When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson burst onto the movie scene with his role in “The Mummy Returns” (2000), all of America sat up and took notice: “Here is a guy who cannot act!” America thought. “We hope he returns promptly to TV wrestling, whence he came!”
But he did not return to wrestling, or at least his returning to wrestling did not prevent him from continuing to appear in other places. He guested on “Saturday Night Live” and demonstrated comedic skill and a willingness to utterly debase himself for the sake of a joke. He reprised his “Mummy Returns” role in “The Scorpion King” (2002), a very bad film in which The Rock was given such a bad screenplay that he appeared to have no talent whatsoever. But the “SNL” performances suggested that when he had something to work with, he could be good.
Now comes “The Rundown,” a perfectly delightful comedy adventure, a sort of smart-aleck, frenetic “Raiders of the Lost Ark” set in the jungles of Brazil. The Rock comports himself extremely well, handling the demanding physicality and the comic dialogue with equal agility. I hesitate to say anything as conclusive (or trite) as “a star is born,” but ladies and gentlemen, get a load of this guy!
He plays a bounty hunter named Beck who is sent to the Amazon mining village of El Dorado to retrieve the son of an organized-crime guy. The mouthy, belligerent son, Travis, is of course played by Seann William Scott, for who else plays mouthy, belligerent 20-somethings these days?
The mine is run by an American named Hatcher (Christopher Walken) who has managed to gain ownership of his employees’ lives, thanks to charging them outrageous living expenses, not to mention blackmail and strong-arm tactics. Consequently, Travis could not leave even if he wanted to, and he doesn’t want to: He believes he has located a legendary treasure of untold financial worth. Hatcher wants this thing, too, which is why he doesn’t just shoot Travis and Beck when Beck whisks him away, kicking and screaming.
Thus begins a chase, with a beleaguered Beck dragging Travis through the Amazon, while both are being pursued by Hatcher’s men. To further complicated matters, there are anti-Hatcher rebels lurking about; they have a friend in Mariana (Rosario Dawson), a mining-village girl who also wants the aforementioned treasure in order to free her people from Hatcher’s rule.
It’s possible there’s a human rights message somewhere in all this, but darned if I care. The film, directed by Peter Berg (“Very Bad Things”) and written by TV scribe R.J. Stewart and James Venderbilt (“Darkness Falls,” “Basic”), is often deliriously entertaining. The Rock and Scott’s interaction is snappily, snarkily funny, and their fight scenes — especially The Rock’s smackdown with a whole group of rebel fighters — are outrageously energetic and fun.
And can we talk about Christopher Walken? Here is a guy who clearly loves being an actor, who doesn’t care how bad a movie sucks, he’ll appear in a couple scenes just because it’s fun. I bet he’d work for free, if you could promise him some absurd, juicy dialogue to wrap his distinctive delivery around. Look at the average-to-bad movies he’s livened up with brief appearances just in the past three years: “Gigli,” “Kangaroo Jack,” “Country Bears,” “Poolhall Junkies,” “America’s Sweethearts,” “Joe Dirt,” “Scotland, Pa.” “The Rundown” is actually a good movie, and he has a large part in it, and the more Christopher Walken we get to see, the more I’m entertained. He speaks every line here like he wrote it himself — or, more accurately, like he didn’t write it all, like it just spontaneously fell out of his insane, fun-loving head.
But back to the film. Beck refuses to use guns for most of the film, saying he’s had bad experiences with them in the past. This is a wise decision. When the film ultimately, inevitably, does become gun-heavy, it certainly loses its creative edge. (Movies about guys who shoot at each other are woefully plentiful already, thank you.) But what a lively trip it is otherwise! It’s one of the year’s great surprises.
B (1 hr., 44 min.; )