Can a movie starring an inanimate object really move?
It can if that object is a rock - or, to be more precise, The Rock, a professional wrestler whose surprisingly adroit acting muscles are on full display in The Rundown, an action-adventure flick that could turn into this generation's Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Like Raiders, this movie flatly refuses to take itself seriously. It also exists as a series of chases and pitched battles strung together under the guise of a quest for some precious object (in this case, an idol revered by a town of South American slave laborers). And it has a strong female character in a key supporting role (although here, she and the hero never become an item).
And if director Peter Berg (Very Bad Things) is no Steven Spielberg, that's no big problem. The Rundown may lack the charm and impish inventiveness of Raiders, as well as its devotion to all the cinematic conventions that came before. But it's a more-than-solid piece of filmmaking, with generous doses of humor and action aplenty - though not of the non-stop variety; Berg and screenwriters R.J. Stewart and James Vanderbilt know enough to let the movie (and their audience) stop for a breath every once in a while.
The Rock (born Dwayne Douglas Johnson) is Beck, a reluctant mob enforcer who really wants to be a restaurateur. After a film-opening run-in with an NFL running back who's taking a little too long to settle his gambling debts (a sequence that nicely sets up both Beck's unwillingness to play rough and his expertise at doing so), Beck pleads once again for his boss to let him out of the biz. Fine, Beck is told, provided you perform one last job: Pluck my son out of the Brazilian rainforest village where he's hiding out.
Problem is, the son, Travis (Seann William Scott), doesn't want to leave or have anything to do with dad. But Beck is not one to quibble over technicalities; he's not exactly amoral, but he has developed a way of paving over any objections he may have to the work he's forced to do. For Beck, it's all a job, and the faster he can get it over with, the better. He doesn't use guns, he doesn't use force unless left with no choice, and he makes darn sure anyone he's up against understands that.
Finding Travis proves to be easy; getting him on a plane back to the States proves considerably tougher. Before he can settle down and open that restaurant he's been dreaming of, Beck has to plummet down a hillside that seems to go on for a mile, have at it with rebel fighters who seem to have learned their moves from The Matrix, stare down a bad guy who's pretty handy with a whip (shades of Raiders again), overcome the effects of hallucinatory drugs and stare down some exasperated monkeys. What fun!
Beck could come off as quite the jerk, but The Rock manages to keep him on our sympathetic side. In part, that's because of his physical presence: Yeah, he's a big guy, but he's not a cartoon, like so many professional wrestlers (Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Randy "Macho Man" Savage come to mind). Take away the size and the muscles, and he's a handsome guy with lots of built-in charisma.
But The Rock also turns out to be a pretty good actor, which shouldn't surprise, given all the acting pro wrestlers do every time they step in the ring. We're probably not going to see him on Inside the Actor's Studio anytime soon, but The Rock knows how to carry himself onscreen, how to relax when the situation demands (a talent Arnold Schwarzenegger has never quite mastered) and calibrate his performance so that he's not ready to bust a blood vessel in his neck every time bad news lurks around the corner. As an action-adventure hero, The Rock is the real thing.
He's also lucky enough to be surrounded by an excellent supporting cast. Scott, whose off-kilter sensibilities have been the best thing about the American Pie movies, displays an irrepressibly subversive energy as the prodigal son. And while he may not look like much of an action hero, he holds his ground against The Rock. His Travis is the kind of guy who doesn't mind getting the stuffing beaten out of him, as long as he gets the best quips in, along with at least a few good punches.
Filling the empowered female role is Rosario Dawson, proving she'll never have to be one-third of Josie and the Pussycats again. Believably tough and sexy as a rebel leader who might or might not help Beck finish his job, she helps give the film a moral center, but one with bite.
Best of all, though, is veteran scene-stealer Christopher Walken as Hatcher, owner of the local gold mine. He's one despicable hombre, since he owns pretty much the entire town, pays his workers slave wages and basically gives the word tyrant a bad name. In typical Walken fashion, he makes Hatcher seem the most rational being on the planet. Watching Walken is always a pleasure; thankfully, in The Rundown, he's not the only pleasure.
Starring The Rock, Seann William Scott, Christopher Walken
Directed by Peter Berg
Released by Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 (adventure violence, some crude dialogue)
Time 104 minutes
Sun Score: ***