THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Like most really good action movies, The Rundown opens with a bang. WWE star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a “retrieval specialist” named Beck, who walks into a crowded nightclub to retrieve a gambling debt from a had-partying pro football star. When Beck demands the cash, the guy virtually dares him to do anything about it, as several big, burly teammates are nearby, ready to fight. Beck walks into the restroom, cools himself off, then returns to systematically kick the butt of each athlete. Clearly, this is not a guy to mess with.

Beck is in his particular line of work because he himself owes a debt to a rich bookie. When he asks to be set free, the bookie offers him a deal: one last job and Beck’s debt will be cleared. The job entails going to a small Brazilian town called El Dorado (and nicknamed “Helldorado”) to retrieve the man’s son Travis (Seann William Scott). All you have to do, the bookie tells him, is march Travis through my front door and you’re a free man.

El Dorado turns out to be owned by a ruthless and dictatorial businessman named Hatcher (Christopher Walken), who pays the town’s citizens slave wages to mine for gold and other valuables. He initially doesn’t mind Beck’s presence, so long as he gets a small fee for the business being conducted in his town. Then he learns that Travis may know the location of “the gato” – an extremely valuable artifact that was long considered either lost or simply mythical. Hatcher wants Travis to find it before Beck hauls him away. When Beck says that can’t happen, Hatcher assigns his goons to make sure it does happen. Beck finally locates Travis at a local bar, but the kid puts up a fight. What should be a simple snatch-and-grab mission ends up with Beck trapped in Brazil, fighting with his captive and struggling to keep Hatcher from interfering with his mission.

One other factor complicates the mix: Mariana (Rosario Dawson) is a young freedom fighter who is appalled by what Hatcher has done to her town. She knows that finding the gato would be good for her people; the money it could generate on the black market would mean no one would have to work for the heinous Hatcher ever again. She likes Beck but, like her enemy, wants to make sure Travis sticks around long enough to find the gato.

The Rundown has been compared to such action movies as 48 Hrs., Midnight Run, and Romancing the Stone.. What does it have in common with these films? They all have strong stories and interesting characters. So many of today’s action movies are simply about spectacle. They have lots of mayhem, lots of chaos, and lots of stuff blowing up real good. But that’s about all; plot and characterization are little more than afterthoughts. The Rundown has ambition in its plot. Although this is fundamentally a tale about Beck’s efforts to locate Travis, the story of the town is effectively used as a backdrop. If the people find the gato, it would mean their freedom and Hatcher’s financial demise. On the other hand, if Hatcher finds it first, the townspeople will continue to be enslaved while the rich man gets even richer. The idea of a slave town is very original, and I like how the movie uses it to add meaning to the action scenes.

The characters are just as well-formed. Everyone wants the artifact for different reasons. The search for it pits enemy against enemy, but also ally against ally. At every point in the film, you understand what motivates each person to locate it. Hatcher wants a big financial score. Mariana wants to help her people. Travis wants to prove that he’s more than just a spoiled rich kid. They all intend to accomplish their goal at any cost. The actors play these characters so well that their dilemmas are believable. Then there’s Beck, who hates Hatcher and feels empathy for the townspeople. However, he just wants to do his job and get out of El Dorado. Faced with the motivations of every other character, he must find a way to complete his own mission and gain the freedom he craves. His goal is different but just as important. I love how The Rundown takes the time to create solid characters, then place them in a story that actually goes somewhere.

There are plenty of other delights, notably the action scenes. Director Peter Berg (Very Bad Things) stages fight and stunt sequences with a visual style that makes them pop off the screen. My favorite is the one in which Travis and Beck are attacked by a horde of monkeys. Berg creates a genuine sense of menace while still maintaining the humor of the scene. The final showdown is exciting, too, because we have gained an emotional investment by that point. The action is here for the purpose of serving the story.

Another delight is Christopher Walken who gets another of the priceless movie monologues for which he is so well known. This one is about the tooth fairy, and it alone is practically worth the price of admission.

As for the Rock, well, the guy is good. He has “it” – that magical, hard-to-encapsulate quality that makes one a movie star. The fact that he’s a professional wrestler almost seems like a sidetrack. With this much charismatic appeal, he belongs on a movie screen, not in a wrestling ring. Aided by a strong cast and a smart script, The Rock makes The Rundown one of this year’s premiere action movies.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Rundown is rated PG-13 for adventure violence and some crude dialogue. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.

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