Pity the poor soul who has to stand shirtless next to the Rock, but such is the fate of Seann William Scott in “The Rundown.” The improbably appealing duo forms the core of this Amazon-set action-adventure caper that is at once more ear-splitting and entertaining than it has the right to be. Pic effectively furthers Universal’s collaboration, after “The Scorpion King,” with the former WWF star, and it cements the Rock’s status as a contempo action hero with a bigscreen future. Watch for its opening to lay the smackdown on the competition, followed by solid mid-range, or better, B.O.
In his films so far, the former Dwayne Johnson hasn’t strayed far from cartoonish material that plays upon his instinctive theatricality and formidable physical abilities. Here he’s Beck, a “retrieval expert” (bounty hunter) facing one last gig before retirement; he longs to open a restaurant. This time out, he wears more clothes and gets a meatier role than usual, but he also has plenty of combat scenes in which to flaunt his skills.
First such fight occurs during an opening sequence in L.A. that establishes tone and shades character: Attempting to collect on a pro athlete’s debt, Beck has to outmaneuver an entire squad of offensive linemen. Fed up and roughed up, he strikes a deal with his boss Billy Walker (William Lucking): retrieve Walker’s son Travis (Scott) from his Amazon travels and buy his own freedom in return. But once in Brazil, Beck finds a reluctant quarry — and a whole lot more.
Beck’s garrulous escort, an inexplicably Scottish airplane pilot (Ewen Bremner of “Trainspotting”), leads him to the fictional town of El Dorado. There, a diabolical robber-baron named Hatcher (Christopher Walken) employs Brasilieros under inhumane conditions to mine the land for gold. Teeming with thousands of workers, the matte and CGI-enhanced excavation site looks like something out of “Intolerance.”
Gold also motivates archaeology student Travis, who seeks a priceless hidden artifact, the Gato do Diablo, with which he can solidify his own reputation and escape papa’s repressive control. Ambling into a seedy local tavern, Travis enlists the bartender, his former g.f. Mariana (Rosario Dawson, with wobbly Portuguese accent), to help find it. She has barely agreed when Beck arrives, offering Travis a choice: return home, either voluntarily or by force.
Fights are what the Rock’s fans want, and they won’t be disappointed. A half-dozen brawls, choreographed by “Scorpion King” vet Andy Cheng, offer gasp-inducing suspense, nimble footwork and wham-bam excitement. Fans will be pleased to see that for the most part, it appears the Rock has performed his own stunts.
The film exploits its creative license — particularly in a Butch-and-Sundance-style plummet down a seemingly bottomless ravine from which Beck and Travis emerge unscathed. But Scott and the Rock make such a good team, disbelief is willingly suspended.
Scott’s youthful insolence (perfected as Stiffler in the “American Pie” trilogy) sparks with the Rock’s glowering heavy; the Rock, for his part, emits just enough disarming self-irony to keep things fresh. Dialogue, as written by R.J. Stewart and James Vanderbilt, is sharper and funnier than that of most tired action comedies, and the leads deliver their one-liners with zing. That’s not to say the script isn’t overpacked with plot points, forced crises and deus ex machina moments, including the ingestion of toxic fruit, a monkey invasion and a brutal encounter with Brazilian rebel forces.
Conclusion wraps things up a bit too tidily, though it does invite the possibility of a sequel.
Pic’s excesses notwithstanding, helmer Peter Berg (“Very Bad Things”) knows what’s called for in an action movie and keeps the pacing brisk, delivering it all in less than two hours. A thesp himself, Berg has managed to offset the dizzying action scenes with a welcome attention to character detail.
Though Dawson doesn’t do much other than look ravishing, others come off better. Bremner supplies goofy comic relief; Walken, splendid malevolence. (It’s a shame, though, to see him retread such familiar territory; he should be allowed to counter expectation as in “Catch Me if You Can”).
Production looks handsome, with Hawaii’s rain forest credibly doubling for the Amazon and the San Gabriel Mountains filling in for El Dorado. (Apparently, the idea of shooting in Brazil was scrapped when crew members were held up by armed bandits during a scouting tour.) Tech elements are consistent throughout.