Why San Andreas and Rampage Are Good Dwayne Johnson Action Hero Movies

It’s hard to decide which of Dwayne Johnson’s movies is the “biggest” — and what that means is definitely subjective for a man whose physique has its own mountain range — but after fighting genetically-mutated animals and an earthquake that knocks out most of the West Coast, San Andreas and Rampage certainly rank towards the top. Indeed, those two Warner Bros. films deliver the full Dwayne Johnson action hero experience, especially as a solo star, unlike virtually any of his others, propelled by his unequaled charm, imposing physicality, and a vulnerability that gives his heroism dimensionality.

And it’s easy to relive both of these films. As part of the Movies Anywhere ‘Biggest. Offer. Ever.’, for one week only (from April 6th through April 12th), you can purchase from thousands of movies and choose an eligible bonus movie*. So if you purchase Rampage, you can choose San Andreas as your bonus movie.

San Andreas marked the second time that Johnson worked with director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), and the duo hit their stride with this adventure about a helicopter pilot who embarks on a mission to rescue his wife and daughter after a 9.1 magnitude earthquake devastates Los Angeles and San Francisco. Filmmakers have prophesied “The Big One” for decades, but Peyton’s technical pedigree gives the destruction powerful, palpable scope, while Johnson embodies a man with the skill and determination to fight back against the possibility of devastating loss. Playing Ray Gaines, Johnson makes us understand instantly why he would abandon his post to save his daughter and estranged wife, and then makes us believe that he could pull off not just one but a series of death-defying feats as he travels by helicopter, truck, plane and finally boat before the unimaginable ordeal is done.

Certainly it helps that he works with two actors with whom he worked, and would work again with multiple times: Carla Gugino (Faster) as his wife Emma, and Alexandra Daddario as his daughter Blake. Johnson and Gugino share an easy and familiar chemistry that makes you believe they both were together, and share a connection even if terms aren’t as good as they once were; and Daddario has more than enough natural toughness and common sense to be a relative of his rough-and-tumble disposition. But the action unfolds like a set-piece buffet: Johnson helps mount a dangerous air rescue in a narrow canyon; he retrieves Emma from the top of a skyscraper as it literally collapses; they eventually crash, but he steals a truck they trade for an airplane; they parachute out of the plane as the largest recorded earthquake in history hits; and finally, he commandeers a boat that he races over the crest of a tsunami in order to sail it into a building and save Blake. If you’re not completely exhausted by the end, you should be.

By the time Johnson and Peyton reunited for Rampage, not only did they have their own previous successes under their belts, but a few others as well, emboldening them as they adapted the Midway arcade game about three mutated animals — two of which were not to be confused with Kong, Godzilla — who wreak havoc in Chicago. Much like in San Andreas, Johnson plays what you might call an “exceptional everyman” — a guy with an incredibly specific set of skills who’s happy at his day job until being called into service for a higher purpose. In this case, Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a primatologist and former US Army Special Forces soldier who communicates via sign language with a rescued albino gorilla named George until the animal gets exposed to pathogens that increase his size, and his rage, about a hundredfold.

Johnson’s sense of humor is on full display in early scenes as well as his steady hand as a star on screen; working opposite a CGI animal along with his human co-stars, he strikes the right notes of levity and authority, especially once the danger George presents forces the military to consider — well, attempt — to detain and euthanize him. Perhaps without enough aerial sequences to his credit at that point, Johnson figures heavily in a centerpiece sequence where George goes berserk while they are on an airplane, destroying the plane and endangering his and his human companions’ lives; it offers a great showcase for Johnson’s physicality, this time more by literally making him seem tiny opposite the CGI beast and making him the underdog, so to speak. Johnson, as always, is bigger than life, but he knows how best to use vulnerability to his advantage, especially with regard to Davis’ sincere concern for George’s well-being.

As for the CGI animals, Peyton gives them plenty of opportunities to wreak havoc, with some masterfully-rendered large-scale destruction — which it must be noted, is brutally violent for a PG-13 movie. In fact, the only place where Peyton really falters is in minimizing references to the game upon which the film is based; but then again, that game itself was kind of a Frankensteinian hybrid of old-school monster movies, making this adaptation’s departures feel like some sort of full-circle gesture to liberate its ideas from a derivative foundation. Otherwise, the accumulation of monster mayhem places Johnson in the catbird seat as George squares off against a mutated wolf, Ralph, and a crocodile, Lizzy, who develop some unusual abilities making the action that much more complicated. (As if reversing the order of some of the best beats from San Andreas, Johnson crashes a helicopter after parachuting out of an airplane, but the bravado of the filmmaking, and Johnson’s authoritative presence makes both seem fresh all over again.)

Ultimately, however, what makes these two films such a delicious double feature — and a comprehensive action hero experience for Dwayne Johnson — is the way it foregrounds him as an old-school leading man, and then creates a larger than life scenario that dwarves him by comparison. He’s still the hero we love to watch, but we get to watch him start from a place of disadvantage, a situation that effectively “normalizes” him after decades as the biggest character and personality on screen. And even if audiences don’t quite come away from San Andreas and Rampage thinking they can accomplish all of these tremendous feats of heroism, these films’ portrayals, and his performances, not only convinces us that Johnson can, but makes us glad he’s there doing them so that we don’t have to.

Enjoy these exceptional films at home, but act quickly, as the Movies Anywhere ‘Biggest. Offer. Ever.’ ends on April 12th.

*LIMITED TIME ONLY. RESTRICTIONS APPLY. Offer expires at 11:59 PM EDT on April 12, 2021. Registration with Movies Anywhere required. Open to U.S. residents 13+. You must purchase a Movies Anywhere-eligible movie from a digital retailer that is linked to your Movies Anywhere account. For complete details, visit MoviesAnywhere.com/bonusoffer.

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About The Author
Todd Gilchrist (17 Articles Published)

Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Birth.Movies.Death and Nerdist. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.

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