It’s been since 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon that Chicago has taken a epic-sized, big-budgeted walloping the way it does in the video game-inspired Rampage. But something curious happened while sitting in the IMAX theater that hosted the press screening earlier this week.
After a specific moment of monumental destruction to the city’s skyline caused by three gigantic, genetically enhanced animals (a gorilla, a wolf and a crocodile), the audience that had been gleefully responsive up to that point was stone-cold, pin-drop quiet as the dust settled and the full weight of what we just saw sunk in. The visual effects and the realistic quality of the destruction for the entire Chicago-set sequence is beyond impressive, but there was something about that moment that seemed to hit a nerve with people in that audience—one that I’m guessing will be hit with folks throughout the city going to see the latest Dwayne Johnson feature.
I don’t think it’s difficult to figure out why people were audibly shaken in that moment; I’ve just never experienced anything quite like that level of “little too real” while watching a brainless action movie. I’m not one to attach political meaning to every movie that comes out, but perhaps in the current climate, the idea of leveling another recognizable landmark doesn’t strike people as too far removed from the possible. I’m curious to hear from people if this happens in other Chicago-area screenings.
And now onto the nonsense at hand: Rampage is the latest from the surprisingly effective team of Johnson and director Brad Peyton, who previously collaborated on Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and San Andreas (reportedly a sequel to the latter is in the works), to bring us the tale of primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson) and his pal George, an albino gorilla living in a San Diego animal sanctuary. Davis has taught George sign language, so the two are capable of dishing quite elaborately. But when a genetic experiment taking place in outer space goes wrong and sends toxic samples down to earth, infecting the three aforementioned animals, George begins to grow enormously large, causing him to panic and become easily enraged.
There are a lot of players in Rampage, maybe a few too many. In addition to Davis attempting to figure out what is going on with his primate friend, there is Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, far too great an actor for a back-up role like this), a geneticist who worked for the company that designed the original genetic experiment. The company in question is run by the brother-sister combo of Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her weasel brother (Jake Lacy), who are both trying to cover up their involvement but also use an enhanced radio signal that only their three inadvertent creations can hear to call them to their headquarters in Chicago…to do what? That’s never really made clear. They hire a team of mercenaries (led by Joe Manganiello) to capture the wolf monster, and that doesn’t go so well.
Perhaps the most ridiculous character in a film with a great deal of competition for that title is Agent Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who works for a never-named, nebulous government agency and struts around the film like a cowboy, even wearing his pearl-handled pistol on his hip like a modern-day gunslinger. It would seem that he’s assessing the creatures to see if they (or what made them the way they are) can be weaponized for military purposes, but he also seems to listen to reason, especially when it’s given by experts rather than just people barking out orders. We’re meant to see Russell as a rogue outlaw, whose allegiances are unclear most of the time, but he’s just so darn swagger-rific that we don’t care. He’s also a huge distraction in a film front loaded with monsters big enough to tear down buildings and eat people whole.
People are constantly referring to Davis as a person who gets along better with animals than people, so it should come as no surprise that his mission in Rampage is to save George from being killed and cure him of his condition. Saving thousands of people seems like an afterthought, but at least it is a thought—unlike with the Transformers film—since we are updated a few times on how much of Chicago has been evacuated before the military begins sending bombers to drop hardware on the city that will effective level all of downtown.
There are no big surprises in Rampage. It’s undeniably entertaining and moves like a locomotive let off the tracks. There’s not a lot of time to get deep or explore the characters, but does anyone really want that from a Dwayne Johnson movie? I guess I do because I know he can handle the acting more than he’s usually given the chance to. Making a big corporation the villain and the brother/sister bosses the one-dimensional bad guys are some of the many examples of lazy writing featured in the movie, but in a story about saving one of the world’s biggest cities, you don’t have time for subtlety and nuance. It’s ridiculous but still finds ways to be fun, almost to the point of being overwhelming at times. Which is ironic, since it also finds ways of being decidedly underwhelming. But since I’m a big fan of watching my fair city take a punch in movies, I’m recommending at least the back half of Rampage.