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Non-Review Review: Rampage

Rampage suffers from some pretty severe tonal issues. The video game adaptation starts and ends as a spiritual companion to Kong: Skull Island, but takes a detour into the last American Godzilla movie during its extended climax.

The results are jarring, creating a more dissonant movie than either of its obvious monster-movie forebearers. Rampage is goofy enough that its urban carnage feels out of place, and brutal enough that some of its cheekier decisions feel mean-spirited and vindictive. The result is very much a curate’s egg, to the point that it occasionally feels like Rampage escaped its creators in the edit room.

Going ape.

There is a lot to like in Rampage, particularly its weird committed earnestness when it comes to dealing with the friendship between a primatologist and his gigantic albino gorilla. Rampage skirts the line, occasionally embracing the camp absurdity of muscle-bound Dwayne Johnson’s deep-seated emotional attachment to a computer-generated rampaging “gene-edited” monster. Rampage understands the absurdity of the set-up, but makes a convincing sell of it nonetheless.

Unfortunately, Rampage‘s human characters are never as interesting, which creates a problem when the climax attempts to shift gears into a sprawling urban destruction epic. Rampage feels as much a product of careful and outrageous engineering as the creatures at its core. However, as with those creatures, it never feels quite like those doing the engineering had a clear design in mind.

“I sure picked a bad day to move George to the Metropolis Zoo.”

Rampage is overly earnest, to a fault. This is a major issue when it comes to the central human characters, who are more than adjective than individual. The Rock is decent. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is smarmy. Joe Manganiello is tough. In case these descriptions are too much for the audience, the film provides helpful shorthand; the Rock’s concerned glare, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s sarcastic Southern drawl, Joe Manganiello even gets a bad-ass facial scar. If the audience is ever uncertain how to feel about a character, Andrew Lockington’s soundtrack is happy to clue them in.

This earnestness and straightforwardness with regard to the human cast is occasionally infuriating, particularly to the point that it distracts from the fun of giant monsters doing giant monster stuff. Much like Godzilla, there is a sense that Rampage misunderstands what the audience expects from this concept. To be fair, Rampage at least fares better than Godzilla in terms of casting; Dwayne Johnson and Jeffrey Dean Morgan are never less than charming.

A grower, not a shower.

The script is decidedly less engaging than its two performers. As with most blockbusters, Rampage shoehorns in some Freudian psychology to give its human lead something resembling an arc, but it is such a simple approach to the character that it quickly becomes grating. Does Rampage really need two separate characters to ask primatologist Davis Okoye, “How come you don’t like people?” It isn’t enough that Okoye has chosen to work with animals, Rampage insists that this decision must be the core of his character, and be rooted in personal trauma.

Rampage is not a film that does subtlety, which makes a lot of the scenes with the human characters frustrating. To establish its female lead’s motivations, the camera slow pans to a picture of a hospitalized relative and lingers on it for a solid five seconds to ensure that the audience understands her motivations. This is about as much development as Kate Caldwell, outside of actually articulating the formative trauma suggested in the lingering shot later in the film.

The Rock Who Fell to Earth.

To give the film some credit, it is hard to tell how much of Rampage is played straight. Outside of this tragic family back story, Caldwell’s primary function is to stand under heavy falling objects so that Okoye can heroically push her out of the way. Rampage seems to grasp the absurdity of this set-up, to the point that Okoye announces his arrival at the film’s climax by… leaping out of thin air to push Caldwell out from under heavy falling objects. During one exposition-heavy scene, the giant monkey in the background grows increasingly impatient, like the audience.

In its best moments, there is a knowing smirk tucked beneath the earnestness. After taking a bullet at extremely close range, one major character effectively shrugs the injury off. “I think she missed most major organs. But let’s not jinx it.” The characters resist the urge to look into the camera and wink. There is a lot of deadpan. “Of course the wolf can fly,” the Rock sighs in resignation during the climax of the film, mentally filing that incongruity to the long list of the day’s scientific mysteries. The message is clear: just go with it.

No time for no monkey business.

The film arguably works best when it acknowledges the absurdity of its premise by doubling down on the declarations of friendship and fidelity that The Fast and the Furious incorporated into blockbuster template. Indeed, Rampage seems to be referencing Johnson’s most successful franchise, with repeated emphasis on the idea of “family.” In fact, Rampage teases a number of Johnson’s earlier roles, including a pointed “you’re welcome” to a supporting character after destroying his mode of transport, and stealing an emergency services helicopter for personal use.

Both Rampage and all of the characters in Rampage accept at face value the fact that Okoye’s best friend is a several-thousand-pound gigantic albino gorilla exposed to “gene editing.” The movie, and the Rock, run with it. There’s genuine emotion in Okoye’s desperate plea, “What happened to my friend?”  There’s earnest compassion in his work colleague’s reassurance that, “That’s not the George we know.” There’s resolution in the Okoye’s vow, “You mess with my friend, you mess with me.”

Jaws of life.

The film is never more sincere than in the moments that Okoye begs “George, go!” and “George, no!”  The film capitalises on Johnson’s underrated ability to sell emotional sincerity, in his broad empathic qualities. In fact, Rampage takes its central bestial friendship so seriously that even the cynical Agent Russell cannot be completely smarmy about it despite playing the obligatory role of vaguely-defined government operative. “About your friend,” he quietly admits, “I am truly sorry.” At its best, Rampage is a touching story about a man and his monkey.

The problem is that this goofy and endearing earnestness jars with the climax, which evokes the widespread urban destruction expected of modern blockbusters. There is a collapsing building, collateral damage, military intervention, billowing clouds of dust. There are even slow motion shots of survivors uniting amid the rubble. It evokes films like Man of Steel, depicting devastation on such a scale that the rest of the movie cannot support it. As with GodzillaRampage is a monster movie that clearly and consciously evokes 9/11.

Lone wolf.

The devastation is total, but the one-liners never quite stop. The quip-happy humour does slip into the background, but there is always a faint trace of irony lurking at the edge of the frame. This leads to a certain mean-spiritedness when that playfulness and horror intersect in the final scenes focusing on the villainous antagonists. It suggests that one of the more underrated aspects of Kong: Skull Island was the decision to eschew the obligatory urban climax by virtue of its remote island setting.

There is a sense that Rampage was subject to its own heavy gene-editting. Characters who feature prominently in the first act (including a broad comic relief sidekick) very quickly disappear as the action develops. The film cuts a number of the one-liners present in the trailer (“I was just thinking that the only thing that’s missing now is a giant crocodile”) to tone down the camp quality of the film, suggesting that the awkward shift to a more serious tone was a conscious choice made in the editing bay. The result is a movie that feels awkward and uneven.

Rampage has some great parts, but never manages to be more than the sum of them.

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