There comes a time when a discussion of a well-crafted B-movie becomes necessary. I firmly believe that there exists a place for a movie that, while it isn’t good by conventional standards, has enough of its tongue in its cheek, and is well-enough aware of its own silliness that it can overcome some of its more pedestrian faults to become something special. When it comes to giant monster movies, there are decades worth of films — from the Toho films of old to the Pacific Rim films and the recent forays into Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island — that show them clearly capable of occupying this space. They will not and should not be bestowed any particular awards, but they are certainly worthwhile ways to spend your time. They can be a damn good time, and it’s with this line of thinking that I walked into Rampage.
It didn’t quite go the way I’d hoped. Rampage is absolute nonsense, and it leans into its nonsensical nature so heavily that it almost seems deliberate. It’s a resolutely ridiculous film, taking the giant monster punchy-smashy tactics of films like Godzilla and Pacific Rim and turning the crank a bit. Based — loosely — on the 80’s arcade game, it features Johnson as (cough) a primatologist (perhaps the hardest to swallow pill since Denise Richards played a nuclear physicist) who befriends an intelligent albino gorilla named George. George comes into contact with an experimental pathogen manufactured by an Evil Corporation headed with malicious, scene-chewing glee by a surprisingly fun Malin Ackerman, which causes him to grow to ridiculous heights, and leads him — along with a mutated wolf and alligator — to converge on Chicago for, well, a rampage.
There’s a tiny bit more at play — Naomie Harris is there as a geneticist who joins forces with Johnson to try to stop the marauding monsters, Jeffrey Dean Morgan affects an inexplicable and terrible southern accent as a government spook who comes to their aid as well. But the film mostly zeroes in on Johnson, Harris, and the three giant monsters. And it’s, well… it’s certainly a movie about the Rock and three giant monsters, I suppose. It lives up to its plot summary in that sense. But there’s a curious lack of fun to it, which feels hard to fathom given the relentless charisma that Johnson projects. Perhaps it’s that tonally, the film never really finds its footing — it certainly features plenty of Johnson shifting effortlessly between a thousand-watt smile and a hard stare, and he gets to bust a few heads as he goes. And Harris is a capable enough co-star, even if the science she rattles off doesn’t quite match her delivery.
Unfortunately, director Brad Peyton can’t decide if he wants to make the movie fun, or if he wants to dig into something darker and more violent. So it’s got Johnson quipping with Morgan, and his relationship with George is often played for some amusing laughs, and Ackerman seems to enjoy being delightfully, vampishly sinister… but it’s also surprisingly, and at times unpleasantly violent. The human casualty levels are stunning, and it’s far from a bloodless PG-13. One of the things that films like Pacific Rim and its sequel do right is to create a spectacle composed of large-scale mayhem and destruction, but without relying on rampant human tragedy. Rampage doesn’t shy from it — if anything, it relies on it. So George freaks out and smashes soldiers into paste inside an airplane, and people are stomped and smashed as buildings fall and tanks are tossed about. It never really finds its comfort zone between fun monster movie and scary monster movie. It’s worth noting that yes, those two things can often share a space, and some of the best films do so. But the tonal inconsistency is too pronounced here to make that work.
It’s not without its fun moments. And some of the monster mayhem is pretty wild, even if the mutations themselves don’t make a lick of sense despite the film’s best efforts (why does the wolf fly and shoot porcupine-like spines and the alligator evolves to look like an ankylosaurus on steroids, yet George just … gets bigger?). But the charisma of Johnson — impressive as it is — can’t carry all the weight, especially if he’s not going to be the action centerpiece either. The film needed more of a human element than he and Harris could provide. This is especially frustrating given how the film wastes some not-insignificant talent on bit parts that are barely onscreen for more than a handful of moments. Joe Manganiello, Will Yun Lee, PJ Byrne (Bolin!), and Marley Shelton are all solid, capable actors who are given thankless and virtually insignificant roles. Perhaps increasing focus on people and decreasing the bloodthirstiness of it all might have helped… not to mention punching up the often painfully amateurish dialogue.
Look, you got your great monster movie of the year. It was Pacific Rim: Uprising, and it felt greedy to hope that Rampage would give us a second helping. It tries gamely, I suppose, and it certainly brought its share of star power by casting Johnson. And I won’t say it was never fun. It just isn’t fun enough. Its messy science, silly plot contrivances, lack of human depth, and overall excess makes it feel like a hasty puzzle made up of poorly crafted pieces. Audiences and giant monsters deserve better.