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These Improbable Beasts (and the Rock) Deserve a Wilder Film Than “Rampage”

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There are ludicrous constructions — say, a thirty-foot wolf crossbred with spider, bat, and bug DNA. And then there’s Rampage’s Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as a misanthropic Special Forces soldier–turned-primatologist. Years ago in Rwanda, Davis (Johnson) murdered poachers who were terrorizing a baby albino gorilla with dreamy Zac Efron eyes. Today, Davis and the full-grown ape, George (performed in motion capture by Jason Liles), trade solemn fist bumps and sign-language dirty jokes. George is funnier, though a few of his hand gestures would make Koko blush.

Buy that, and you’ll have no problem with the rest of Rampage’s plot, which includes a hand-severing space rat, a Ph.D. geneticist/ex-con/love interest (Naomie Harris) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a government agent with the kind of cranked-to-eleven phony Southern accent usually only heard when a Connecticut carpetbagger runs for governor of Texas. “This ol’ cowboy!” he says of himself. Twice.

Sure, why not. After all, this is a movie where everyone in Johnson’s radius accuses his character of hating humanity, when the actor himself can’t help ingratiating himself to everything — to the camera, to the foxy intern who asks him to tutor her in “submission techniques,” to those thin T-shirts that highlight his nipples just so. He’s as eager to please as if he were dancing for bananas. The gravitational pull of Johnson’s charm is so strong that it even bends the dialogue. A pal (P.J. Byrne) accuses Davis of being a lonely, animal-obsessed loser, but then seconds later gives up and shrugs, “Girls love him!”

Johnson’s roles always fall into two camps: big grin or brow furrow. This is the latter, as it often is when he works with Brad Peyton, who also directed the morally repugnant San Andreas, in which Johnson’s rescue pilot forsakes civilians to save his wife and daughter. Here, Davis proclaims up front that his only interest is the ape, and the film agrees. Pay no attention to any of his friends introduced in the first act. Once George gets mutated and made giant by an experimental vapor, they vanish.

The monster-making green gas is owned by evil Energyne CEO Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman bedimmed by a brunette dye job) and her chin-dimpled, doltish brother Brett (the terrifically funny Jake Lacy), who had nearly cured cancer with a gene-altering concoction named CRISPR when Claire realized she’d make more money selling giant killer rats. To whom is unclear, as the U.S. military is caught flat-footed when mega-deadly George, Ralph the wolf, and Lizzie the alligator munch through the Midwest. Surely the government had seen a brochure? Still, when the FBI searches Energyne’s Chicago skyscraper, the Wydens hide their hard drives. “Since when is complicity a crime?” says Morgan’s Agent Russell to Brett, right around the time we realize this brat is a dead ringer for Donald Trump Jr. The siblings could try to keep a low profile. Instead, they turn on a thousand-mile homing frequency that, er, summons the beasts straight to their roof.

Look around Claire’s office and you’ll spot a vintage Rampage arcade game — the one where monsters score points for clobbering a skyline — amid the tasteful, doomed wood paneling. Apparently, while watching drone footage of a gorilla, wolf, and alligator tag-team America, she relaxes with a couple of quarters’ worth of exactly the same thing. The coincidence goes unmentioned, which is even weirder than if she’d jabbed a manicured finger at the joystick and yelped, “Hey, wait a second! Maybe waiting in this tall building ain’t the smartest idea!”

Then again, Rampage the movie is so oblivious to what made the game fun that she could have missed the connection. Rampage was a verb: You slid into the creatures’ skin and personally wrecked Peoria. (And when the soldiers shot you down, you shrunk into a naked human and scurried off the screen.) But Peyton sides with the guys with guns. He doesn’t put us with the behemoths feeling their confusion and rage; we’re above them in drones. A scene where George and Ralph make friends happens offstage while Peyton plops us in a bunker listening to the military pick out the best bomb. The battle lines aren’t monsters versus mankind, but Davis and George against everybody else. The species-ist ranking elevates the two alpha primates, different only in their comfort with body hair, above lesser four- and two-legged mammals, with cold-blooded reptiles on the lowest rung.

Compared to Rampage, King Kong and Godzilla have James Brown levels of soul. Peyton has just made another movie about the Rock running through rubble. There are a few great shots: a vertiginous Johnson racing across a toppled high-rise as Lizzie hunts him from below; the wolf’s skittering claws on Chicago pavement, as klutzy as a puppy on linoleum; and earlier, his lupine slow-mo pounce on a helicopter. Or as Jeffrey Dean Morgan would drawl, a “whirlybird.” There are clunky shots, too, like a parachute jump filmed right underneath Johnson’s nostrils. Rampage doesn’t look for the humanity in monsters, but it’s sure searching for the ugliness in man.

Rampage
Directed by Brad Peyton
Warner Bros. Pictures
Opens April 13

 

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