New review: The Rundown

Usually I’ll be posting new reviews on the main blog, but since this movie came out three years ago, I simply added it to the review category. You can read the review here: The Rundown.

The Rundown

Yes, this movie came out three years ago, but I missed it then and didn’t see it until two years later on video. I happened to catch it on cable the other day, and again I was reminded of how damned fun the movie is and decided to review it.

I grew up watching the action films of the late 1980s and early ’90s. This is generally considered a pretty good era for action movies, falling smack-dab in the middle of the Schwarzenegger Epoch. Movies like Commando and Predator are great guilty-pleasure classics, while Total Recall and Terminator 2 rise above the genre enough to mitigate some of that guilt.

Action movies in the 1980s tended to be military-based; in the ’90s we got a lot of police thrillers. What we didn’t get is the “adventure” action film—something that George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg had singlehandedly rejuvenated with the Indiana Jones films. Sure, we had a Romancing the Stone here and a Medicine Man there, but the adventure flick was quickly abandoned in favor of countless John Woo-style crime thrillers and science fiction flicks.

Of course, “adventure” films used to be the only type of action film there was—movies like King Solomon’s Mines. Movies with charming leading men, beautiful but still tough leading women, and exotic locations. That’s the sort of film we get with The Rundown.

If you’ve never seen it, go and rent it. If you demand a plot summary first, it’s this: the Rock plays a mob enforcer trying to get out from his contract with his mob boss. The boss agrees to free him if he performs just one last job: track down his son, who’s running around South America looking for a priceless ancient artifact. But there’s a problem: a corrupt businessman, played by Christopher Walken (who is allowed to run riot, acting-wise), is also after the artifact.

Really, I can only list the pleasures of this movie. There’s the Rock, a competent actor with great screen presence and an even better sense of humor, who plays a marvelous straight man to Sean William Scott. The Rock, unlike Schwarzenegger, understands exactly how to play the straight man, and more importantly, he seems to know it’s a better role for him than being the funny guy. (My friends and I are eagerly hoping that Blowback, a buddy flick starring the Rock and Ryan Reynolds as cops, gets made.) He also handles the action sequences with more aplomb than Arnie and finds just the right balance between taking it all seriously and keeping a touch of self-consciousness. What I’m saying is this: the Rock may not be the next Olivier, but he is the best action movie star I’ve ever seen. I’m no wrestling fan and I found The Scorpion King a little dumb, but The Rundown made me a lifelong fan of Mr. Dwayne Johnson.

Scott does a good job too. Like Keanu Reeves and Ashton Kutcher before him, Scott has escaped his initial second-banana role (in American Pie) to become the most successful star of that film. He’s a great foil for the Rock.

Other pleasures: the beautiful jungle scenery (El Dorado by way of Hawaii, but still beautiful). The beautiful Rosario Dawson. The guide with the incomprehensibly thick Scottish accent. The monkeys (“Get outta here, monkey!”).

And of course, Walken’s wonderfully insane acting. There is some seriously vintage Walken in this movie, which reaches a new peak with this diatribe:

I feel like a little boy who’s lost his first tooth, put it under his pillow, waiting for the tooth-fairy to come. Only two evil burglars have crept in my window, and snatched it, before she could get here…wait a second, do you understand the concept of the tooth-fairy? Explain it to them…wait. She takes the god damned thing, and gives you a quarter. They’ve got my tooth. I want it back.

The Rundown is easily my favorite action film of the last ten years. Or, heck, probably since Terminator 2. No, it’s not quite the classic like King Solomon’s Mines or The African Queen, but it’s the epitome of a good, fun action movie, and I hope the Rock is smart enough to make more like it.

The Scorpion King

I saw The Scorpion King less than two days ago, yet I can scarcely remember anything about it. I’m not surprised that I’m sketchy on the plot details; there’s never much plot in such films. But what does surprise me is that the film left me with no lasting images. Particularly in the case of the actors – whereas I can remember dozens of wonderful, individuals facial expressions from The Fellowship of the Ring, the faces of the actors in The Scorpion King seem vague and hazy. Plus, there were no impressive visual effects. The Mummy Returns gave us a gigantic face in a wall of water, dog-like Egyptian demon-warriors and monstrous little pigmies. Oh, and the Rock as a ten-foot scorpion. The Scorpion King gives us the Rock, but minus the huge pincers and plus the huge pecs. Unfortunately, with the exception of a CGI sandstorm and, I suspect, a computer-generated city of Gomorrah, there’s not much to look at.

The plot is fairly simple. In the prologue to The Mummy Returns we met the Scorpion King – the first ruler of Egypt, whose armies swept across the ancient Middle East and Africa until they were finally defeated. This bloodthirsty king then made a pact with an evil Egyptian god and was granted revenge against his enemies – then the god killed him, turned him into a giant scorpion and buried him for thousands of years. But forget all that – The Scorpion King tells the story of how the Scorpion King became a king in the first place. The film is set in 3000 B.C. A warrior named Memnon (Steven Brand) is bent on conquering the entire known world. His secret weapon is the sorcerer Cassandra (Kelly Hu). Those being conquered don’t take kindly to Memnon, so they hire an Akkadian named Mathayus (the Rock) to take the sorcerer out and, thus, destroy Memnon’s power.

So Mathayus heads off to Memnon’s capital city of Gomorrah to ice the sorcerer. From there, it’s a fairly predictable series of action sequences and noble speeches. Lots of clashing swords, flying arrows and hissing snakes fill up the rather brief hour-and-twenty running time. Was it fun? For me, no. I was hoping for something so bad it was good, but what I got was something I found fiercely mediocre. Strangest of all was the Rock himself – for some reason, his face could not register any kind of impression on me. Maybe it’s the large forehead, or the smooth skin, or that soft coloring that almost blends in with all the browns and beiges of the landscape – for some reason, the Rock’s look just wasn’t distinctive, in my mind. I wonder whether the director, fearing (unjustly) that the Rock would be unable to handle his acting duties, avoided having too many close-ups of his star. But the Rock’s acting is better than Schwarzeneggar’s at the same point in his film career.

The other actors handle their duties well, for such films – Hu is sufficiently mysterious and rebellious as Cassandra, and Brand makes a passable, if rather dry villain (though I still don’t know what a white man is doing in ancient Egypt – other than, of course, oppressing everyone else). Michael Clarke Duncan, as “Balthazar,” comes very close to reprising his role in Planet of the Apes; this time, rather than being a huge, muscled warrior ape, he’s a huge, muscled native warrior. Grant Heslov rounds out the cast as “Arpid,” Mathayus’s comic sidekick, though I’m not certain his name is ever uttered in the film.

I suppose in the end, the only thing I can blame is the script. It’s written by the director of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns (among others), yet it’s lacking something. As Gladiator proved, audiences don’t always want their blockbusters to be perfect popcorn films with heart-of-gold do-gooder heroes and utterly mindless plots. Mathayus will eventually become exactly what Memnon is, conquering half the known world and butchering thousands in the process. He’ll pledge his soul to the devil in exchange for vengeance. But there are no hints of this in the character or the script – this is just a retread of Conan the Destroyer, except without Grace Jones.

I’ve already devoted much more text to a film that doesn’t really deserve – or need – an in-depth review. I’ll recommend the film to WWF fans, fans of the Rock, and women who like half-naked men with huge pecs.