical dumb obligatory cliché of this genre, which recalls an episode of The Simpsons (yes, another one) where Bart and Homer watch a Fox program called When Buildings Collapse, causing Bart to exclaim, “The best part was when the buildings fell down!” If you would enjoy such a television show, Rampage is likely the film for you.

Much like the folly of Man of Steel, it’s rather hard to overlook the devastating civilian casualties this calamity would result in, particularly after one military personnel announces only 50% of the CBD has been evacuated. Quite surprising is how brutal the film ultimately is. There’s a lot of death, plenty of blood, and elaborate slaughters of numerous military members by each monster. But this is leave-your-brain-at-the-door cinema. Such consequences are not to be thought of. Nor are the comparisons to real-life tragedies. You really just have to let your reservations go and enjoy something like Rampage. It knows exactly what it is, and it never once tries to be anything it’s not. Similar to last year’s deliciously ludicrous Kong: Skull Island, this is absurd cinema that goes well with popcorn. Nothing more. Nothing less.

And, in all honesty, it’s impossible not to be entertained by a giant ape, a mega wolf, and an enormous crocodile having a field day with anything and everything surrounding them. Particularly when you throw Johnson into the mix. He can play this role with his eyes closed now. The daring hero we all root for. The charismatic and empathetic protagonist. Johnson is so damn charming, and, as always, he can turn on the bravado action when necessary. As usual, he’s not really given a whole lot to do, nor are the rest of the cast, but this isn’t really their movie. It’s about these three monsters, and they are wonderfully dazzling.

The special effects are unsurprisingly sensational. Lizzie, wisely kept hidden for most of the film, will take your breath away when she finally emerges. The design work is genuinely masterful, and the kind you want to applaud for. Ralph, not so much, but the team try their best to make a huge wolf seem terribly menacing. While George may not have the pitch-perfect finesse of Caesar from the Planet of the Apes trilogy, there’s plenty of character to be found in his beautifully-expressive face. It’s hard not to fall in love with the big ape, even when he’s destroying any poor soul in sight. It was the key success to a character like Kong, and it’s the film’s crowning glory here too. We care for George, despite his monstrous behaviour. If this is the start of a franchise (and, frankly, what isn’t these days?), he’s a stellar leading man. Or should that be monkey?

You could tear apart Rampage for its unrelenting swarm of baffling plot holes and ludicrous character decisions, or it’s rather woeful screenplay filled with bland dialogue and flat stereotypical characters, but why bother? Though it has to be said, one scene involving Claire towards the end of the film makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. None. It’s perhaps the most idiotic sequence you will see in a cinema this year. But, you come to expect this kind of suspension of disbelief with a film like this. Applying rational logic to a narrative regarding the exploits of mutated animals is entirely moot. This is just big, silly, cheesy fun, and it’s ultimately completely entertaining.

There’s nothing entirely original about Rampage. Monsters causing unrelenting destruction on civilisation is as old as cinema itself. But it’s a genre we keep coming back to because it almost always delivers the goods. It creates the sequences we love to watch. Not because they’re moving or groundbreaking, but because they’re outrageous, thrilling, and enjoyable. Rampage is wild and ridiculous enough to achieve everything it sets out to. Turn your brain off, grab the popcorn, and just have some damn fun.

★★


Distributor: Roadshow

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Joe Manganiello, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Marley Shelton, Jason Liles
Director: Brad Peyton
Screenplay: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykiel
Story: Ryan Engle
Producers: Brad Peyton, Beau Flynn, John Rickard, Hiram Garcia
Cinematography: Jaron Presant
Production Design: Barry Chusid
Music: Andrew Lockington
Editors: Bob Ducsay, Jim May
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Date: 12th April 2018 (Australia)

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