There’s really only one way to sell the story of a Special Forces veteran and anti-poaching commando turned conservationist who’s helping his overgrown gorilla friend overcome anger issues to stop a flying porcupine-wolf and a crocodile-leviathan from destroying Chicago: completely straight-faced. And if there’s one face in the movie business capable of that level of sincerity, it’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. His gregarious screen presence in successive blockbusters is proof of a genuine commitment to the good time had by his audience. He’s the reason to see otherwise unwatchable flops, so it’s a pleasure when a movie like Rampage doesn’t turn out to be half bad in its own right.
PG-13, 107 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a primatologist at the San Diego Zoo who has foregone most human bonds in favor of caring for animals, in particular a rescued albino gorilla named George. When a laboratory based on a space station orbiting the Earth is destroyed, the experimental, gene-modifying gas it contained crash lands in George’s pen, and in Wyoming and Florida. The three otherwise normal beasts mutate into enormous, rage-filled versions of themselves with the attributes of other creatures, and are dead set on destroying a low-frequency radio signal coming from Chicago intended as a means of control by the experiment’s evil overseer, Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman). Along the way, Davis recruits the help of Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) and mysterious government/cowboy Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
Putting aside the fact that this kind of movie can only be so good—very loosely adapted from a video game with the thinnest of plots to begin with, casting Johnson in another role where his job has little to do with his impossible size and set of skills—Rampage is the perfect antidote to the notion that movies like this succeed because they don’t take things seriously. On the contrary, Rampage takes a great deal about itself seriously; with a surprisingly trenchant anti-poaching and animal welfare message, extremely expensive-looking set pieces and technical and emotional resources invested in the character of George, it’s clear that the filmmakers want to be certain that the audience gets its money’s worth.
Director Brad Peyton strikes the same tone with Johnson as he did when they teamed up for San Andreas: this is more than a little ridiculous, but not to the characters who have to live through it. If our hero is sliding down a collapsing building in a helicopter that’s missing a tail, he better be fearful for his life, not winking and cracking one-liners. The relationship between Davis and George is what makes you accept the notion that any of this matters—there is a personal and societal reason why George must punch the hell out of the monster croc.
Sure, this was no doubt greenlit by Hollywood moneymen who have no particular attachment to the material, they only know that nostalgia bucks go a long way, but there’s something to be said for Johnson, Peyton and everyone involved that they took the time to make Rampage as good as it could conceivably be.
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
A Quiet Place, Black Panther, Blockers, Isle of Dogs, Ready Player One
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
A Quiet Place, A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther, Blockers, Chappaquiddick, I Can Only Imagine, Isle of Dogs, Love, Simon, The Miracle Season, Truth or Dare, Tyler Perry’s Acrimony
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
A Quiet Place, A Wrinkle in Time, Beirut, Black Panther, Blockers, Geek Girls, The Insult, Isle of Dogs, Ready Player One, Super Troopers, Where is Kyra?