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“Rampage” Movie Review by Van Roberts

If you didn’t get your fill of colossal robots and chimerical lizards toppling Tokyo skyscrapers in “Pacific Rim Uprising,” you can find something similar in the predictable but winsome sci-fi, creature feature “Rampage” (*** OUT ****) where a gargantuan gorilla, a 30-foot wolf, and a leviathan-shaped alligator flatten Chicago.  Based loosely on Bally Midway’s 1986 video arcade game, this $120-million, Warner Brothers/New Line Cinema release qualifies as a big, dumb, demolition derby with sterling CGI galore.  Outrageously outlandish in every respect, this far-fetched fable benefits from the charisma of lead actor Dewayne Johnson and supporting star Jeffrey Dean Morgan.  Johnson’s commanding presence is literally ‘the Rock’ that allows us to treat “Rampage” as something more than just another paint-by-the-numbers extravaganza.  Johnson plays a primatologist who uses sign language to converse with a rare albino gorilla.  Morgan is cast as a good ole’ boy government trouble shooter.  As arch-villainess Claire Wyden, Malin Akerman infuriates these two, and she shows no qualms about genetic editing in lifeforms.  Owner of a billion-dollar biotech company, Wyden breaks the law without a qualm for her forbidden genetics experiments.  No, Marvel Studios isn’t the only company that has exploited genetic mutation to pump up their plots.  As this deafening, melodramatic, nonsense approaches its climax, the city of Chicago suffers another apocalypse like that in director Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Dark of The Moon.”  British actress Naomie Harris rounds out the cast as one of Claire’s disgraced researchers.

“Rampage” opens in outer space on the Wyden space station Athena-1 where experiments have been performed on lab rats.  As the action unfolds, alarms throughout the space station send one technician, Dr. Kerry Atkins (Marley Shelton of “Planet Terror”), scrambling desperately for an escape pod.  A mutant rat that appears to be the size of a wild boar pursues her.  Claire Wyden locks down the mechanism which enables Atkins to open the door to the escape pod hatch.  While a succession of fireball explosions rocks Athena-1, Claire orders Atkins to retrieve several canisters holding a pathogen known as CRISPR.  According to the film’s preface: CRISPR is “a breakthrough new technology” used by scientists to “treat incurable diseases through genetic editing.”  If she refuses to obey Claire’s demands, Atkins will die aboard the disintegrating platform.  Although Atkins salvages enough canisters, the rat shatters the window in the escape pod door before it jettisons itself.  The craft explodes along with the space station.  Fortunately, for Claire, the canisters survive the deep-freeze temperatures of space, plunge through the atmosphere, and crash in different parts of the United States.

At the San Diego Wildlife Preserve, an albino gorilla named George is the first animal to confront this pathogen.  George has been raised from infancy by muscle-bound primate specialist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson of “Baywatch”), who rescued him from poachers that slaughtered his mom.  Of course, Okoye is no ordinary primatologist.  He has served in the U.S. Army Special Forces, knows how to wield weapons of any kind, and can fly a helicopter.  George grows several times his normal size, demolishes his enclosure, and is poised to flee when a mysterious chopper hovers nearby. A swarm of tranquilizer darts knock him off his knuckles.  No sooner has George collapsed than troops load him onto a military transport plane.  Former Wyden genetic engineer Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris of “Skyfall”), who had rushed to the wildlife preserve after learning about George, finds herself in the custody of OGA Agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of “Watchmen”) along with Okoye.  Russell reveals to Okoye that Claire Wyden fired Caldwell, and the former Wyden scientist served time in prison.  Okoye and Caldwell warn Russell that none of his safeguards will prevent George from escaping from the transport plane.

While George, Davis, and Dr. Caldwell are in flight, two other beasts encounter CRISPR canisters.  The second is a timber wolf that grows large enough to snag a helicopter in its jaws and destroy it.  This savage animal chews up a squad of heavily-armed mercenaries dispatched by Claire to trap it.  The last canister splashes down in the Everglades, and a random alligator crunches it.  Eventually, the gator swells to the size of a “Jurassic Park” dinosaur.  Shrewdly, Claire has devised a means to summon these genetic mutations to her laboratories in the company’s Chicago, Illinois skyscraper.  George awakens in flight, destroys the transport plane, but miraculously survives the crash.  Like Tom Cruise and his leading lady in last summer’s horror adventure “The Mummy,” Davis and Caldwell seize parachutes and bail open, too.  Now, George and the wolf are scrambling to Chicago as well as the mutated gator.

“Rampage” marks the third collaboration between director Brad Peyton and Johnson. Earlier, they made “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” (2012) and then “San Andreas” (2015). If you’ve seen any of the recent alien invasion epics or Godzilla sagas, you can figure out easily what follows next in this rambunctious tale.  Naturally, the military responds with enough firepower to blast Chicago to kingdom come.  The trouble is, nothing slows down this indestructible trio.  Meantime, the FBI raid Claire’s offices, but she cooperates.  Unbeknownst to Uncle Sam, Claire has cleverly concealed her top-secret files.  She gets the surprise of her life when this monstrous trio wreaks havoc in the Windy City and scales her skyscraper to silence her homing beacon.  Dr. Caldwell and Davis aren’t far behind Wyden, and Caldwell locates the antidote that will save George.

Dewayne Johnson compensates for all the ersatz, ‘what-if’ science fiction nonsense with his affable personality. You’ll have more fun watching the Hawaiian hulk than the imposing monsters.  You’ll appreciate Johnson’s compassionate friendship with George that director Brad Peyton amplifies with comedy before disaster strikes.  Their friendship reminded me of the classic 1933 “King Kong” sequel “The Son of Kong.”  Unlike the other two mutated monsters, George never seems as pitiless and predatory. The CGI effects are virtually flawless, so the mutated alligator and the Tex Avery timber wolf appear sufficiently menacing.  “Rampage” ranks as rip-snorting enjoyment.

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