The audience I saw “Rampage” with at the Bay Ridge Alpine theater on a Friday night clapped when it was over, and the film deserved it. Dwayne Johnson stars as a primatologist who was once a Special Forces veteran and a hunter of poachers. His shoulders are so broad that he looks as if he could bench press a Jeep, and sure enough, there are scenes where he does variations of that. He’s like a nice- guy answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger, dominating mainly through brains and charm and only using his grapefruit-sized biceps when the situation absolutely demands it—which is often, because nobody pays money to watch The Rock do his taxes or make peanut butter sandwiches. A character in this movie affectionately calls him a “big lug,” and that’s what he is: the kind of guy who helps you move even when other people flake out on you. He’s so beloved by this point that the government might as well break its rule against putting living people on currency and give him the twenty dollar bill, or at least one of the coins.
This movie throws Johnson into a story involving three ordinary wild animals—a white gorilla, an alligator and a wolf—who’ve become infected by a genetic mutation virus cooked up in an orbital lab. The orbital lab breaks into pieces in the opening sequence, scattering three samples across the continental United States. One sample infects the gorilla, George, who lives in a San Diego wildlife preserve and was raised from childhood by Johnson’s character, Davis Okoye, who saved George after his mother was murdered by poachers. George grows larger and more aggressive after the infection and joins the wolf and the alligator in a journey to Chicago. They’re going to Chicago because the pharmaceutical company that oversaw the research has triggered a signal atop the Sears Tower (where they just happen to be headquartered) in order to lure the creatures and give them an antidote.
To say that this is not the world’s greatest plan would be putting it mildly, and the film knows it. “Rampage” is based on a popular 1986 arcade game that amounted to little more than a giant gorilla, a giant wolf and a giant alligator destroying buildings in a major urban center, and it doesn’t exactly knock itself out trying to pretend that comes from anything other than humble cultural origins. Johnson and his costar, Naomi Harris’s Dr. Kate Caldwell, have been given tearjerking back stories that land better than you might expect: his experience fighting in wars and hunting poachers has turned him into a misanthrope who only likes and trusts animals, while Kate feels guilty because the experimental research that she developed to save her dying brother became weaponized by the corporation that funded her research. The movie is aggressively on-the-nose when articulating most of its plot points—it has a tendency to explain things verbally even when the filmmaking was doing a perfectly fine job of putting them across already—but it’s uncharacteristically subtle in drawing parallels between Kate’s doomed attempt to save her brother and Davis’ wish to save his dear friend George, who’s like a brother to him and is in great physical and emotional pain from the mutations that are making him bigger, stronger and meaner, and generally turning him into someone nobody, George included, can recognize any more.
Motion capture performances have come a long way since the first “Lord of the Rings” film, but this one feels like a watershed moment. Jason Liles, who provided the movements and facial expressions that would later be wrapped in a computer-generated virtual costume, is an admirer of motion capture pioneer Andy Serkis, and he trained with Terry Notary, who played rebellious gorillas in the recent “Planet of the Apes” films and starred as Kong in the recent “Kong: Skull Island.” He gives what has to be considered a real, true performance here, turning George into a real…well, person seems the only appropriate word, now that I think of it. The way he grins, the way he signs back and forth with Johnson, the knowing way he smirks with one side of his mouth, all bespeak a great commitment to detail. When you see them side-by-side, they’re as much of a sight gag as Johnson standing next to his diminutive pal Kevin Hart. The name “George” nods simultaneously to Curious George and to John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” You’d expect Johnson to be playing the big guy in that second scenario, but CGI makes for some odd pairings.
This movie is a huge candy bar that is content to be a huge candy bar, but it’s been made with energy and sincerity, and there are marvelous incidental touches, such as the way the giant wolf pauses during a rampage through downtown Chicago to get into a bark-off with a regular-sized golden retriever, and the way all three creatures tear into the buildings that they climb, like real mammals creating paw-and-claw-holds as they climb a tree trunk or the side of a cliff. A touch that I haven’t seen before in one of these movies is the creatures effortlessly pushing into and through the sides of buildings when they need to create a shortcut or hide from enemies. It reminds me of the way a possum or squirrel might leap into the side of a hedge, and seem to disappear.
Perfectly calibrated to please anyone who likes watching monsters fight while muscled heroes rush about trying to minimize the damage, this film from Brad Payton—who helmed another Johnson hit, “San Andreas“—is a crash-and-bash monster movie par excellence, lacking the poetry of “Pacific Rim” and the 2014 “Godzilla,” but generating more goodwill than “Skull Island,” a kooky crowd-pleaser that sometimes got a bit too wrapped up in mostly incoherent Vietnam analogies. It relishes giving actors unsayable lines and watching them say them anyway. The villains, played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, get saddled with most of the howlers; the latter deserves a bonus for being able to keep a straight face while saying things like, “Did you see the satellite footage? The gorilla escaped the crash!” and “There’s a reason why we did our research on a space station, and it wasn’t for the betterment of humanity!”
“Rampage” miscalculates a bit in the sequence where the combined force of the creatures topples a skyscraper; American fantasy films are too quick to use 9/11 for spectacle without thinking about how traumatizing those images still are to some. But the movie recovers in time for a knock-down drag-out fight that pits the alligator and the wolf against the gorilla and Dwayne Johnson. The Rock is a big teddy bear, but it’s still a fair fight.