A good action movie is very much like a good pop song. Each takes a basic theme and, just as it’s about to get repetitive, adds something to make it fresh again. The best go a step further: in these, the new element is added openly, without any tricks, leaving us to joyously marvel at its ingenuity. The wonderful moment in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when Indy is faced by a deft swordsman who seems unbeatable until Indy breaks all the rules with a bullet and a wink takes a common theme in a surprising direction. While “The Rundown” is not quite up to the standard set by Indiana Jones, it does a lot of things right and should bring The Rock more respect than did “The Scorpion King.”
Nothing new is to be found in the overarching plot, but, as someone vaguely famous must have said, “The kick-ass is in the details.” Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock), a self-described “retriever” named Beck, is the kind of action machine who can take on an entire room of people — in this case offensive linemen — and come out on top. Later in the film Beck reveals, just in case no one noticed, that he doesn’t use guns. This feature turns out to be a great strength of the film, as Beck employs ingenious methods to fight his way out of difficult situations. At one inspired point, even a gun clip finds itself thrown into a very slippery situation, eliciting laughs of wonder.
Beck’s gangster boss sends him to retrieve his son from Brazil, a “Stanford dropout, treasure hunter” who slept with someone he shouldn’t have. The son, Travis (Seann William Scott), turns out to be quite a handful, as does a local bartender enticingly named Mariana (the gorgeous Rosario Dawson), who isn’t all she seems. The owner of the town, the large gold mine on the outskirts and the entire jungle, Hatcher (Christopher Walken), also throws a monkey wrench into things. He feels that using the native population as slave laborers is worth it for the joy his gold gives consumers. As Hatcher says himself, “My Hell for [the slaves], their little slice of Heaven.” Surprisingly, there aren’t many plot holes at all and everyone’s actions seem to make sense. This is a large step ahead of most fluff movies already, and the performances propel it even further.
Johnson is winsome from the start and director Peter Berg (“Very Bad Things”) plays off his strengths, utilizing The Rock’s penchant for learning fighting choreography to great effect (think WWF). The ironic yet questioning eyebrow raise factors prominently in his performance and he excels at it, playing off the antics of Seann William Scott. Scott begins the movie with a mature barroom dialogue coupled with a beard, showing that he can in fact look like and play an adult. Eventually Scott seems to give up, reverting back to Stifler, and it is Dawson who manages to pull off the best performance. Walken also does a good job but isn’t really given time to become more than a stereotype, which is unfortunate since he has great comic ability (just watch Spike Jonze’s music video of Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”). In the dialogue department, Johnson does a decent job coming off as a slightly more articulate Schwarzenegger, who makes a brief cameo himself at the beginning of the film, to wish Johnson luck.
On a welcome note, the lines aren’t all throw-away filler between the action sequences. Clever literary references improbably abound in this movie. A sign at the entrance to the Brazilian jungle that houses most of the film reads “El Dorado,” which turns out to be quite ironic for Hatcher’s mines are anything but. This allows “Heart of Darkness” to slouch in as Hatcher says to his workers, “I gave you life into the heart of your darkness.” And somewhere, Dylan Thomas is turning over in his grave as his famous lyric “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” is recited right as Beck, in slow motion, decides to use guns for the first time. Not content with just high allusion, the film ranges from Thomas’s verse to an extended simile involving the tooth fairy that Walken embarks upon in both English and Portuguese. Yet somehow all this is not quite as outrageous as it seems when caught up in the silly exhilaration of the film.
All the cliches of the past also fit comfortably with the new variations. Clearly, this wouldn’t be a modern action movie if it didn’t prominently feature a moral dilemma. This is always the moment of moral birth for the hero, when objects become secondary to values. Johnson goes through this predictable moment and comes out with the politically correct answer, but he has acted his part so well that this choice is pretty believable. Other cliches include: the jungle/treasure-hunting sequence that looks back fondly on the Indiana Jones series, ludicrous one-liners: “I’d offer you a drink, but I think you blew up my bar,” and let’s not forget the animatronic monkeys. The cinematography also sticks to the tried-and-true style of “football sidelines” photography, with erratic closeups, lots of shaking and even at one point onscreen football fact sheets (which are thankfully quickly abandoned). Yet somehow the natives become more than cannon fodder, the fighting stays fresh and inventive and the writing is vaguely interesting. “The Rundown” manages to refurbish the old theme, leaving it with nothing quite groundbreaking, but creating the feeling that there is something there that wasn’t there before. What else can a pop movie hope for?