Wherever There Was a Way to Mess Up ‘Rampage,’ Someone Found It

Is it truly possible to enter a film with zero expectations? My first inclination is to unequivocally deny this possibility considering genre history and recycled conventions combined with audience’s exponential exposure to said conventions, but it would be additionally irresponsible to ignore the convergence of digital marketing and any given individual’s increased web presence/connectivity by whatever means to the digital world. Perhaps it’s only possible if said individual were a either young child incapable of recognizing storytelling tropes or even possessing the vaguest conception of what a genre is, or a surprisingly disconnected adult walking into an indie flick they’ve learned nothing about due to limited marketing.

When studios strategically plug movies like Rampage into the release calendar, it makes one think of having no expectations as a utopian reality; no longer burdened by the tiny voices in the back of your mind dictating your level of satisfaction. As long as the film turns a profit, however, director Brad Peyton could care less whether or not you’re satisfied. Perhaps Rampage will be the sort of big-budget spectacle that travels well considering its set-piece-first mentality, but if it doesn’t, especially with Avengers: Infinity War coming soon as well as A Quiet Place’s surprisingly high resonance with viewers, maybe Peyton will have hoped for any of the two slim possibilities listed above to spread positive word of mouth.

Rampage is the sort of brainless blockbuster tailor made for limited to no audience expectations that is ultimately undone to varying degrees, depending on the disappointed viewer in question, because of the inevitability of expectations. It’s a prime example for the cynical view of studio executives randomly inserting variables into an algorithm guaranteeing box office success and calling it filmmaking. People generally respond to video game adaptations and gargantuan set-pieces with quality CGI, and The Rock is a relatively bankable star with a consistent, but also undeniably affable screen presence, so why wouldn’t this particular instance of all three components coming together once more be a smash?

Fair play to those who do come away satisfied, however, as it is in and of itself, disregarding the pessimistic view of its being yet another calculated cog in the Hollywood machine, an innocently mindless affair that checks all of the requisite boxes. Dwayne Johnson stays true to the brand he’s cultivated as an action star and a couple of the film’s set-pieces live up to the hype viewers will have set for themselves, ridiculously heightening the ante not just for the movie as a whole, but also within their own confines as an isolated scene.

Though some will understandably consider this a job well done for Peyton and Co., others may find his third collaboration with Johnson undermines even those basic hopes with unnecessary ambitions that unpredictably discount the purpose the source material served. Yes, Rampage is plenty asinine in all of the right places, but in an adaptation of a video game series solely predicated on giant animal-monster administered destruction, Peyton employs an eyebrow-raising, level-headed approach keen on emphasizing the narrative’s dramatic beats along with its reflexive stupidity.

As expected, these two flavors clash in a way that makes it seem as though they’re fighting for dominance of tonal control, and rarely if ever coalesce in a harmonious manner to provide viewers a natural, supplemental attachment to the proceedings and its protagonists. Peyton directs as though he expects his film will be inducted into the legions of cult flicks that unabashedly appropriate genre aesthetics as much as they give their masses of disciples that necessary emotional hook, but the script he works from hasn’t the satisfactory character arcs to make that approach work.

Aside from The Rock’s Davis Okoye and Naomie Harris’s Katherine Caldwell, every major character with some amount of plot influence is left purposefully thin and reduced to caricature-esque depictions easy for their respective performers to effectively accommodate. While that might have been acceptable if both Okoye and Caldwell’s arcs had a discernible payoff, both of their underlying motivations are too under-addressed to have their own effect on the storytelling. They’re essentially shoehorned into a handful of scenes blindly hoping someone, anyone will latch on in spite of their ultimate lack of resolution, and as a result distract from the intended purpose of fitting as much mayhem as a 107-minute movie can stand, not to mention slow our progression towards the awaited inevitable that is the final act’s glorious romp.

One additionally gets the sense that perhaps Peyton’s direction impedes the performers from fully embracing the hopeful self-reflexivity toward their respective character’s shallowness. Harris and Malin Åkerman, god bless them, play their parts with the utmost sincerity without indication toward any awareness of the film they’re in, and though for both it could be the case of their approaching the material wrongly, you could also argue they may have felt boxed in by the material’s stringent reliance on Caldwell’s emotional backstory and Åkerman’s Claire Wyden as a hyperbolized representation of ruthless capitalism meeting equally callous science.

You get what you’ve always paid for with The Rock’s portrayal of Okoye, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s self-anointed cowboy-ish Harvey Russell is a peculiar point of intrigue for the best and most disappointing reasons. Specifically, for every moment he exaggerates Russell’s entertainingly slick machismo flair, there’s a scene in which he reins it in whenever the narrative, or Peyton, deems it superfluous. It’s as though Peyton and the plethora of hands putting pen to paper on this adaptation had little understanding of the source material they agreed to morph into your average spectacle.

Sure, what they get right they nail, but does that overshadow the ancillary injections that have no business being there, which they get wrong anyway? In some scenes, you can see the Rampage arcade game in the distant background, but here it feels less like a callback and more like an apparition haunting this doomed affair. Rampage was a preexisting IP without the need for a studio executive algorithm, because who needs to or could overthink a film in which monstrous animals of genetic manipulation reduce cityscapes to rubble while bashing each other to submission? Apparently, Warner Bros./New Line and their hired hands could, and for the time being, their expectations of a pre-summer financial triumph are up in the air.

2/5

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