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Rampage

Year: 2018
Production Co: Bucks Entertainment
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Brad Peyton
Writer: Ryan Engle/Carlton Cuse/Ryan J Condal/Adam Sztykiel
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Ackerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Marley Shelton

Whatever anyone says about Dwayne Johnson – franchise Viagra, the only real movie star left, consummate Hollywood salesman – he knows what he does and does it with Swiss watch precision.

Whether he knows his limitations or these audience-friendly behemoths are just what interests him, he trades on his signature smirk, extreme awareness of his screen presence and persona, self-depreciating sense of humour and enormous biceps and rides them all the way to the top of the box office.

He'll probably never be standing on stage at the Oscars accepting Best Actor for playing a HIV-suffering bipolar mathematics prodigy who finds love (but he stands more of a chance of doing so than plenty of popular actors today and certainly compared to his 80s action era forebears), but he's a lifeline to Hollywood as it tries to maintain long-standing – possibly outdated – notions of movies, stars, theatres and all their attendant trappings.

Looking at his recent back catalouge and future projects (Baywatch, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the Big Trouble in Little China remake, Jungle Cruise) and now this, it seems like the Dwayne Johnson corporate mission is to see what obscure and ill-suited pop culture artefacts he can resurrect and make hit movies out of, almost like he wants to prove that it's him we're there to see, not a remake of a Robin Williams comedy, a creaky 80s TV series, a 16 bit-era video game about giant monsters destroying cities or a Disney theme park ride.

Johnson the man doesn't seem to be about that, but his big, lovable aw-shunks lunk act might be carefully constructed public artifice. He's talked more than once about overcoming depression and deprivation by proving himself (to himself and those around him). But whatever his motivations, you're well served as an audience member because Rampage is written, designed and shot competently and adequately to provide the exciting spectacle you expect and hope for, and nothing more.

The zeitgeist-tapping hook is gene editing technologies like CRISPR, which is being toyed with in an orbiting satellite out of the regulatory reach of Earth in the opening scenes. But things have gone badly wrong. The oversized rat that's resulted from the experiments has got loose, killed all but one of the astronauts on board and now threatens to tear the craft to shreds.

The melee of the astronaut trying to contain samples from the lab sees the satellite destroyed, the canisters of magic green gene-editing dust flung to Earth to crash down in America. One lands in the grassy woodlands of wolf territory, one in the Florida everglades home of alligators, and one is found by George, an orphaned albino gorilla bought up by zoologist David (Johnson), who also happens to know how to fight and fly helicopters because he was also a special forces soldier. Now there's a pivot to a different career for you...

When George gets the gene gas all over him he suffers from two effects – growing to giant size and becoming uncontrollably agressive. Not even his best friend David can calm him down, and when he busts out of his San Diego Zoo home the race is on to save the world.

George and the gigantic wolf we've already seen take out an elite military unit sent to retrieve the canister of gene juice team up and start to head towards Chicago. The top of the Sears Tower is sending out a low level pulse only the giant, genetically mutated animals can hear, calling them towards it.

It's been put there by siblings Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett (Jake Lacy), the evil corporate overlords behind the Rampage project using gene editing to weaponise giant aggressive animals, and when George and Ralph (which a throaway line says people on the internet are calling the wolf, common knowledge if you love the game like I did) reach Chicago, all hell breaks loose.

They're joined by the unnamed mutated alligator (who devotees of the game know as Lizzie) in the river, and the CGI scenes of a big city smashed and crashed by three giant animals are as impressive as anything you've seen from a blockbuster of this magnitude.

In fact it reaches Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice-level carnage and destruction, and more than once I wondered how anyone who still has PTSD about 9/11 responded, especially the scene of Chicago's iconic skyscraper toppling over in a scene of particularly gleeful destruction porn.

What surprised me most about the whole film however was the tone. Owing to the source material I thought it was going to be a lot more comic, and despite some gags that rely on Johnson's Tom Cruise-level smile and bucketloads of charisma it was all played as if three giant mutated beasts really were on the attack. Like the Marvel films do, it balanced an essentially silly premise with as close to a real-world approach as it's probably possible to get.

I use to love the game so much I was excited at the prospect of this movie, like a kid who imagines seeing his figurines and toys comeing to life in some epic adventure. I like to think it didn't bias the way I received it, but I might be wrong. It's an accessible yarn full of spectacle, and you shouldn't expect anything more.

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