Adapting video games for film tends to underwhelm at the box office. It either takes a straight-forward premise and mucks it up (poor besmirched Super Mario Bros) or largely misunderstands what made the game fun (this includes you Street Fighter). While these films can be enjoyed on some level, the list of video game films that largely miss the mark is exhaustive. When Warner Bros Pictures announced an adaptation of Bally Midway’s 1986 classic arcade game Ramage, well – let’s just say hopes were not high. Impressively, the Brad Peyton-directed (San Andreas) action is about as straight-forward as the original game and the tweaks actually make sense within this fictional world. On the whole, Rampage is good, silly fun, yet its reluctance to focus on the monsters and its reliance on star Dwayne Johnson (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) to carry the film where the monsters don’t makes for a predictable time at the movies.
San Diego Wildlife Observatory primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson) has a special relationship with the animals under his care but none so much as with George, a rare albino silverback gorilla whom Okoye himself researched as an infant. After George is exposed to a strange chemical spray, he grows in mass and strength, develops rapid healing from wounds, and, worst of all, develops an aggressive streak that threatens people and animals alike. As the military closes in on George, two other creatures appear in other parts of the country: a wolf from southern Wyoming codenamed Ralph and a Florida Everglades gator. Desperate to help George, Okoye partners with disgraced geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to track down a cure at the source of the pathogen – Energyne Corporation – where its CEO siblings Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy) run “Project: Rampage” in a quest to create enhanced creatures capable of enormous destruction.
Let’s all admit that when it comes to any video game adaptation, past experience has taught us to keep the bar low. Frankly, all the advertising did nothing to percolate any interest until the trailer revealed Ralph gliding and Johnson says, “Of course the wolf flies.” That’s the kind of silly action that fans of Johnson want and perfect ridiculousness that a story involving giant animals destroying a city should involve. Sadly, Johnson can’t always be the best thing in every movie and Rampage falters the most when it leans on him to carry both the action and the drama which is a shame because Johnson does exactly what he does best: sincere charming comment, tongue-in-cheek joke, not-so-subtle threat, and grand violence. But that’s just it – we’ve seen this from him dozens of times before and his portrayal of Okoye, a character given great backstory, is nearly interchangeable with his characters in the Fast & Furious series, G.I. Joe, or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It’s not that Johnson himself is one-note (have you seen Faster?), but this character doesn’t offer anything new from him, so when he becomes his predictable unstoppable self, there’s no need for investment in the character.
But it’s a monster movie, right? That’s what you want to know about. For the most part, Peyton’s approach to the monster mayhem works. He invests us in George first to carry the story before introducing the other animals. Bit by bit, we get to see them wreack some havoc – Ralph fighting some mercenaries here, George taking out an airplane there – but it’s not until all three converge in Chicago on the Energyne building that fans of the original game will see the carnage they want, the one we got to play as kids in the arcade, the one teased at as all three mutant animals, toss, punch, and devour anything in their path. Instead of putting us right in the action, much of the rising climax is, for unknown reasons, initial shot from a distance until the sky is so filled with dust and debris that the camera drops to ground-level to capture the action in all its grey-hued, hazy glory but only when Peyton isn’t too busy focusing on the humans – Okoye, Caldwell, the Wydens, and the like – and we don’t really care what happens to them. We showed up for the monster fights!
Unfortunately, despite some really fun character work by Ackerman as the morally deficient Claire, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (AMC’s The Walking Dead) as the scenery-chewing shadow government agent Harvey Russell, and Harris as the justice-seeking geneticist, Rampage offers very little in the way of surprises or thrills. Though cleverly adapted from the source material, in the era of Pacific Rim, Transformers, Kong: Skull Island, this is all something we’ve seen before starring a lead actor who can play this exact role in his sleep. Though not the worst video game adaptation to grace the silver screen, Rampage is too focused on giving us what it thinks we want (Johnson) and not on what we used to pump quarters into the arcade cabinet day-in and out – balls out monster madness.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.