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By David Grove | September 27, 2003

America needs a new action hero. Schwarzenegger’s entered politics, Stallone’s too long-in-the-tooth, Steven Seagal’s gone to hell – figuratively and literally – and Bruce Willis doesn’t seem to want the job anymore. Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat aren’t really candidates because, frankly, the whole Hong Kong action genre has never really taken off in America.
His name is The Rock a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson a.k.a. Flex Kavana (in one of his past lives as a professional wrestler). In the halls of Hollywood, The Rock is considered to be the next big thing, a modern day Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen for our times. He has charisma, an infectious sense of humor, and great physical prowess. Is he the next big thing? After seeing “The Rundown,” one of the most joyfully silly genre films in recent history, he has my vote.
“The Rundown” is an almost perfectly tailored vehicle for The Rock and his particular gifts as an actor. Yeah, he may be limited as an actor in terms of something like “Othello” or “Richard III,” but he’s not that limited. Remember when Hulk Hogan starred in “No Holds Barred” and “Suburban Commando?” The Rock is no Hulk Hogan. I mean, for every Arnold Schwarzenegger who can carry an action film as a real life action figure on the screen, there’s a Danny Glover from “Predator 2″ who just can’t handle the job. The Rock walks and talks like an action figure.

In “The Rundown,” The Rock plays Beck, a professional bounty hunter and manhunter who’s assigned by a slimy corporate type to travel deep into the Brazilian jungle to retrieve the man’s son – an idiot slacker named Travis (Seann William Scott). Beck finds Travis, but soon they find themselves caught in a poor man’s civil uprising against a ruthless despot named Hatcher (wonderfully played by Christopher Walken).
Okay, so that’s the plot and, from this, we can predict all of the later plot developments such as Beck’s conversion from a carefree bounty hunter to a caring freedom fighter, not to mention the eventual bonding between Beck and Travis. Throw in a hot local chick with brains and guts (Rosario Dawson) and we know what we’re in for. But that’s just the story and part of the fun of watching “The Rundown” is that there really is no story. Like the great B westerns of old, this is a film about standoffs and tough guy reputations.
I think, on its own terms, that “The Rundown” is as entertaining as any film I’ve seen this year. What’s fun about the film are its goofy sense of humor, wild and crazy stunts, and the cheerful willingness of The Rock to poke fun at himself. Like the George Clooney character from “From Dusk Till Dawn,” The Rock approaches his character with a comically cynical “been there, done that” attitude. He knew the seemingly innocent sounding job would be trouble because that’s the way it always is. There’s also a really funny scene where The Rock gets, uh, sodomized by a monkey. This is really funny since The Rock, as a wrestler, has always seemed to be obsessed with monkeys.
I think the key to a film like this (a grade B version of “Gunga Din” and “King Solomon’s Mines”) is to have a great and slimy villain for the hero to work off of. In Christopher Walken, “The Rundown” has a great villain. Just like Jon Voight did in “Anaconda,” Walken plays his evil slavemaster character with dry humor and plenty of self-hatred. Here’s a tyrant who can’t believe his life has turned out this way – trapped in a hellhole, surrounded by peasants – and, in a form of revenge, has decided to become a poor man’s dictator, a fourth world Saddam Hussein. It’s one of Walken’s best villain performances.

As for The Rock, I love his sense of humor – the kind that lets the audience know how crazy he thinks it is that a professional wrestler could possibly be doing this – and he has a magnetic screen quality that can’t be taught. He was fun to watch in the entertaining, but limiting, “The Scorpion King,” but “The Rundown” is the film that I think will raise The Rock up from dependable action hero into a major star who might, someday, even move past genre films. I don’t know if The Rock will be the next Eastwood or McQueen, but he has the right stuff and the eyebrow’s money in the bank.
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