Audiences like Dwayne Johnson because he’s reliable – not necessarily in the quality of his movies (although most of them are truly entertaining) but rather in the roles he takes. He’s got several constants: His character is reliably good-natured even when he’s crotchety; his physique is superhuman, both as attraction and ample joke fodder; most importantly, he usually plays down-to-earth characters whose motivation is never saving the world, just his world.
It’s maybe the last one that Johnson understands most innately as a storyteller: His movies never challenge audiences with moral complexity or any auteur’s eye, but they entertain (almost) each and every time by telling likable stories about likable characters with relatable motivations beneath the mayhem. Rampage, I think, is the best of them. In most of his movies he has a community or a wife and daughter to save, but in Rampage he finally finds his truest match: a 200-foot gorilla named George.
Rampage is based on the classic arcade game about smashing big cities while you play as even bigger animals. The lizard (Lizzie), the gorilla (George) and the wolf (Ralph) all play off classic kaiju motifs; each started life as regular animals and found themselves mutated by a “genetic editing” accident as part of Project Rampage. Naturally, a movie just about smashing and destruction has no real story, so here Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a badass primatologist who rescued George as an infant and raised him at the San Diego Zoo. After George is mutated and escapes, Okoye allies himself with scientist Kate Caldwell (Naomi Harris) and government agent Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to stop Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy), the evil scientists behind Project Rampage, save George and stop the destruction of Chicago.
The trailers highlight Johnson’s relationship with George and rightfully so; few actors have ever created such an enchanting relationship with a CGI Beast of Mass Destruction. The pool is small, but there you go. They communicate via sign language and have a system of inside jokes that allow the two to pull off some crowd-pleasing punchlines and character beats. Maybe it’s because Johnson himself, a living mountain of muscle, has a presence that is more than that just a mere man, as George is more than mere Gorilla – but the two really create a friendship for the ages. The Rampage games introduced several new monsters in the sequels and one is very, very heavily hinted at throughout this movie. Give me more of these two.
There is no doubt that the plot of Rampage doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny, but I don’t eat an ice cream sundae expecting a nutritional experience. “Why are there M&Ms in this if you already have hot fudge, graham crackers, and three types of ice cream?” I see the problems with using this analogy, and the way it opens up questions about the integrity of film criticism as a whole: If you can’t attack a movie on some objective level, what is the purpose of amateur film criticism? What are you really telling the audience looking for your opinion if your opinion is a shrug or based entirely on your basic enjoyment of a movie that doesn’t meet a scalable level of quality?
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not shrugging off Rampage, or arguing it’s a “turn your brain off, leave me alone” kind of movie. Stories are more than their construction, more than the sum of their visible parts. I’ve interacted with a lot of friends and writers who see plot as the most basic barometer by which to judge a story, and a movie is “good” or “bad” if that plot does or does not “make sense.” I guess that matters less and less to me as I get older, as I see more movies and read more books.
It comes down to whether a movie succeeds at telling the kind of story it sets out to tell. Rampage sets out to tell a story about Dwayne Johnson, his friendship with George, and a couple big monsters destroying Chicago. Under two hours, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, the humor is earnest, the action deliciously well choreographed. As far as modern American kaiju movies go, it’s easily my favorite. It lacks the pretension of Pacific Rim and the utterly garbage choreography and characters of Pacific Rim: Uprising. It’s more consistently fun than Godzilla and less scatterbrained than Kong: Skull Island (both films I like a lot).
It’s mindless at times but filled with the heart you’ve come to expected from Johnson’s best roles. He’s a 21st-century leading man, whose attraction is that he understand how to tell stories. The closest actor with so much *self* put into his blockbusters is Tom Cruise, but his most consistent attribute is that he’s trapped in the ’90s ideal of a leading man and can’t stop make movies that feel all about him. Johnson gets the job done while displaying a much keener understanding about how to tell human stories than Cruise; unlike his predecessors, you walk into a Johnson movie knowing they’re first and foremost about satisfying the audience sans ego.
Sometimes it’s OK to sit back and enjoy something reliable, particularly when part of the pleasure is appreciating just how good the big man on the screen is at his job — which is centered around helping you forget about everything else for two entertaining hours at a time.