Dwayne Johnson’s career is an enigma. It’s been mentioned before, most eloquently in Agent Bedhead’s career assessment, but he’s got all of the tools to be a Hollywood superstar. He’s handsome, built like a Greek god, funny, self-effacing, and a pretty decent actor with a natural combination of physical strength and solid comedic timing. He also starred in The Tooth Fairy and The Game Plan, two brutally unfunny films. Go figure. 2003’s The Rundown was meant to be Johnson’s second big film (the first being the terrible The Scorpion King), and should have firmly established him as the leader of the next generation of action superstars. Instead, it didn’t make its money back, and he’s inexplicably settled into a series of roles in drab comedies and uninspired family-friendly PG fare.
Which is a shame, because The Rundown is an absolute blast. It’s big, dumb, goofy fun, some of the best I can remember in the last few years. Directed by Peter Berg, it stars Johnson as Beck, a “retrieval specialist” who works for a mobster as essentially a glorified legbreaker. The film opens with a madcap fight scene in a crowded club between Beck and an entire professional football team’s offensive line, and it perfectly sets the scene for what’s to come. Beck is eventually dispatched to Brazil to retrieve the mobster’s errant son Travis (Seann William Scott), who is seeking fortune and glory in the form of an ancient statue called El Gato, while carefully navigating the dangerous town of El Dorado (nicknamed Helldorado, which was at one point the film’s title). El Dorado, you see, is a gold mining town, which basically owns the local population of indigenous people and forces them into hard labor for a few cents an hour. Its devilish master, Hatcher (Christopher Walken, in a sort of Vincenzo Coccotti-meets-Rene Belloq role) wants to use Travis to get the Gato for himself, while the local barrista/ people’s revolutionary Marianna (Rosario Dawson) wants to use it to save her people.
That’s really all there is to it. The Rundown sets the simplest of plots, much of which is borrowed from a half-dozen other films, and then simply takes the leash off its actors. The threadbare storyline is there only to provide a framework for lightning-fast jokes, insanely choreographed fight scenes, and lush, verdant scenery (it’s actually filmed in Hawaii) all combine for a thoroughly enjoyable film, even if it’s a little dumb. OK, it’s a lot dumb — there’s no plot point that isn’t telegraphed, and it’s utterly predictable. The only real breath of fresh air, plot-wise, was writer R.J. Stewart’s decision to not have a romantic subplot, which is hard to believe given the knee-wilting hotness of Rosario Dawson (to say nothing of Johnson and yes, even Scott). The film’s foreshadowing operates with all the subtlety of a flying elbow drop, whether it be Beck’s claim that he no longer uses guns (guess what happens in the finale) or everyone claiming to be out for their own interest (spoiler! they become friends and help each other).
But frankly, I just didn’t care. The movie is sold on sheer, unbridled silliness, and note-perfect performances. It’s got this sort of bizarre Treasure Of The Sierra Madre-after-a-blow-to-the-head charm that’s undeniable. Johnson is charismatic and clever as tough guy Beck, Dawson is suitably sultry but not too coquettish, instead playing up the tough chick role, Scott is amusingly annoying (or vice-versa, I’m not sure), and Walken is Walken. He can play these roles in his sleep by now (and sometimes appears to be doing just that), the oddball badguy with no conscience and a stilted, almost Shakespearean cadence. He chews through his lines like they’ve got peanut butter in the middle of them, and as usual, it works.
(Side note: films like this always make me think of my favorite Walkenism, from an interview he did years ago. He said, “I’d love to do a character with a wife, a nice little house, a couple of kids, a dog, maybe a bit of singing, and no guns and no killing, but nobody offers me those kind of parts.” I love that.)
The main four are surrounded by a small but solid supporting cast, including Ewen Bremmer (Trainspotting’s Spud) as an incoherent, impenetrably accented Scottish pilot, “that guy” actor John Gries (Roger Linus on “Lost”) as Hatcher’s psychotic man-at-arms, and most impressively, diminutive Tae-Kwon Do and Muay Tai expert Ernie Reyes Jr. as rebel leader Manito. Reyes’s fight scene with Johnson, a high flying, bouncing-off-trees madcap romp, is completely ridiculous. It’s perfectly indicative of what Berg set out to do — create a relatively bloodless, outrageous, and totally unbelievable action movie.
The choreography, whether it be fistfight, gunfight, whip-fight, or bar brawl, has a sort of brutal poetry to it. It’s never unpleasant, and wonderfully cartoonish. Johnson gets to use some of his old wrestling moves, and things go kablooie! but good. That sense of unbridled silliness is what makes The Rundown so thoroughly enjoyable. It’s an $80 million B-movie at best, but it’s got its heart on its sleeve, its tongue firmly in its cheek, and a twinkle in its eye. Coupled with a thoroughly entertaining cast, its a film I’ll gladly watch whenever it wanders by me on weekend cable. If you’re looking to see big, crazy fight scenes, lots of ‘aslpodeyness, dirty yet attractive people and some lovely scenery, you can do far worse.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.
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