The Rock Opera

A schlock hero is born—almost—in The Rundown.

Seann William Scott smells what the Rock is cooking

OK, we get it. Arnold Schwarzenegger is in politics, Sylvester Stallone is burning up the charity golf circuit, Steven Seagal is strictly straight to video, and Jean-Claude Van Damme is and remains a small guy from Belgium. The time has come for a new action star, and the Rock wants to assume the throne. He’s certainly poised, having already appeared in two faux-ancient Egypt movies— The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Scorpion King (2002)—with his wrestling fans turning out in large numbers to watch him run around the desert and body-slam stuff. Now, in The Rundown (Universal), he traverses the green jungles of Brazil in his very own star vehicle.

For those few who remain wrestling virgins, the Rock’s real name is Dwayne Johnson, and his most common in-ring sobriquet is “The People’s Champion.” In terms of the sport, however, his family essentially came over on the Mayflower. His grandfather was the Samoan wrestler High Chief Peter Maivia, and his father was Rocky Johnson, a beloved grappler during the Superfly Snuka era of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. When it came time for the Rock to enter the ring, he started out with a good-guy persona, but he became really popular once he started wearing nice clothes and Rolex watches and acting more like a badass. He was the wrestler your girlfriend could love. Of late, the Rock has not been wrestling much, but it’s hard to find fault with that decision. You too would try to broaden your horizons if your signature tag line was: “Do you smell what the Rock is cooking?!”

The first sign that the role the Rock plays in The Rundown will be a departure is his chest, which is fully covered by a shirt. He’s Beck, a bounty hunter who doesn’t like to use guns, for some unexplained reason. The head-knocking begins immediately in a nightclub, and that’s where the Austrian Oak himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, walks by our hero in a dark corridor and tells him to “Have fun!” This is a nice passing-of-the-torch moment, but it also invites an unenviable comparison. The Rock doesn’t have the articulated body that made Arnold, for a brief muscular moment, the Eighth Wonder of the World. In his prime, Arnold also didn’t require a puny thing like character development; he was impossible not to watch. And his Austrian accent provided built-in comic relief. Moments like the one in Conan the Barbarian (1982), when a Mongol general asks Arnold, “What is best in life?” and he answers, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women,” were ineffably weird and unforgettable. A new schlock hero was born.

The Rock, however, needs a character, something with which to flex his acting muscles. In The Rundown, his main identifiable trait is that he’s a cool customer—unruffled, committed to the task at hand—but he is perhaps too cool. When Beck gets angry, the menacing line he delivers seems more suited to a PowerPoint presentation: “You can choose Option A or Option B.” This is not the stuff that camp action stars are made of. When the Rock does mix it up, he’s pretty good: He has a convincing way of throwing around his body in a heedless manner, and he pulls off an impressive move where he wraps his enemies in his legs and then flips them in a circle. There’s an excellent moment when he collapses a tower of bad guys by throwing himself through a support pillar. The big showdown has the Rock fighting an entire compound of enemies, in the fine tradition of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) or, perhaps more memorably, Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).

The Rock’s acting is perhaps best described as facially located: He does a lot of looking to the right and to the left, and “The People’s Eyebrow,” as he once deemed it, gets quite a workout. His comic foil is Seann William Scott, who plays Travis, a wisecracking graduate student (a rare breed) searching for a precious golden artifact. Standing in his way is Hatcher (Christopher Walken), an evil military-type presiding over a gold mine where Indians dig with their hands and are mercilessly exploited by his henchmen. Johnny Depp proved in this summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean that a commercial blockbuster can provide a little breathing room for an actor to deliver an inspired, freewheeling performance. Walken does not follow suit; he overdelivers a lot of Col. Kurtz speeches and sometimes, mid-tirade, betrays an “easy payday” smirk. The token girl is the young Afro-Cuban-Indian-Irish-Puerto Rican actress Rosario Dawson—comely bartender by day, respected rebel leader by night. She has the ability to toss off natural line readings while holding an M-16, which means she’ll never have to look hard for work in Hollywood.

With the business about lost icons and copious bullwhips, The Rundown is clearly aiming for some fragment of the magic of the Indiana Jones series. (Scott even bears a faint and presumably unintended resemblance to Harrison Ford.) Where the two movies depart is at their target audience. George Lucas wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as an homage to the adventure comics he read as a child; the whole movie is infused with an all-ages innocence. The Rundown, like many recent action movies, is aggressively adolescent. It hearkens back to the time in a young man’s life when humping monkeys were funny, when a promise didn’t count if your fingers were crossed, when debating pointless hypothetical questions (“Who would win a fight between Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali?”) held a fascination, and when professional wrestling offered endless, senseless entertainment.