The Rundown (2003)


Beck (Dwayne Johnson) is en route to a job: he’s assigned to extract debt payment from a celebrity football player, at that moment hunkered down with his “entire offensive line” in a dance club. The music throbs as he approaches the entrance, beautiful girls drape themselves in the hallway, but Beck is all business, his face set in grim determination, when he passes another well-dressed patron exiting the club. “Have fun,” says the stranger, who is no stranger at all, but Arnold Schwarzenegger, tidily passing the action-heroic torch to his most obvious and extraordinary heir, The Rock.

The fact that the Rock plays Beck, a “retrieval expert,” in The Rundown is fine, but not crucial to understanding his career, past, present, or future. Beck is pleasant and ambitious, seeking to get out of the muscle-for-hire business and open his own restaurant, nothing fancy, just 12 tables or so. He’s also extremely gifted and focused when the moment calls for it; though he considers himself a product of his hard case childhood, responding to his environment, he’s the ideal rundown guy — tracking, capturing, and transferring his assignments with style and as little aggression as possible. Always aiming to complete his mission without weapons (“I don’t like guns”), Beck ritually offers his targets two “options,” A or B: the first being to hand over whatever is owed, and the second, to have Beck take it, by the means he deems necessary.

He demonstrates his prowess during the first dance club scene, when he convinces the football player to give up his expensive ring as “collateral,” by slamming and banging the several members of that offensive line into unconsciousness. All to the beat of Missy Elliot’s bumping remix of “Get Ur Freak On.” It’s a remarkable entrance, even if you’ve seen too many over-caffeinated action adventures, showing off director Peter Berg’s dark humor and penchant for stylized brutality (see also, his Very Bad Things [1998]). The Rock is perfect for such bizarre shenanigans, because he’s so darn decent (“The People’s Champion,” after all). As he demonstrated in his first two films (for four minutes in The Mummy Returns [2001] and for the duration of The Scorpion King [2002]), the Rock is a bonafide movie star, all charisma and powerhouse affect. So, even as he’s delivering the most devastating and elaborate of beatdowns, he’s sympathetic, even (strangely) sensitive-seeming. He doesn’t want to hurt ’em, but he just can’t help it.

Beck’s current assignment, following the football player, is a rather personal one for his employer, the invidious Walker (William Lucking). He tells Beck that if he retrieves his wayward son, Travis (Seann “Face Like A Weasel” William Scott), that it can be his “last job” (this being the convention in any such movie, ensuring the hero’s reluctance and desperation). Beck agrees to the terms because he has no choice, acts all submissive to Walker but plainly hates being under whatever debt he owes (just how he got into this position is not explained; suffice it to say that Beck is too nice to be laboring for such a cretin).

Beck’s pursuit of Travis takes him to the Brazilian jungles, with the help of the wild bush pilot Declan (Ewen Bremner). Here Travis, a graduate student (or dropout, depending on whom you ask) is looking for the Gato del Diablo, a precious artifact (to the tune of multi-millions of dollars). This quest (and Beck’s effort to cut it short) will be complicated by the fact that this Gato is also sought by a ferocious capitalist named Hatcher (Christopher Walken). The film’s most outrageous villain, Hatcher maintains a gold mine with slave labor (he pays his workers some 65 cents a day) — the impressively humungo expanse of the mine and the many bodies involved in its working are rendered with a mix of digital effects and craning cameras. There’s no question this guy is a monster, as his minions wield whips to discipline sweaty, downtrodden workers, and as he — in an exceedingly weird moment — refers to his labor force as workers “oompa loompas” (let’s just say that Walken is ensuring his rep as a magnetic oddball player).

That the film includes this subplot — racing, classing, and nationalizing it so specifically — sets it slightly apart from the usual buddy bonding movie. This even though Beck and Travis (he of a smarmily privileged background that leaves him needing lessons in class systems) withstand standard homosocial exploits (raucous fights, hardass wisecracks, outrageous stunts) and some not so standard (a herd of lusty monkeys find them attractive, and assault them repeatedly). They work through these episodes with sometimes smart repartee (screenplay by R.J. Stewart and James Vanderbilt), brilliant acrobatics (fight choreography by Andy Cheng), and frankly thrilling editing (by Richard Pearson). But mostly they get by on their well-known charms — the Rock meets Stifler.

Also as per the buddy formula, they do meet a girl, to straighten out the relationship. Mariana (Rosario Dawson) is not the usual buddy-movie girl, being a guerilla leader with her own agenda and a big gun. She schools Beck on global identities (when he remarks on the Brazil nuts in the bar she runs, she observes, “We’re in Brazil. We just call them nuts”). And she rescues them from a high-speed, elaborately wire-worked smackdown with the maniacally muscled Manito (Ernie Reyes Jr.), then instructs them in the politics they’re so used to ignoring. In other words, Mariana’s presence secures not only the boys’ gendered and sexual identities (though this remains fluid enough to be intriguing, as Scott seems fairly omnivorous), but she also provides The Rundown with a point about virtuous international relations — isolationism is bad policy and ethically reprehensible. All this in an action flick. As the Rock has revealed throughout his career as a wrestler and celebrity, progressive politics may be most effective when you don’t expect them.