"RAMPAGE" — 2 stars — Dwayne Johnson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Naomie Harris, Joe Manganiello; PG-13 (sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language and crude gestures); in general release
Brad Peyton's "Rampage" is a subversive cautionary tale about the dangers of genetic manipulation and our inherent responsibility as human caretakers to temper our ill-advised aspirations for absolute creative domination.
Just kidding. "Rampage" is a monster movie that pits The Rock and a 50-foot gorilla against a giant wolf and a mutated alligator the size of the Titanic.
"Rampage" is the second time Peyton has used Dwayne Johnson as the tip of his CGI spear in a city-smashing big screen spectacle. "San Andreas" in 2015 was a piece of throwaway fun that followed Johnson on a rescue mission up the California coast in the middle of a catastrophic earthquake. But for "Rampage," which is loosely based on the 1980s arcade game of the same name, the action takes on more of a science fiction flavor.
The action starts in space, when the destruction of an orbiting science station scatters canisters of an experimental pathogen across the continental United States. One lands in the Florida Everglades, where it is promptly swallowed by an alligator, and a second infects a wolf in southern Wyoming.
The third canister lands in a wildlife refuge in San Diego, where ex-Special Forces soldier-turned-primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson) has been tending to an albino gorilla named George. Within 24 hours of being exposed to the pathogen, George has grown two feet, burst out of his enclosure, and killed a grizzly bear.
Far away atop the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago, the nefarious Energyne company observes the results of their experiments. The company is headed by Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy), who play their roles just this side of "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show's" Boris and Natasha. Once their creations are on the loose, they modify the radio antennae at the top of the tower to lure the monsters home to the Windy City.
Naturally, the military quickly gets involved, led by a properly ambiguous Man in Black named Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, essentially playing his Negan role from TV's "The Walking Dead" in a black suit instead of a leather biker jacket). Okoye gets in on the chase too, along with an ex-Energyne geneticist named Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), who is convinced that the Wydens have an antidote that can cure George.
The third act smackdown in Chicago between the monsters, the military and the laws of physics is about what you would imagine, meaning the laws of physics lose badly. As far as city-destroying climaxes go, it boasts the CGI expertise of movies like the recent "Pacific Rim" sequel, but falls short of the character, creativity and atmosphere of last year's "Kong: Skull Island" or the recent "Godzilla" reboot.
There's a tricky balance between fun-bad and bad-bad, and too often "Rampage" favors the latter option. Peyton's film is peppered with so much flat, clichéd and ridiculously expositional dialogue that you eventually wish people would just stop speaking altogether.
Since "Rampage" is technically a video game movie (the original arcade console makes a cameo in the Wydens' office), the bar of expectation might be dropped considerably, but too many scenarios are just too preposterous to overlook (escapes from a crashing plane and a crashing skyscraper spring to mind), and "Rampage" just takes itself a hair too seriously to qualify as a true "turn off your brain" romp.
That isn't to say that audiences won't be entertained by The Rock's latest appearance on the big screen. As usual, Johnson's charismatic presence elevates the limitations of the mediocre material around him. Though if Peyton really wanted to be ambitious, he would have exposed Johnson to the pathogen because a four-way battle royale in The Loop featuring a 50-foot Rock might have been the greatest thing ever committed to film.
It may also have offered a sly nod to the fact that compared to most of the population, Johnson already looks like a science experiment designed to enhance human quickness, strength and eyebrow-lifting capacity. Too bad, because there's just a sense that in more skillful hands, "Rampage" could have been a movie to laugh with more than a movie to laugh at.
"Rampage" is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief language and crude gestures; running time: 107 minutes.