3 stars (out of 4)
Pro wrestler The Rock (real name: Dwayne Johnson), star of the ridiculous but highly profitable barbarian epic "The Scorpion King," is back with a second major-studio vehicle, "The Rundown." And this time, he scores at more than just the box office.
If "The Scorpion King" was a mammoth hit despite being a pretty bad movie, "The Rundown," better in every way, should temporarily propel The Rock through the roof.
"The Scorpion King," which grossed more than $400 million worldwide, was a dopey Egyptian epic chock full of sweaty fistfights, beefcake, babes and self-kidding mumbo-jumbo. But "The Rundown" is different. It's a big, rowdy, high-spirited contemporary action movie (with laughs) about a professional "retrieval expert," Beck, who is chasing down a rich crook's errant son (Seann William Scott) in the Brazilian rain forest and comes face to face with a sultry, indomitable rebel leader (Rosario Dawson) and a vicious, tyrannical gold-mine king (Christopher Walken).
As one would expect, the movie spits out one pyrotechnic chase, bloody slugfest and gunfight after another, with minimal regard to logic and maximum dependence on wish fulfillment and smashing fight choreography (by Andy Cheng of "Scorpion King"). But the formulas work much better this time out, and The Rock cuts a more dashing figure in L.A. Armani chic. He looks better (or at least less campy) in a suit, and he also has better antagonists and sidekicks.
"The Rundown" has what we usually want to see in movies like this: bravura action, tongue-in-cheek humor, but most of all attitude - precisely the quality Johnny Depp gave this summer's surprise action hit "Pirates of the Caribbean."
The Depp equivalent in "Rundown" is Scott, an actor who got every chuckle possible out of the lewd-rascal Stifler role in the "American Pie" movies. Here, he plays his character, Travis, as a fast-talking, baloney-tossing adventurer, full of sass and con. Travis is a good foil for The Rock's Beck, a charming monolith of almost apologetic unbeatability. When we first see Beck, he's retrieving a gambling debt from a betting-addict quarterback who makes the mistake of dissing the collector and receives Beck's trademark warning of a choice between "Plan A" ("Give me the money") and "Plan B" ("I make you give it to me"). Carnage ensues; the quarterback winds up getting himself and much of his offensive line smashed to smithereens.
As for Travis, he has apparently stayed too long and incurred too many debts in his latest Brazilian adventure. Travis' crooked, brutal dad, Billy Walker (William Lucking), has promised Beck both freedom and his contract (and a healthy bonus) if he takes on one last job and brings the kid back.
That Beck does, against iridescent, Discovery Channel-style jungle backdrops set in Brazil (but shot in the Hawaiian rain forests), but not before running into Mariana (Dawson) and her jungle guerrillas. That group is waging fierce rebellion against the lazily sadistic Hatcher (Walken), a gold-mine owner who's exploiting the entire native population with ruthless pizzazz. And while Beck gets mixed up in the revolution with sexy Mariana, he also discovers that Travis has located an ancient, immensely valuable jungle artifact also coveted by everybody. The rest of the movie consists of the business-as-usual, zestily done, with more good humor than we'd normally expect.
What makes an action movie click? Usually the stories are so similar, the formulas so ironclad and the jokes so stale that you feel as if you've been watching the same movie over and over - and in a way, you have been. That's why even a hint of freshness and zip in the moviemaking and acting - which is what you get in "The Rundown" - is so welcome. In the first debt-collection sequence, where Beck observes such tact and gentlemanly restraint before bashing everyone's brains in, director Berg and writers R.J. Stewart and James Vanderbilt set the joshing, playful tone for the entire movie.
Berg seems to be having as good a time as the actors. A former actor himself, he played the schnook male lead opposite scheming Linda Fiorentino in John Dahl's classic femme-fatale film noir "The Last Seduction," and he also directed "Very Bad Things," a "Reservoir Dogs" crime comedy that was tasteless but daring. If Berg were acting in this movie, he'd probably be playing Travis, and that may be one reason he plays up Scott's role so much. But the shared spotlight helps the movie, as does the hipsterish self-mockery with which Walken infuses Hatcher, a crook with a phony social conscience.
Playing against Scott's Travis and Walken's Hatcher (and, less successfully, Ewen Bremner of "Trainspotting" as the crazy Scottish pilot Declan), The Rock becomes more impressive on screen than he was in "Scorpion King." With Walken and Scott taking care of the laughs for him, he gets to react more, which gives his character more menace and style.
Presence is something The Rock has aplenty, and the movie even makes a joke of it in the first restaurant-disco scene, where Beck suddenly passes an intent-looking Arnold Schwarzenegger, who flashes him a smile worthy of a governor's race. It's not exactly a torch-passing moment - and I'm not sure it's a torch worth passing - but at least it signals the movie isn't going to take itself too seriously. It doesn't.
I wouldn't recommend "The Rundown" to any movie lover who doesn't at least like big action blockbusters. But anybody who does should run it down. For fun and money, this is definitely The Rock's biggest roll.
Directed by Peter Berg; written by R.J. Stewart, James Vanderbilt; photographed by Tobias Schliessler; edited by Richard Pearson; production designed by Tom Duffield; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; music supervised by Amanda Scheer-Demme; produced by Kevin Misher, Marc Abraham, Karen Glasser. A Universal Pictures/Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday, Sept. 26. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: PG-13 (adventure violence and some crude dialogue).
Beck - The Rock
Travis - Seann William Scott
Mariana - Rosario Dawson
Hatcher - Christopher Walken
Declan - Ewen Bremner
Harvey - Jon Gries