There is nothing wrong with a silly movie -- provided that it actually knows that it is a silly movie. There are few cinematic experiences more taxing than seeing a film approach a totally ridiculous concept with absolute seriousness, as it sucks out all of the entertainment value. If it's operating with a few winks and elbow nudges, however, a silly film can create an atmosphere suggesting that the filmmakers are trying to have just as much fun as they want the audience to have -- and that can be effective stuff. It's easy to enjoy a big, knowingly dumb blockbuster, and that's exactly how you can categorize Brad Peyton's Rampage.
The film carries the baggage of every single video game adaptation before it ranging somewhere between "not great" and "garbage," but Rampage is the feature to break this curse. Finally! It's crazy dumb, but it knows it, and that awareness plus the insane charisma of both Dwayne Johnson and Jeffrey Dean Morgan elevate Rampage to being a surprisingly enjoyable time at the movies.
The original video game -- which let users play as a giant gorilla, wolf or alligator destroying cities -- doesn't really have much of a narrative, but the combined work of writers Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel creates something that loosely hangs together. Dwayne Johnson stars as Davis Okoye, a primatologist studying apes in San Diego, California. He has spent years forming a close bond with an albino silverback gorilla named George (performance capture done by Jason Liles), but finds their relationship start to change when a mysterious canister falls from space late one night and sprays George in the face with a strange chemical.
The next day, George is discovered to not only be a whole lot bigger, but filled with enough rage to kill an enormous predator in a neighboring enclosure. Davis wants to help his friend, and gets much needed information about the origins of the chemical from scientist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomi Harris) -- but it begins to look like any effort may be pointless. Not only is George growing bigger and ever more out of control, but he is actually only one of three different creatures across the country that have been going through the crazy transformation.
Rampage is essentially an excuse to let Dwayne Johnson save the city of Chicago from a group of monsters, but you can also legitimately appreciate its commitment to the crazy simplicity of the source material from which it sprang. The perfect example of this is the entire mission of the film's antagonists -- played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy. They are the sibling owners of the conglomerate that created the DNA-altering substance dubbed Rampage, and it actually was their full intent to spawn giant animals. Of course, exactly what they plan to do with the animals once they've reached full size is never really fully explained... but the film also delivers the sense that it doesn't really matter. Claire and Brett Wyden are basically Saturday morning cartoon villains, committed to causing chaos because that's just what they do.
The film on the whole has a weird amount of fun with its ensemble full of recognizable faces, some of whom don't last very long at all, but the biggest takeaway from Rampage is the increased urge to see Dwayne Johnson and Jeffrey Dean Morgan make many, many more movies together. The former continues proving to be one of the most effortlessly charismatic action stars in the game, able to slot into any role and do his thing; but it's the latter who actually gets some of the biggest laughs and best moments in the blockbuster, playing a federal agent and self-described asshole who gets caught up in the monster mess. It's as though Morgan heard Brad Peyton use the word "swagger" and intensely honed in, becoming an over-the-top, shit-kicking cowboy dressed up as a spook. It would be a ridiculous performance in any other context, but it's perfectly at home in Rampage, and leaves you wanting more.
Aesthetically, the film is the kind of blockbuster that makes you wonder just how many scenes were put together on the same green screen-filled stage -- but doesn't look bad all things considered. A lot of the action is set during the day time, allowing the audience to get a real look at the creatures, and what's more the character designs are actually really great (in particular the performance capture work to bring George to life is about the level of what was done for the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy). The CGI is more noticeable in some sequences than others, but ultimately isn't enough of a distraction to take too much away from the movie.
Rampage is a movie that does require some open-minds and an acceptance of its silliness, but it really presents an open invitation for audiences to lean in. It's easily the best of the Dwayne Johnson/Brad Peyton collaborations (including Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and San Andreas), and breaks what has been deemed a curse on video game adaptations. You may shake your head at its ridiculous, but you'll be smiling at the same time.