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The Rundown   B-

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Berg
Writers: R.J. Stewart, James Vanderbilt
Cast: The Rock, Seann William Scott, Chistopher Walken, Rosario Dawson, Ewen Bremner.

Review by Rob Vaux

The telling moment in The Rundown comes early on, just as we're getting to know our stalwart hero. Mob enforcer Beck (The Rock) has come to a thundering nightclub to collect a gambling debt from a pro football quarterback. Unfortunately, his mark is partying with four or five offensive linemen, and has no interest in being shaken down. After enduring a barrage of Alpha Dog woofing -- topped by the QB's drink dripping off of his ears -- Beck retreats to the bathroom and nervously gives his boss a call. His meekness is breathtaking, his discomfort bordering on the terminal. The line is there, he protests. The whole offensive line. And then slowly it dawns on us: he's not afraid of them. It's just that he's a fan of the team and if he breaks their collective face, they might not make the playoffs.

Any other action movie wouldn't bother with such humor. The jocks would beat their chests and snarl a few one-liners, and then The Rock would demolish them. But The Rundown isn't satisfied with being run-of-the-mill. It takes that extra step, it tones down the brazen posturing, and it respects us just enough to try something a little different. Without that moment in the bathroom, and others sprinkled liberally about the film, it would have nothing to recommend it. But its regular bouts of self-effacing cleverness energize the entire affair, and reveal a lot about The Rundown's humble yet undeniable appeal.

They also reveal a lot about its star, the once and former Dwayne Johnson who cashed in his pro wrestling reputation for a shot at the silver screen. In my review of The Scorpion King, I opined that he really had no business in the movies. The Rundown forces me to eat those words. Stripped of the silly loincloth and given something resembling real dialogue to deliver, The Rock exudes an infectious sense of fun. He's not afraid to look foolish if it improves the film, and his impressive physical presence doesn't come at the expense of character. Beck has some interesting quirks of which The Rundown makes fine use. He doesn't like guns, for example, which causes problems in the hellish South American mining town where he's sent to retrieve a wayward mobster's son (Sean William Scott). Director Peter Berg translates that into some terrifically imaginative fight scenes where The Rock simultaneously disarms his opponents, renders their firearms inoperable, and knocks them senseless with an array of polished wrestling moves. He bridges the stunts with a disarming boyish grin -- softening his wrestler's sneer into something more sympathetic -- and lets us connect to him without detracting from the über-heroics. It's an impressive job, and he clearly has the charisma to justify top billing.

The town is run by Christopher Walken (in one of those bad guy roles he tap-dances around), and infiltrated by guerilla rebels (led by the fetching Rosario Dawson) who hope to free his oppressed workers from near-slavery. To do that requires a priceless native artifact out in the jungle, which Scott's character wants to find and sell on the black market. Naturally, Beck's appearance throws everything into a cocked hat, resulting in a lot of zany chases, elaborate fistfights, and buddy movie bantering of the Midnight Run variety. The material is distressingly familiar (and falls apart towards the end when it finally succumbs to its cruder instincts), but Berg and the screenwriters search hard to find new opportunities amid the clichés. Just when the routine has lulled us to sleep, The Rundown catches us by surprise, delivering a fresh laugh or jolt of adrenaline that lets us know it's paying attention.

Admittedly, the by-the-numbers creakiness never quite goes away, from sophomoric gags about horny monkeys to some decidedly dodgy effects (I may never use the phrase "sanctity of wrestling" again, but something about the wire work here suggests a violation of The Rock's ethos). Berg responds with an impeccable sense of pacing, sending us a new slice of cool on a regular basis. He coaxes decent chemistry out of his male leads, and the flashy editing still can't detract from the film's overall panache. Walken, of course, doesn't need any help to command our attention, and with The Rock pulling out all the stops for us, The Rundown stays together long enough to deliver decent popcorn fun. I'm still not sure if Mr. Johnson can put a string of these together, but after the display he puts on here, I'd love to see him try.

Review published 09.26.2003.

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