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The Rundown

There's a new king of action films. In the first two minutes of The Rundown, the old king makes that abundantly clear. Yes, Schwarzenegger himself anoints The Rock, and he has made a wise choice.

The Rock stars as Beck, a "retrieval expert" who works for a loan shark as a way of paying off his own debt to the sleaze. Every time he completes an assignment for Walker (William Lucking), Beck gets strung a little further along. Finally, he's offered the deal that will free him: go to Brazil and retrieve Walker's son, Travis.

It should be an easy deal, but then, it wouldn't be much of a movie if it were. Instead, screenwriter R.J. Stewart has thrown in a little bit of Raiders of the Lost Ark to match an echo of Midnight Run, as it seems that Travis is close to finding a priceless tribal object: O Gatto Do Diablo, The Devil's Cat. Made of pure gold and jewels, it could fetch a fine price on the black market, lining pockets or freeing the locals from bondage to Hatcher (Christopher Walken), who works them in his gold mine appropriately named El Dorado. (And indeed, the original title to the film was the perhaps the too on the nose Helldorado.)

Everybody wants the cat but Beck. He has a job to do, and it can go simply or, as he puts it, "…pretty much the opposite." Luckily for us, it's the latter.

Director Peter Berg is a novice to the action genre, though his previous film, the dark black comedy Very Bad Things, was full of activity. The Rundown marks quite a change, and Berg handles it well. Though some of the action here is sweetened with digital effects, Berg lets the majority be live stunt work. After all, The Rock should be used to it, and the director gives him the chance to use his moves.

Surprisingly for a first-timer, Berg also manages to keep enough distance that we can tell what's actually happening in a fight, even though some get extremely complicated. Midway through, Berg stages a particularly grueling sequence involving rebels, led by Ernie Reyes, Jr., ganging up on Beck with such a dizzy joy that you can only hope Spider-Man fights this well in his next screen outing.

It's not wall-to-wall action. The script throws a few bones to character development, though in the tradition of Eastwood's Westerns, allowing less to be more. And The Rock is actually good enough to handle it.

Of course, he's surrounded by talent to help prop him up if he falters. As the drop-out student archaeologist, Seann William Scott proves himself to have depth beyond the idiot characters he used to establish himself. Travis may be out of his depth and a little overenthusiastic, but Scott gives him a keen intelligence that sometimes shows through the cockiness.

Rosario Dawson manages to keep herself from being wasted. As the El Dorado bartender with a secret, she has fire without resorting to being permanently p.o.'d. Yes, Michelle Rodriguez, I'm talking to you.

And of course there's Walken. In homage to other Walken roles, no doubt, Stewart has fashioned the veteran actor a few choice bon mots and a couple of monologues made menacing by his quirky rhythms. The actor could do this in his sleep, and to be honest, practically does. But even a phoned-in Walken would have compelling moments. Only he could make the line "there's been an unexpected turn in the narrative" be taken seriously.

If you've seen the trailer, you also know that there are monkeys involved, which raises the film up a notch right there.

The Rundown doesn't take itself too seriously, and for all his stoic manliness, neither does The Rock. He endures a few humiliations for the sake of our entertainment, but also makes a believable man of violence.

Let's pretend that The Scorpion King never happened, even though it, too, had its moments. Call The Rundown the beginning of great things from a new action hero, and a harbinger of interesting work from a director who didn't know he had it in him.


Derek McCaw

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