Everyone loves a good creature-feature. “King Kong” (1933) kicked it off and “Godzilla” (1954) asked us to consider scientific consequences. “Planet of the Apes” (1968) made a monkey out of mankind and “Sharknado” (2013) made a mockery of the entire genre. Now, it’s Dwayne Johnson’s turn in the cage with a three-ring circus called “Rampage.”
There’s nothing new here, but director Brad Peyton (“San Andreas” 2015) assembles a visually impressive action-comedy that is over-the-top thrilling, but fortunately, doesn’t take itself too seriously, whew! Johnson stars as primatologist Davis Okoye. Together, with his CGI generated ape buddy, George, they must defend earth from a genetically altered wolf and genetically altered alligator right in downtown Chicago.
George is a particularly intelligent gorilla, in Davis’ care since birth at the “fictional” San Diego Wildlife Park. One thumps his huge muscular chest in a show of dominance while the other casually enjoys his comfortable habitat. The charismatic Johnson, with his magnificent physique and toothy grin, fills the screen even before George of the jungle enters the scene. The two of them tease, joke and converse through sign language.
What they will soon learn is that a biological experiment in outer space has gone terribly wrong. Funded by a greedy and corrupt family of billionaires, the ruthless Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her dim-witted brother Brett (Jake Lacy) operate as if they’re above the law. Agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), in his best Tommy Lee Jones “Men in Black” (1997) impression, is all over them like ugly on an ape.
The genetic pods drop randomly to earth, with one landing in the Florida Everglades, one near Devil’s Post Pile in Wyoming and the other in the gorilla habitat at the San Diego Wildlife Park. With exposure to the pods, the genetic makeup of an alligator, a wolf and our boy George becomes irreversibly altered to make them much bigger, stronger and more aggressive every day, leading to a possible showdown.
In desperation, the Wyden’s send a low-frequency signal causing the affected animals to converge on Chicago, setting up the final act of the story. With more massive destruction and carnage than a “Transformers” movie, these three gigantors battle it out while Davis somehow ends up in the middle of this rumble in the rubble.
Along the way, Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) joins Davis’s search for answers to this genetic phenomenon. Meanwhile, Claire and Brett hire an assassin (Joe Manganiello), from “Killers R Us” to go all “silverback” on the wolf in Wyoming. Ever notice that in movies, most helicopters crash and burn in a fiery heap?
The innovative set pieces are staggering in the big, bloated finale. The battle is staged near some of Chicago’s most recognizable sites, such as the Chicago River, Wrigley Building, Marina Towers and Sears Tower (now Willis Tower). The epic action sequences are spectacularly choreographed, entertaining and even amusing.
It’s engaging in a “Saturday matinee” kind of way. Sure, the ridiculous plot is filled with silly sentimentality and the characters are forgettable. But if you like the charismatic Johnson, the man-beast dynamic and the stunning CGI action, it’s as enjoyable as a big bucket of popcorn, even if both are filled with empty calories.
“Rampage” is 107 minutes and rated PG-13 for violence, action and destruction. The story by Ryan Engle is loosely based on a 30-year-old video game. It’s big, dumb fun, cartoonish and won’t win any awards. Critic Moira MacDonald (Seattle Times) may have described it best, “It’s really terrible and I enjoyed it immensely.”
Spoiler alert: The world doesn’t end. However, it’s fascinating how these three CGI monster critters go off on each other in a “rock-paper-scissors” kind of way. Movie creatures have come a long way. Just a few decades ago, Godzilla was something like an aging Elvis; a living legend, but basically a fat man in a weird polyester suit.
Ron’s Rating: B+ Leigh’s Rating: A-