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Rampage’ Delivers Kaiju-Style Monsters

Video game adaptation is surprisingly fun

Photo caption: Japan understands kaiju or giant monsters. Here is a poster for one of Toho's...

Photo credit: Toho/Warner Brothers

Japan understands kaiju or giant monsters. Here is a poster for one of Toho's Godzilla movies and the Japanese poster for Warner Brothers "Rampage." It's all about the monsters.

Companion viewing

"Mighty Joe Young" (1949)

"Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters" (1968)

"Godzilla: Final Wars" (2004)

"Crank 2: High Voltage" (2009)

Sometimes going into a film with low expectations can lead to pleasant surprises. Case in point: “Rampage.”

“Rampage” was a 1986 Midway video game inspired by Japanese kaiju film where you got to play as one of three monsters: George, a King Kong-like giant ape; Lizzie, a Godzilla-like lizard; and Ralph, a gigantic werewolf. All three monsters were once human. George and Ralph were transformed by experimental vitamins or food additives whereas Lizzie, paying homage to her Godzilla inspiration, owes her origins to a radioactive lake.

The game was simple: survive by reducing cities to rubble.

Photo caption: A frame grab of the Midway video game "Rampage."

Photo credit: Midway Games

A frame grab of the Midway video game "Rampage."

Hollywood has had a difficult time adapting video games to film. It never seems to know what to do. So filmmakers try to put you in the first person shooter position as in “Doom,” but seemed to forget that film doesn’t allow the audience the thrill of actually being in control of the character whose point of view they have.

Studios have tried big budgets (“Prince of Persia”), excellent actors (“Assassin’s Creed”), looking to lesser known games (“In the Name of the King”), going for the weird (“Super Mario Bros.”) and nothing has really seemed to work. There are some that are fun, like the first “Mortal Combat” or the campy “Street Fighter.”

Being only a casual gamer, I may not be the best person to judge video game movies. But I think the two films that best capture what the video game experience is like are “Crank 2: High Voltage" and “Hardcore Henry.” Neither was based directly on a video game but both captured the feel of following a character through crazy action.

In “Crank 2” the Jason Statham character would die and then recharge his heart to come back to life in a manner reminiscent of video games. Plus the visual style of the film felt very much like traveling through a game universe.

“Hardcore Henry,” on the other hand, kept the entire film to a first-person point of view and even though we as viewers had no control over the character we did experience everything from his point of view, and the action was so well staged and shot that we got a buzz of adrenaline from his adventures.

Photo caption: Poster art for the video game film "Rampage."

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Poster art for the video game film "Rampage."

When I heard that actor Dwayne Johnson was going to partner again with his “San Andreas” director Brad Peyton to bring the game to the screen, I have to confess that I had no interest in the film. I was thoroughly unimpressed by Peyton’s “San Andreas” so I went into “Rampage” thinking it would be dumb with maybe a cool monster. Maybe. But I was pleasantly surprised.

“Rampage” is the closest any American movie has ever come to capturing the feel of a Japanese kaiju or giant monster movie. These monsters can’t be stopped by mere man or any of his silly weapons. Only another monster — like a Godzilla or a Mothra — can possibly save Earth. In this case, we get a giant ape and the human version of kaiju, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, fighting for the planet.

The fact that “Rampage” works as a film feels like some weird fluke or alchemy. The film version of Midway’s “Rampage” doesn’t adhere closely to the video game in any way. But it smartly assesses what it was about the game that people loved and what aspect of that it could replicate in a film. What it keeps is the epic scale of the monsters and smashing things up.

But since it’s a film, just having three monsters destroy everything in sight and kill people doesn’t work well as a plot. So the studio set a quartet of writers to whip up a script.

Three of them are responsible for some of the dumbest films of recent memory: Ryan Engle writing “Non-Stop” and “Commuter,” Ryan J. Condal responsible for the 2014 “Hercules,” and Adam Sztykiel having scripted “Due Date” and “Made of Honor.” But one of the writers, Carlton Cuse, worked on the brilliant “Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” as well as smarter than average shows such as “The Bates Motel” and “The Strain.” The result is a script that understands that the plot needs to be simple, and we do need a human character to identify with. They also try to add in some politically correct messages about animal conservation and corporate greed, which is commendable.

But the film owes its success to the fact that it translates the game to the screen by keeping the rampaging monsters and letting one, the ape George, be friends with a human, Johnson’s Davis Okoye. So we get all the destruction we loved in the game while also tapping into what every kid secretly (or not so secretly) craves — being best buddies with a giant creature.

Photo caption: Dwayne Johnson is a primatologist who faces off against a government agent pl...

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Dwayne Johnson is a primatologist who faces off against a government agent played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan in "Rampage."

The script falls short on giving us worthy villains. The siblings that run the evil corporation responsible for the mutated beasts are merely run of the mill (although the film delivers very satisfying fates for them). But where the film does score a win is in the character of Harvey Russell, a government agent with a cowboy swagger and played to the hilt by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. I have always felt that Morgan had a charisma that Hollywood was not exploiting so it is satisfying to see him get a role that he can have fun with. And I’ll just go ahead and credit “Brisco” writer Cuse with giving him his smart-ass lines.

George is the best rendered of the three monsters in terms of consistent CGI. He can be big and scary but also displays a sense of humor well-matched to Johnson. But the Lizzie-lizard in the one with the most visually impressive look as the biggest and most mutated of the three. The giant wolf is the least impressive in terms of the CGI work, but then he does surprise us with flying squirrel wings.

“Rampage” is by no means great filmmaking, but it does tap into the kaiju-inspired source of the video game to deliver what the 12-year-old in me loves: crazy big monsters destroying everything in their path.

Sometimes going into a film with low expectations can lead to pleasant surprises. Case in point: “Rampage.”

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