With the almost guaranteed success of the bounty-hunter action-comedy "The Rundown," eyebrow-arching, mountain-of-muscle wrestler-cum-actor The Rock may well be on his way to becoming this decade's top-dog action-movie hero -- and I'm OK with that.
Exuding screen charisma, showing increasing talent and never taking himself too seriously (unlike unofficial genre rival Vin Diesel), the guy seems to know what to look for in a good B-movie and enthusiastically embraces all the absurdities therein. In both "The Scorpion King," one of last year's best guilty pleasures, and this over-the-top testosterone romp, he seems to be winking at the audience as if to say, "Yeah, I know it's dumb. But aren't you having a great time?"
The Rock stars in "The Rundown" as an aspiring chef and reluctant enforcer for a ruthless, upscale L.A. bookie. Being a colossus and growing up in a bad part of town, he found himself in this racket for lack of better options, and now he wants out so he can start his own restaurant. After an impressively creative opening-scene nightclub brawl erupts between The Rock and a bunch of linebackers when he tries to collect $50,000 from a gambling-addicted NFL star ("They've got a legitimate shot of repeating this year," he tells his boss. "I don't wanna hurt them!"), our hero is given his chance: The Rock can walk away from his mob job if he goes to South America and drags back the boss's good-for-nothing son (Seann William Scott).
Naturally, that proves to be much easier said than done. He arrives in Brazil to discover the snarky lout is on a treasure hunt for a priceless golden idol and in the process has run afoul of a greedy strip-mine operator (oily, paunchy, entertainingly chomp-chompy Christopher Walken) who has enslaved the local population in an enormous (and cheaply CGI-rendered) quarry.
As these two cat-and-mouse through the authentically sweaty, muddy Amazon with Walken's men in hot pursuit (a creative, panning aerial shot zooms out from one group and down onto the other), they run headlong into a jungle-fu-kicking rebel army lead by a robust babe (Rosario Dawson with a on-again-off-again accent), which leads to one of the movie's many lightning-punching powerhouse fight scenes.
Director Peter Berg ("Very Bad Things") takes his cues from Hong Kong for these punch-outs of enjoyably unrealistic resiliency and refreshingly unkinetic editing, but actually breaks new ground with their high-impact choreography. At first The Rock gets pretty well whooped by the rather diminutive rebels, who kick and punch with hummingbird velocity, sending the burly brute flying into trees with a crunching thud you can feel.
Coordinating between stunt coaches and cinematographer, Berg places the camera where he can get the maximum impact of the sometimes dirty fights (burning tree branch to the head -- owch!) and often captures wow-worthy slow-motion shots of, say, The Rock's punch-spun mass crashing head-first through a brick wall (and emerging largely unscathed, of course).
Eventually the no-nonsense hunter, the smart-alec hunted and the sexy, single-minded rebel girl team up to find the ancient Indian idol (insert blatant "Raiders of the Lost Ark" rip-off here and don't ask how Scott knows where to find it), and defeat the brutal but droll Walken -- although not without a few unpredictable and amusing double-crosses.
But as much fun as "The Rundown" can be thanks to its genuinely inventive fights, its weird sense of humor and The Rock's surprisingly naturally performance, the flick is burdened with a irritating Bon-Jovi-like grinding-guitar score, an extraneous scene or two stuck in lowbrow comedy mode, and dialogue that's not so much hackneyed as torpid and tedious.
"Shut up," Scott bellyaches to The Rock. "What did you just say?" The Rock threatens back. Now, I don't expect a zingy repartee between these guys, but come on -- at least give them something worth saying.
Of course, no matter how insipid his lines are, perma-smirking, hyper-active one-note stoner-dude Scott ("American Pie," etc.) finds a way to make them worse with snide over-acting -- which is a telling contrast of talent against Walken, who chews up his lame dialogue and spits it out funnier than it really is.
But sometimes even when the movie's bad, it's good. A big deal is made of The Rock's no-guns philosophy, which seems like a ridiculous conceit for a violent action movie -- until he gets mad enough to fall off the wagon, leading to a raucous shootout finale (unfortunately interrupted by some sloppy comedy cutaways) with the big guy firing a pair of shotguns as if they were six-shooters.
If The Rock's impending reign as action king continues to be as check-you-brain entertaining as "The Rundown" is despite its flaws, and if his acting continues to improve in a way that Schwarzenegger's and Stallone's never did, I might even be willing to call myself a fan.
Run time: 104 mins
In Theaters: Friday 26th September 2003
Box Office USA: $47.6M
Box Office Worldwide: $80.9M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Fresh: 105 Rotten: 43
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Dwayne Johnson as Beck, Seann William Scott as Travis, Rosario Dawson as Mariana, Christopher Walken as Hatcher, Ernie Reyes, Jr. as Manito, Stephen Bishop as Knappmiller, Ewen Bremner as Declan, Jon Gries as Harvey, William Lucking as Walker
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