Ape-quake: "Rampage" dumb as a box of rocks but a lot of monsters-run-amok fun

Rampage (2018) 
107 min., rated PG-13.

Based on the 1986 arcade game of the same name, “Rampage” is a no-brainer, big and dumb as a box of rocks but executed with an unapologetic sense of fun that it delivers exactly what audiences came for. Director Brad Peyton (2015’s “San Andreas”) and star Dwayne Johnson are on-brand here, as the former helmed the latter in saving his family from an earthquake and now throws him into an amped-up “Mighty Joe Young” monsters-run-amok picture. The downright silly plot doesn’t really warrant the screenplay being written by four scribes (Ryan Engle and Carlton Cuse & Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel), but of the video-game adaptations starring Dwayne Johnson, “Rampage” is leaps and bounds better than 2005’s “Doom,” earning more smiles than groans. It counts as a guilty pleasure, but why feel guilty about something so pleasurable?

San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-Special Forces ranger, prefers animals over humans so much that his best friend is George, an albino silverback gorilla, whom he signs with to communicate and even fist-bumps. After a DNA-weaponizing canister pathogen falls from space and lands in the San Diego gorilla habitat (natch), George is exposed to it and grows vastly in size and aggressive to the point that he attacks and kills the grizzly bears. Enter Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a geneticist who left Energyne, the company behind the canisters, when DNA was being used for the wrong reasons and then incarcerated, and she knows there is an antidote that could help George. Meanwhile, over in Chicago, Energyne CEOs and siblings Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacey) are the ones who have used their CRISPR genetic-editing  technology, under Operation Rampage, to solve incurable diseases. They send in military to locate where two other canisters have landed, but a wolf in a Wyoming forest and a crocodile in the Everglades have already mutated. What could possibly go wrong?

In a jolting opening sequence, an astronaut (Marley Shelton) floats in a panic to safety in a space station, littered with her dead crew and a mutant rodent on the loose, but she ends up meeting her maker anyway. “Rampage” doesn’t get much less absurd from there, but it’s never boring, and that’s surely something. Director Brad Peyton competently stages most of the action, from George breaking out of his sanctuary, to a canister retrieval in Wyoming, led by scarred mercenary Burke (a briefly used Joe Manganiello), that turns awry, to the film culminating in mass destruction of Chicago as the three animals, well, rampage to get to the sonar signal at the top of the Wydens' skyscraper headquarters and Davis safely crashes a helicopter.

Playing to type as the macho but good-hearted and poacher-hating Davis Okoye, Dwayne Johnson leads the charge and secures a surprisingly engaging (and even sweet) dynamic with his computer-generated pal George (a motion-captured Jason Liles). There isn’t a lot for Johnson to delve into as Davis, besides his characteristic of getting along with animals more than humans and a backstory to why he specifically despises poachers, but the actor is a movie star and embraces the material with charisma and humor, and who hasn’t wanted to finally see a movie where he’s friends with an animal nearly as brawny as he is? Naomie Harris, who gets to have fun after putting in such raw, wrenching work in 2016's “Moonlight,” shows her lighter side as Dr. Kate Caldwell, even though her character comes with a sad backstory involving her ailing brother. As the initial antagonist, a colorfully hammy Jeffrey Dean Morgan relishes in the part and Southern accent of enemy-turned-ally Agent Harvey Russell—“When science shits the bed, I’m the one they call to change the sheets,” he says—and delivers it with cowboy charm and swagger. It is debatable whether Malin Akerman and Jake Lacey as powerful, impeccably dressed Claire and cowardly, dimwitted Brett Wyden are on the same page in giving cartoonish or just awful performances, but rest assured, one cannot wait for these cardboard baddies to get their just desserts.

Besides a montage of crying civilians in the Windy City following the film's raison d'être of genetically oversized animals doing damage, "Rampage" doesn't take itself seriously, mostly sustaining a jokey, knowingly goofy tone without turning into a so-bad-it's-great creature feature that regularly premieres on the Syfy Channel. Not a bastion of great or even plausible storytelling, nor are the effects on the realistic, state-of-the-art level of 2017’s “War for the Planet of the Apes” and its two predecessors, “Rampage” knows what kind of movie it is and makes sure audiences just have a rollicking good time without totally insulting their intelligence. It’s pretty clear what the makers were going for when an ape gives the middle finger and slides his finger in and out of his fist.

Grade: B -