WRECKS AND THE CITY

RAMPAGE (12A)

Director: Brad Peyton

Screenplay: Ryan EngleCarlton Cuse

Starring: Dwayne JohnsonNaomie HarrisMalin Akerman 

Review: David Stephens

Video games CAN be turned into good horror films. For a start there’s… erm … no, wait there’s … umm … give us a minute, will you? Half-assed joking aside, it’s rare for movies to break the so-called “video game curse” and translate to a worthy cinema experience, especially those related to our favourite genre. The Resident Evil films are fun-but-dumb and hugely successful in financial terms, but apart from some cameos and locations they bear little relationship to the games. The underrated Silent Hill (2006) was surprisingly successful in terms of creepiness and how close it came to the visuals and narrative of the PlayStation classic. And we actually have a soft spot for the 1995 Mortal Kombat film. Dwarfing the budget for all of those though is Rampage, which cost $120m to make. Based on the original arcade/console game about 3 monsters decimating a US city, it’s been translated into a Dwayne Johnson vehicle and expands upon the paper-thin “plot” from the game. Now on global release in cinemas, YGROY Rock’s up to the theatre and hopes for something monstrously entertaining…

The film begins with a surprisingly dark prelude (severed hands and blood in zero G and tragic death) on an orbiting space station. An astronaut loads suspicious chemicals into an escape pod, whilst avoiding a giant rat (as you do). It all goes wrong and the contents hurtle to Earth. Meanwhile Davis Okoye (Johnson) is a primatologist guiding some newbies on first time encounters with gorillas in a San Diego zoo. This includes the playful George, an albino ape that Davis has raised from a baby and communicates with by sign language. As night falls, the debris from the space station falls near George’s enclosure and sprays him with green gas. Other pods land in a Wyoming forest and an Everglades swamp, with a wolf and crocodile suffering similar fates. When Davis encounters George the next morning, he’s doubled in size, snapped the neck of a grizzly, and ain’t in a talking mood. Soon the evil machinations of the evil company Energyne, run by evil CEO Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman in pantomime mode) mean that George and the other two monsters are drawn to Chicago for some big city carnage…and evil. Can Davis save his friend George before it’s “Game Over, man”?

This writer is ancient enough to remember spending some serious coinage on the arcade machine of Rampage in some UK seaside resorts many years ago. Expertly manufactured to tease cash out of gamers, the gameplay is literally just bashing the hell out of pixelated skyscrapers as you top up your dwindling health by snacking on citizens and the military. The wacky humour and cartoon violence helped attract players, especially when you realise that the “monsters” are actually mutated humans who shrink to their normal tiny size when your money runs out, hilariously seen in the buff as they shuffle off-screen whilst covering up their junk and bewbs. All of that just demonstrates that this film is not really a close video game adaptation, at least not in the style of something like the recent reboot of Tomb Raider. But is it worth your money?

Actually, yes. Sure enough it’s extremely silly and hardly a masterpiece, but despite many mixed reviews it’s a fun ride where you can at least see where the money’s been spent. It actually sort of helps that it’s based on a game with such a flimsy concept. Director Brad Peyton (San Andreas) does throw in a few “Easter Eggs” for those familiar with the game; a woman in a red dress, the slowly collapsing skyscraper, the monster names… hell, the actual arcade cabinet is even in there for meta chuckles. But that’s not the point of the film. The point is letting The Rock do his thang, and allowing giant CG critters to knock seven shades of crap out of stuff. And it does achieve that, even if the middle section does drag a little and crowbar some unnecessary fight scenes in there.

What is perhaps more surprising and successful however (from a genre fans viewpoint) are the unexpected levels of human-crunching and a couple of genuinely scary scenes. The opening sequence supplies one, and a later one with a “Wolf-Hunt” in a foggy forest brings another, complete with viscera and full-on body chewing! This continues in the final scenes with more bodily damage and the explicit fate of one character; mirroring THAT death scene from Jurassic World (you know the one…poor Kate McGrath!) In fact all the effects involving George, Ralph (the wolf) and Lizzie (the crocodile) are pretty damned fine, and have clear Kaiju references. Cosmetic changes meant that George had to be white (and not Kong), and that Lizzie couldn’t resemble Godzilla. This actually works because the crocodile now acts and looks uncannily like the Japanese monster Anguirus (or maybe even Gamera), which makes those links more visually arresting. And whilst it doesn’t take up as much of the film as you would like, the city bashing antics by the creatures are still pretty sweet and entertaining, especially when the tiny humans get squashed and swallowed in the ensuing chaos.

Outside of those hugely entertaining scenes, the film is more than a little generic. However Johnson is his usual charismatic self, and even manages to sell a close relationship with the CG George without too much insipid schmaltz. Naomie Harris is good as his foil, despite the fact that she isn’t given that much to do, and she has to keep a straight face when spouting monologues involving chemical techno-cobblers. But Akerman and Jake Lacy (as the Wyden siblings) are some of the most ineffectual “villains” you’ll see in a big-budget film and serve little purpose. You also have to feel for Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whose future career is surely blighted by his turn as The Walking Dead’s Big Bad. As soon as he starts rocking on his heels and flashing his shit-eating grin here, you automatically groan at the Negan schtick that you half-expect… and it’s not a million miles away from that to be honest. Paradoxically one of the most endearing performances is from George (mo-capped by Jason Liles), who has a questionable sense of humour and manages to provide the biggest laughs in the film. Watch out for the fist-bump-finger-flip and shagging jokes (“That WAS funny dude”).

Of course it is far, far from being a superlative cinema experience or even a great film, but it is daft lightweight fun that manages to provide nods to its gaming origin (despite veering greatly from its narrative) and most unexpectedly referencing its horror roots. If you approach it with the right frame of mind, it could well be the monster mash-up that you need to keep you going until Godzilla: King of the Monsters arrives early next year. Silly but spectacular, it at least acknowledges its own preposterous nature and provides a creature feature that manages to entertain at its purest level. We’re kind of bummed that the monsters weren’t mutated humans, but we still enjoyed it anyway. George didn’t bungle.

Very silly and pretty juvenile, but actually more fun than you might think. Alongside the usual action tropes and unbelievable set-pieces, there are some effective horror-themed sequences and some cool kaiju vibes. It’s far from perfect but Johnson is as charismatic as ever, as is his simian CG pal. If you’re craving mindless monster destruction with a bit of blood and banter, you might want to press “start”…
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