Dwayne Johnson wants you to see him sweat. The wrestling wunderkind turned family-friendly household name turned hard-working blockbuster superstar now cranks out two or three aspiring megahits a year, along with a television series, and he doesn’t show any signs of stopping.
Along with Brad Peyton, the director behind 2015’s disaster flick “San Andreas,” which dared to pit the Rock against the ultimate rock — Earth — Johnson’s latest offering is “Rampage,” and it’s one of his most gloriously schlocky yet. A ludicrous adaptation of the arcade button-masher of the same name, the film matches Johnson’s superlative physicality with a worthy scene partner: a gargantuan albino gorilla.
The spectacle begins with a man-sized rat inside a space station, and it only gets wilder from there. After a genetics experiment goes wrong and destroys a satellite laboratory, debris comes crashing down to Earth. The hazardous material lands near the San Diego Zoo’s beloved gorilla, George, as well as a wild wolf and Everglades crocodile, all three of which consequently begin to balloon in size and aggression.
With some shady corporate executives drawing the creatures to Chicago, it’s up to George’s ex-special forces poacher-hating zookeeper ( Johnson) and a wrongfully disgraced, recently incarcerated genetic engineer (Naomie Harris) to escape the authorities and track down an antidote that can save the world and their primate pal.
That distant sound you hear is the smug chortling of Neil deGrasse Tyson reacting to such a scientifically slanderous premise of Jane Goodall gone bad. But “Rampage” is refreshingly light on the deadpan justifications of its spectacle, instead angling toward unapologetic bombast that can’t help but slip into the demented.
Like the film’s very existence, its brand of sadism begins and ends with Johnson. Peyton’s “San Andreas” posited the devastation of the West Coast as a catalyst for Johnson’s inexplicable everyman to earn the respect of his family. Similarly, “Rampage” bends over backwards to valorize its star, willfully ignoring the massive death count it uses to do so. The result is a macho lark composed entirely of punchlines, setting up obstacles to be knocked down by its star.
The ceaseless heroism lends the film a family-friendly quippiness that stands in sharp contrast to its larger disregard for the rest of human life. Johnson’s primatologist is a dickish loner whose cruel pranks on new hires plants the seeds for the film’s larger, pseudo-Randian misanthropy. When “Rampage” isn’t glibly slaughtering its characters, it’s marinating them in mockery to make their smoke-out that much juicier. In a world composed of “Game of Thrones” corporate executives nursing Pop-Tarts koozies, prideful and ineffectual military forces, and anonymous digital crowds of killable pedestrians, it’s no wonder that the film only respects its monsters as much as its star. They’re the only ones as big, confident and virile as he is.
As entertaining as its deliriously confused tone is the film’s well-realized disaster sequences. Focusing on the hero shots, Peyton doesn’t have a personality as a filmmaker, yet he remains a fairly accomplished technician. The action is executed through plenty of ready-made CG-assisted long takes that snap together like LEGO bricks. And he makes an absolute meal out of the film’s final act — 30-something minutes of gigantic beasts leveling Chicago with some of the most irresponsibly cartoonish post-9/11 imagery this side of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”
This isn’t to say the public is better for having something so culturally venomous. Rather, “Rampage” is the modern blockbuster’s aesthetic laid perversely bare – widespread carnage and irrational spectacle hand in hand, as if daring the viewer to love both. Anchoring it all is Johnson, continuing to demonstrate his prowess for the ridiculous. He effortlessly snaps a pair of plastic handcuffs, gets shots, fistbumps a gorilla and drives a Ford Bronco.
However, to much chagrin, he does not infect himself to grow as big as the monsters. It’s another effortless star turn, one coated in blood and sweat, and he musters something close to tears fighting for friendship. Though the absurdity begins to plateau by its conclusion, “Rampage” doggedly tries to serve B-movie thrills, and it largely succeeds. See it loud, see it big.
“Rampage” opens on Friday at UA Berkeley 7 .