Early into Peter Berg’s still-fantastic 2003 action/comedy “The Rundown,” Dwayne Johnson walks into a bar (stop me if you’ve heard this one)  and bumps into Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ah-Nuld taps Johnson on the shoulder, says “Have fun in there” and literally walks out of Johnson’s movie. The moment is a symbolic gesture on Schwarzenegger’s part, as he was literally passing the Action Movie Hero torch over to Johnson. It felt premature at the time, as Johnson was billed only as The Rock (his WWE character) and had made just a couple of movies. Now, that scene seems almost historical, as Johnson truly has become the kind of household name, beloved action superstar, fitness/hard work guru, All-American success story and likable man’s man that the former Governator was in his prime. Unfortunately, if Johnson has followed Schwarzenegger’s movie path, then he’s currently in the “Jingle All the Way” phase of his career.

“Rampage” is Johnson’s second video game movie and only a slight improvement over the obnoxious “Doom” adaptation he made in 2005. Here, Johnson plays a warrior-turned-zoo-primatologist who cares for George, a gorilla who grows to an enormous size. Thanks to a flurry of space junk, George and two other creatures become the size of buildings and thrash everything in their path to smithereens. Thankfully, the world can be saved by a scientist (Naomie Harris, slumming it big time) and an off-the-grid agent (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, clearly trying to be Billy Bob Thornton)…but really, you only need Dwayne Johnson.

I have no idea who this movie is for. The dialog is terrible from start to finish but, since this initially seems like a children’s film, I was willing to forgive the awful quips and enjoy the monster mash. Despite the sentimental relationship George has with Johnson, “Rampage” has a real mean streak. The PG-13 rating appears to have been achieved after chopping this down from an R; note Johnson’s sanitized F-bomb, how the camera cuts away from graphic dismemberments and the gigantic body count. Johnson co-produced and certainly knows how to entertain but he misjudged his audience this time.

Fans of the game this is based on will note that the arcade version is visible in the background of one scene and how the extended climax recreates some of the game’s highlights. “Rampage” is livelier than “Pacific Rim: Uprising” and has a couple of good action sequences (the best of which features Joe Manganiello). As the movie progresses, it not only becomes relentlessly stupid but truly dubious.  There’s an out-of-place, too-dark flashback scene where George witnesses his parents being slaughtered by poachers. Then, there’s a massive skyscraper collapsing, followed by clouds of smoke and debris, with survivors running to one another in slow motion. The target audience for “Rampage” may be too young to remember 9/11, but the imagery (as well as the roughness of the violence) is so on-the-nose and grim, it kills what an easygoing escapist romp Johnson seems to think this is.

I really like Johnson but I’m worried about his movie choices, many of which are lousy sequels to dead franchises that he carries entirely on his massive shoulders. At some point, audiences will note (and possibly mock) how Johnson seems to be playing the exact same guy, wearing the exact same white t-shirt and walking through all of his movies in the exact same what-me-worry manner. That day will come but, for now, here’s hoping someone gives him some better career advice.

Johnson will get away with “Rampage,” just as he grinned his way through “Baywatch,” “Hercules,” “G.I. Joe Retaliation” and a lot of other watchable but moronic movies. At this point, his high points are “The Rundown” and “Moana.” What he needs is a “Terminator” or “Total Recall,” a chance to work with a great director and a great script. According to Johnson’s overstuffed IMDB page, Johnson is currently making a movie out of the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland. I wonder if he’s also thinking about playing Mr. Freeze.

One and a Half Stars

-originally published in Maui Time Weekly