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Monster mash – ‘Rampage’

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Despite its best efforts, Hollywood remains unable to properly transition video game properties to the big screen. There are plenty of obstacles – some obvious, others not so much – and while studios have proven able to overcome many of them, they have yet to fully solve the problems inherent to the necessary shift in storytelling.

So it should come as no surprise that “Rampage,” based on the essentially plotless arcade game of the same name, doesn’t present a particularly compelling narrative. What DOES come as a surprise, however, is that despite the presence of everybody’s favorite action star Dwayne Johnson and some big-budget CGI, “Rampage” isn’t even all that much fun.

Mr. The Rock stars as Davis Okoye, a primatologist working with the gorillas at a San Diego wilderness sanctuary. He’s especially tight with one gorilla in particular, an albino ape named George who possesses a frankly astonishing proclivity with American Sign Language and a weirdly antagonistic sense of humor.

Meanwhile, a corporation called Energyne – run by the brother and sister team of Claire (Malin Akerman, TV’s “Billions”) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy, TV’s “I’m Dying Up Here”) – is running some sort of vaguely explained genetic experiments in space. When the space station blows up, the science goo that they made winds up crashing back down to Earth. One goo vial lands in Wyoming, where it’s discovered by a wolf. Another lands in the Everglades and is eaten by an alligator. The third lands in San Diego, where George finds it.

The goo makes them bigger, stronger, weirder and WAY angrier.

Former Energyne biochemist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, “Moonlight”) makes her way to San Diego in an effort to help prevent disaster, teaming up with Davis to try and help him with the rapidly-growing George. There’s a government presence on the case as well, led by an unrepentant jerk of an agent named Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, TV’s “The Walking Dead”).

The Wydens are looking to find ways to exploit these creatures and salvage their research … and they aren’t the least bit concerned about collateral damage. So it’s up to Davis and Dr. Caldwell to try and figure out how to help George and stop the other monsters – and they just might have to do it all by themselves.

That’s really about it as far as plot goes. Like most video game movies, there’s a decided thinness to the narrative side of things. And that’s perfectly OK – movies like this are more about spectacle than story. It’s a big dumb action movie, after all.

But the real problem with “Rampage” is that it fails to really commit. It should have been either considerably less dumb or a LOT dumber. Instead, it lands in this weird sort of middle ground where it doesn’t really embrace the basic ludicrousness of its conceit, but neither does it make any real effort to transcend that same ludicrousness. By refusing to make a real push in either direction, it winds up undermining itself. It just doesn’t quite click. The film just needed to go darker or go campier – by doing neither, it dooms itself to muddled mediocrity.

The action side of things isn’t bad. There are a few impressive set pieces and I’m always going to be onboard to watch giant monsters knocking over buildings and getting into fights and whatnot. And there are a handful of genuinely funny moments as well. But there are also a lot of half-assed tonal shifts, with quips and brutal (but bloodless – this is PG-13) violence rubbing shoulders in a less than harmonious manner. You’d think director Brad Peyton, with his history of working with Dwayne Johnson, would have a better sense of the right way to use him, but you’d be wrong.

Not even the presence of The Rock is enough to get this one to where it needs to be (although he’s probably the only guy in Hollywood capable of getting it even this close). While his charisma is as dazzling as ever, the middle-of-the-roadness of the proceedings is too much for even him to overcome. Still, he’s engaging as hell to watch, even when things turn into a bit of a slog. There’s literally no one else in the world that I’d rather watch fight alongside/make poop jokes with a giant gorilla.

The supporting cast could not matter less. Harris is fine as Dr. Caldwell, but her presence never moves beyond feeling like a tacked-on plot device. Morgan seems slightly baffled by the whole scene and is basically operating on jerkwad autopilot, but he’s got plenty of a-hole in reserve, so it works well enough. Akerman and Lacy feel woefully miscast as the inexplicably rich evil corporate types – Akerman as the heavy makes zero sense, while it feels like most of Lacy’s arc didn’t make the final cut, leaving him as half-formed comic relief. Oh, and Joe Manganiello has what amounts to an extended cameo that isn’t bad.

“Rampage” isn’t a terrible moviegoing experience. It just isn’t quite as fun as it probably should have been. As video game movies go, however, it’s one of the best of the bunch. Again – the bar is low, but this movie does manage to clear it.

[2.5 out of 5]

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