Finding a co-star physically larger than Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is no easy task. That great big human special effect of a man, who in recent years has overtaken Bruce Willis as the proprietor of the most iconic cranium in contemporary cinema, is 6 foot 4 inches tall. And – to borrow that quintessentially Australian turn of phrase – is built like a brick shithouse. In the clever and funny buddy comedy Central Intelligence, Johnson was cast opposite the much smaller Kevin Hart, their differences in stature a visual reminder of the film’s odd couple premise.
But they did it, by George – giving Johnson a co-star to literally look up to – in director Brad Peyton’s monster movie Rampage. All it took was conjuring an ape the size of a small building. Or perhaps, I should say, they did it “with George”, given this is the name of the ape in question. He is a cheeky rascal who can communicate through sign language and loves flipping the bird on inappropriate occasions. George is also albino, as if the screenwriters (Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel) believed making him the size of a baby Godzilla was not enough of a distinguishing feature.
Rampage is loosely based on a 1986 video game. ‘Loosely’ being perhaps inevitable, given the source material’s, let’s say, lack of narrative sophistication. In it an enraged ape climbs buildings and destroys stuff; clearly King Kong was an inspiration.
The fate of the world naturally rests in the hands of primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson).
The new film has a clear through-line to the 1933 adventure epic, still one of the greatest works of its kind: so efficient in its storytelling, so thematically rich and powerful. Peyton swaps out Kong’s meaty themes (forbidden love, male aggression, entertainment industry sensationalism etc) for rote waffle about pursuing scientific advancement for evil purposes.
We begin in a doomed spaced ship. Peyton demonstrates a modicum of visual restraint by allowing his shots to linger a little, at least by frenetic modern standards, in the zero gravity chambers. Vision of a giant, mutated, snarling rodent, accompanied by unsubtle dialogue (“The experiment went wrong!”) informs us that the crew conjured a terrible beast.
The chemicals used to create this thing belong to a nefarious plan by nitwit villains Claire and Brett Wynden (Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy). Who, if I followed this correctly, plan to charge a princely sum for the technology. Containers carrying the monster-making chemicals literally come crashing down to earth, then drift up the nostrils of three different creatures: an American crocodile named Lizzie, a grey wolf named Ralph, and our pal George.
The trio transform into raging behemoths. They are drawn to the top of a building in Chicago by a kind of high-tech dog whistle, leading to an inevitable finale on and around the skyscraper (sound familiar?). The fate of the world naturally rests in the hands of primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson), who is George’s best and only friend. Okoye butts horns with a range of characters who slow him down, including potential love interest Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) and a government agent from the south, Agent Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Russell describes his duties in B movie straight talk: “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets.”
Peyton and Johnson’s previous collaboration, the 2015 disaster flick San Andreas, introduces an earthquake as a metaphor for a broken marriage, then feasts on intensely heavy-handed and intellectually deflating scenes of devastation – as if we were stupid for having imagined it was about something. Rampage is just as content with wallowing in CGI-slathered mediocrity, and has even less of a spine. Audiences will arrive for the spectacle, the carnage, the brawling beasts and crumbling city blocks. They’ll also get a film far slower to its feet than it should be, with long effects-devoid flat spots that feel less like dramatic build-ups than cost-cutting measures.
The two human villains, played by Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy, are poorly cast and blandly performed. They are cartoon characters in search of comic performances; instead the actors deliver strained student theatre. Johnson receives a healthy quota of amusing lines to lighten the load. “That’s a big arm, don’t fight it,” he says to a man he squeezes into a headlock, after performing a routine familiar to the smug action hero: articulating what will happen if his opponents disobey him, then waiting for them to disobey him, then making his predictions come true.
Johnson is unquestionably the next generation Schwarzenegger. No amount of work outs, however, will give him Schwarzenegger’s great voice, capable of turning even standard-issue funny lines into rib ticklers. With that voice came the endearing, self-deprecating suggestion (obviously not true) that Arnie didn’t really know what he was doing: an actor caught in the mouth of madness, having a jolly good old time. Johnson, on the other hand, wants us to know that he knows exactly what he is doing. Perhaps the same can be said of the film itself, which neither aspires to, nor achieves, anything interesting, and struggles as a work of escapist entertainment.