Charisma forgives many sins. In film, especially, it can gloss over just about everything, from a dull storyline to glaring plot holes. Even terrible dialogue can be salvaged if the person delivering it has enough personality. And right now in Hollywood, there is no greater force of personality than Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The man is a strategic reserve of charm, sweating out more charisma in a 20 minute gym session than most people possess in a lifetime. Alas, not even he can save Rampage.
Based on the 1986 arcade game of the same name, Rampage is another entry into the Big Dumb Fun genre – except for the fact that it's critically lacking in Fun. Like the source material, the movie's story centres upon several animals being exposed to a genetic editing vapour that rapidly transforms them into giant, city-destroying monsters. Chief amongst these creatures is George, an albino gorilla rescued from poachers and raised by his protector, Davis Okoye (Johnson). It is during this duo's few quiet, tender moments that Rampage is at its strongest, giving the story heart and Johnson his only decent lines ("The poachers shot at us, and missed. I shot back…and didn't"). Mostly, though, Rampage is a movie about people shooting at massive monsters and those monsters fighting back.
To be clear, blockbusters like this have their place. Kong: Skull Island, the original Pacific Rim and the most recent Godzilla film are three fine examples of the genre done right. They each embraced their absurd premise and treated it with the same care and consideration you'd see in a period drama, offering their audiences fleshed-out characters, coherent stories and dialogue that does more than simply tell us what's happening (or what's about to). In Rampage, on the other hand, nearly every piece of key character information is literally read off a tablet in a single scene, while the scientific and technical jargon is crammed into a few ludicrous sentences that no human would ever actually say. It's the laziest form of writing and embraces every cliché in the book, from TV news reports conveniently filling in plot gaps, to the absurd corporate villains spending most of their time simply explaining to each other what they're doing as if all of their years of prior planning somehow came together without an actual discussion.
In the lead role, Johnson does his level best to keep things grounded, but finds himself consistently hampered by braindead dialogue that rarely rises above "dude this" or "bro that" (at one point he actually gets shot in the gut only to reappear moments later and pass it off by suggesting it "probably missed all of his vital organs". He then comfortably pilots a helicopter, flirts with the girl and sprints through collapsing skyscrapers). Naomie Harris, for her part, has one sincere bit of backstory that briefly elevates the plot into something compelling, while Jeffrey Dean Morgan (another charismatic powerhouse) can't be accused of holding back in his wildly over-the-top performance as the Texan cowboy turned secret government agent. Their combined scenes at least give Rampage some degree of credibility – although whatever good work they do is fast undone by Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy as the inexplicably villainous villains high up in their penthouse office.
Rampage is a movie about big things tearing down buildings, and that's fine. But unless you're made to actually care about the people inside those buildings, then the stakes are about the same as watching toddlers stomp on sand-castles: pretty soon you just want the tide to come in and wash it all away.