Thursday, June 20, 2024

When ‘Rampage’ Is Allowed To Rampage It Brings The House Down

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Rampage is a big, dumb popcorn movie. Weirdly though, at times it is too dumb, and others not dumb enough. Regardless when it works it works incredibly well.

As the credits rolled, and I saw that four people had written the screenplay, I laughed out loud. Rampage is good brain-dead fun, but knowing it took four men to come up with this is a little disheartening. I mean it’s dumb but it’s not that dumb.

I should mention Rampage is absolutely the type of movie that encourages audience participation. Rarely has a movie asked to be heckled while also putting forth some quality monster versus monster fights as they demolish skyscrapers left and right. It’s okay to shout over the actors as they talk. Most of the time they’re not really saying anything, anyway.

Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel wrote what (could generously be called) the script. The five have cobbled together a story but have somehow forgotten the joy of over the top corny dialogue. The things these characters say are woefully and depressingly bland. If not for the sheer charisma of the actors on screen when Rampage isn’t rampaging the movie would be intolerable. As it is, it is merely meditative downtime until the next grudge match.  

Describing the plot of Rampage seems silly and futile considering it’s a movie about genetically mutated animals who grow to enormous proportions and do battle, leaving most of downtown Chicago to ruins. An ape, an alligator, and a flying wolf…with a giant porcupine like rat at beginning-in space! 

Essentially, Energyne’s experiments with genetic modification is so illegal that they’ve been forced to conduct their experiments in space. Not surprisingly something goes wrong. The secret space lab is about to explode because one of the experiments is loose. Dr. Atkins (Marley Shelton) tries to escape, but discovers she’s locked out of the escape pod. She won’t be allowed to leave unless she saves the research samples.

Quite honestly, as a way of getting the ball rolling and have a nifty little set piece to start us off, it’s not bad. It gets the job done. We’re then introduced to a friendly albino orphan ape named George and his friend and Primatologist Davis (Dwayne Johnson). In the pantheon of things that stretch our suspension of disbelief, “The Rock” as an ex- head of an anti poaching unit and Primatologist ranks near the bottom. I suppose it’s more believable than the time I was asked to believe Mark Wahlberg was a Literature Professor in a remake of The Gambler.

George becomes infected with the gas, grows big, gets mean, and then things go smash. Oh and Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) shows up to explain everything because she accidentally invented the stuff while trying to save her little brother dying of cancer. Because, of course she did.

To call Rampage stupid almost seems like an insult to the intelligently impaired. I’ve known some stupid people in my time and they wouldn’t do some of the egregiously moronic things these characters do. The evil C.E.O.s of Engergyne Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett (Jake Lacy)’s insidious plan is unbelievably idiotic. We don’t even feel sorry for them when they meet their unsurprising but much deserved bad ends. It helps that Akerman seems to be channeling Cruella DeVille while Lacy seems to be finding new heights of “sniveling”.  

Claire and Brett activate a giant beacon atop Energyne towers. The beacon transmits a special frequency that draws the creatures to their tower so they can…well it’s never really made clear what their plan was after that. Which is fine, because we the audience don’t really care what their plan is. We were promised monsters smashing buildings and we want what’s due. So what their plan actually is doesn’t really matter. The five writers just needed some excuse to get the monsters to Chicago. As excuses go, standing on top of a building screaming “HEY OVER HERE!” is pretty direct. 

The problem is, Brett and Claire plan to take off as the monsters are attacking the building. They have a helicopter waiting on the roof of the building. Yeah these two deserve to be eaten. Although I will admit I did like the sort of heartless but ingenious way Kate had of giving George the antidote. I won’t say much as to say it is particularly gruesome while despite, or maybe because, of its cartoonish feel.

Rampage‘s biggest problem is that when the giant alligator isn’t fighting the giant flying wolf, it’s kind of underwhelming. A couple of scenes stand out, but I can’t decide if it’s the actors way of delivering the lines or the lines themselves. Either way, the time between explosions is a bit of a yawn.

But man is Rampage glorious when it lets loose. Brad Peyton doesn’t try for high art or high drama. He aims for cheese ball action and he nails it so hard we leave with our fingers covered in orange powder. From time to time Peyton and his cameraman Jaron Presant even manage to give us something to look at. At one point Johnson is running across a fallen skyscraper. The giant alligator tunneling beneath him, his giant eyes peering up from under the glass, as they race to reach to the end of the rubble.

It’s a deliciously fun moment. Peyton wisely gives us better actors than the script calls for. Johnson, Harris, Lacy, and Akerman are better than Rampage deserves. They help muddle through the times we have to endure these characters talking. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Special Agent Harvey Russell is particularly fun as a swaggering southern fried wanna be cowboy. Head of the OGA (Other Government Agency) he struts about with a cockeyed grin and a pearl handled revolver tucked in a holster on his waist. Morgan breathes a sort of sardonic joy in every scene he’s in.

Their charisma helps us through the rough patches of the film. Having to sit through dialogue that barely rises to the level of banter much less basic communication begins to take its toll. But it did give me time to notice that Peyton does something quite clever and subversive.

One of Davis’ co-workers, a starry eyed blonde woman Amy (Breanne Hill), asks him out for a date. Davis politely declines and confesses to his friend Nelson (P.J. Byrne) he prefers to be alone. Davis turns down a swooning blonde and ends the movie in a tenuous relationship with Naomie Harris’ Kate. Any other movie Hill’s Amy is the heroine who ends up with Johnson’s Davis.

It’s not a huge deal, but it means two thirds of the heroes aren’t white. It’s a type of math that’s rare in Hollywood action movies. Let us not forget the stereotypical hard nosed stubborn Colonel Blake (Demetrius Grosse). The man willing to drop the bomb to save lives. He of course sees reason; but his character is the ticking clock our heroes must race against. His screen time is ample and plays a key role in Rampage.

What I’m getting at is that the number of non-white characters who play a major role and who are given great swaths of screen time is impressive. Earlier this month Tomb Raider had Daniel Wu and couldn’t be bothered to do anything with him aside from have him stand around waiting for the movie to be over. I’m not arguing that Rampage is some sort of grand statement about intersectionality of race. What I’m saying is, if a big dumb giant monster movie based off an 80’s arcade game can excel at basic representation, then the Studios are running out of excuses.

Parts of Rampage are more enjoyable than others. I was never bored but I wasn’t always entertained either. Rampage isn’t as fun as I’d hope; but it’ll do for a movie about the unbreakable bonds of friendship between Dwayne Johnson and a mutated skyscraper climbing CGI gorilla.

Image courtesy of New Line Cinema

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