Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, May 31, 2019


Video game movies usually happen because someone — a film studio, the game developers, or an opportunistic rogue like Uwe Boll — is eager to capitalize on the popularity of a franchise. You’ll notice most of the movies I’ve talked about this month have springboarded off titles that were relevant at-the-time. But something odd happened in 2011. Warner Bros. technically acquired the rights to “Rampage,” a quarter-gobbling arcade classic devoted to cartoonish kaiju smashing buildings and eating people, when they bought Midway Games in 2009. There hadn’t been a new game since 2006 and nobody was crying out for a “Rampage” film. However, producer John Rickard realizes the studio owned the game in 2011 and thought it would make a cool movie. He quickly got superstar Dwayne Johnson attached, who then reeled in his “Journey 2” and “San Andreas” director Brad Peyton. (Films with giant animals and lots of urban destruction, respectively.) In brief, nobody expected a “Rampage” movie, not even Midway or Hollywood.

Genetics corporation Energyne has been doing unethical gene-splicing experiments in space, causing wild mutations in animals. After a giant rat escapes, the satellite is destroyed and canisters of secret gas fall to Earth. Three animals are exposed to the pathogen: A wild wolf that grows into a ravenous monster, an alligator that becomes even larger and more dangerous, and an albino gorilla named George. George’s caretaker is former special forces and anti-poaching expert David Okoye. When George grows to giant size and escapes, Okoye and a former Energyne scientist tries to bring him in peacefully. The heads of Energyne, the evil Wyden siblings, cook up a scheme to clear their names, drawing all the mutated animals towards Chicago. Naturally, much mayhem ensues.

In a way, “Rampage” was an ideal series to adapt to film. None of the games have much in the way of story, the plottier entries not extending far beyond “evil corporation turns people into giant monsters, they escape and seek vengeance.” (Sometimes, alien invaders or time travel are involved but the execution is the same.) In other words, a “Rampage” movie could be about anything, as long as it had giant, mutant animals destroying buildings. The film’s team of screenwriters rightly decided upon a Saturday morning cartoon-like tone. “Rampage’s” heroes are very good, a group of smart-asses who are ultra talented, always ready with a one-liner and determined to save George. “Rampage’s” villains are very evil, a pair of scheming corporate executives who unleash a trio of giant monsters on Chicago to cover their own asses. “Rampage’s” script is very dumb. The villain’s ploy has a few holes in it, including staying in the city long after the rampage starts and putting themselves in danger. George is treated like a hero at the end, despite destroying a lot of property and killing a ton of people. Okoye’s ability to communicate with George via sign language far out-strips any previous human/primate relations experiments.

The film overcomes its central dumbness by embracing an intentionally comedic tone. “Rampage’s” jokes are frequently crude. There’s references to pooping your pants and sexual intercourse within the first few minutes. George flips the bird not once but twice, as far as I can tell only the second time this event has been portrayed on-screen. The big silly ape later mimes the universally recognized hand gesture for doin’ it. The Rock reacts to the unlikeliness of what is happening around him with silly quibs pointed right at the audience. In fact, several of the characters speak exclusively in corny jokes. One half of the evil siblings is exceptionally dumb and his departure is fittingly sarcastic. “Rampage” knows how silly it is and further signals this by putting the original arcade cabinet in clear sight in one scene. (George also makes sure to throw a Dave & Busters logo, which featured an exclusive “Rampage” game based on the movie, right at the camera.)

The “Rampage” games were always jokey homages to kaiju movies of old, so it’s fitting the film follows a similar path. The film makes its trio of giant monsters as realistic looking as possible, with some quite excellent digital effects. Yet the goofy cool factor of the creatures are not sacrificed for realism. Ralph the Wolf, who is so named in-film, can glide like a flying squirrel and throw porcupine-like spines. Liz the Lizard becomes a massive alligator, with spikes, a frill, and a club-like tail. George is the least grotesque of the creature, though the albino gorilla still gets a cartoonish range of facial expressions. That the film allows its monsters some actual personality is a great benefit. That makes watching them reek endless destruction on Chicago much more entertaining. It’s even mildly cathartic, nature’s fierce beast striking back against the corporate world that deformed them. The film is definitely on the monsters’ sides. Even if it also mines them for fear, in surprisingly scary scenes like Ralph taking the mercenaries apart in the woods. Or a decently tense opening devoted to Larry the Rat chasing an astronaut through a satellite.

The film’s extensive scenes of urban devastation are fun to watch, initially. George flips tanks into the air and tosses them back down. Liz crunches a fighter jet right as it passes between her jaws. The giant gator gets another cool stunt when she scales a skyscraper just to walk directly through it. There’s a definite glee to the film’s destruction, the giant but not-quite-Godzilla-scale creatures ripping buildings apart in a fun, cinematic way. Yet, much like Peyton’s “San Andreas,” the movie’s endless destruction eventually wares the audience down. The film peaks when George eats one of the bad guys and the monsters tear down the central skyscraper. Though the kaiju brawl that follows is inevitable, George and Liz recreating “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” we’ve had about as much gray, ash-sodden mayhem as we can take by that point. “Rampage” runs 107 minutes, when it probably should’ve tapped out at 90.

Still, it is a fun movie and the cast is certainly in on that fun. Dwayne Johnson has come a long way since “Doom.” In 2018, the man formerly known as the Rock is totally self-assured in his movie star charisma. David Okoye is a standard issue Johnson role, a hyper-capable and giant tough guy with a soft spot for animals and an endless supply of one-liners. He’s having a ball. (If you still doubt Mr. Johnson’s classic gaming credentials, he was also attached to an unrealized “Spy Hunter” movie for many years.) Jeffrey Dean Morgan is gloriously over-the-top as a Southern fried government agent that cracks most of the film’s jokes. Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy play the blank-faced antagonists, on the script’s cartoonish level. Joe Manganiello is similarly hammy as the short-lived leader of the evil mercenaries. The only actor seemingly playing the material straight is Naomie Harris, as the scientist following Okoye around.

Likely because of the Rock’s status as the biggest movie star in the world and the global appeal of cinematic mass destruction, “Rampage” was a proper blockbuster. The film rode the same wave of revived interest in kaiju movies that “Pacific Rim” and 2014’s “Godzilla” reboot enjoyed. The film also held the dubious distinction of being the best reviewed video game movie on Rotten Tomatoes, a title it held until very recently. Pretty good for an adaptation of a thirty year old video most people had probably forgotten about. The kind of fun-dumb popcorn flick that doesn’t get made much anymore, “Rampage” is a good time if you’re in the mood for supremely silly chaos. [7/10]

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