Welcome to The Rock.
Time to shine the spotlight on a little-seen gem, in this case 2003’s The Rundown. Released to little fanfare and poor box office despite relatively strong critical acclaim for a genre flick, The Rundown (an admittedly mediocre title) stars national treasure The Rock as a likable bounty hunter roped into some painful South American shenanigans. The film should have been the next step in the Rock’s burgeoning film career, but it seems that his much-predicted momentum took a stumble after The Scorpion King, his first starring role, was pretty underwhelming. And perhaps audiences in 2003 had similarly tired of the antics of Rundown co-star Seann William Scott, the once & future Stiffler; another shame, in my opinion, because Scott is truly hilarious. His sleeper hockey hit Goon from last year is under consideration as a future entry.
But the big shame here is that The Rundown performed so poorly at the box office and hasn’t even gone on to become a bona fide cult hit, because it’s just so much fun. Directed by the highly competent & unpredictable Peter Berg (check out that eclectic filmography), The Rundown has a solid sense of itself, managing to strike that ineffable balance between seriousness & silliness. It has stylized action & broad characters yet there’s a dark edge to it that puts some weight behind the proceedings. And there’s a real creativity in the action sequences, constantly signalling to the audience that this movie came to play.
[Note: Given that this movie was robbed of the popularity it deserves, finding images for the entries is going to be harder than usual. Bear with me.]
1) Beck vs A Whole Football Team
- Beck, a bounty hunter aka “retrieval expert” trapped in indentured servitude with a wealthy boss of some nebulous criminality. Though Beck has an incredible talent for violence, he prefers not to resort to it; his true passion is cooking, and he hopes to open a restaurant one day. Played by Samoan Thor himself, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. (I’m going to try to refer to him as “Beck” in the entries, but I can’t guarantee I won’t slip up and occasionally call the character “The Rock.” Note that this is not out of disdain for Mr. Johnson’s talents as a performer; quite the opposite.)
- Armed with: Nothing, though he does make use of some handy nearby implements. Beck, we will later learn, doesn’t carry a gun, not because he hates them but because he’s too good with them, and they take him to an emotional place where he might go too far. He’s a regular Atticus Finch, if Atticus Finch could kick Hulk Hogan’s ass.
- NFL Players, about five of them, from Beck’s favorite football team (he says it’s “the entire offensive line” which is probably an exaggeration but I don’t watch sports. Is the NFL the one where the hut-huts have to put the tackleball in the score zone?): the Defensive End, Fullback, Middle Linebacker, and Left & Right Tackle. A bunch of burly meatheads who look like they’re quite used to this sort of thing.
- Armed with: one has a gun but he’s deprived of it before ever trying to use it.
- Beck’s eyebrows, played by The Rock’s eyebrows. They’re not an active participant in the fight but they’re always there, seeing over all. Even you. Right now.
- Armed with: Hair, justice, Samoan magic.
The Setup: Beck has been dispatched to a kickin’ nightclub to confront Brian Knappmiller, the quarterback of the local football team who has unfortunately incurred quite a gambling debt with Beck’s employer. Specifically Beck needs to retrieve Knappmiller’s prized Super Bowl ring as collateral, but Knappmiller is loathe to part with it and tells Beck to shove off, throwing drinks in his face.
There’s an added element of humor to the scene in that Beck wants even more than usual for this job to not turn violent, because Knappmiller’s posse consists of many of the team’s other star players. There’s a neat sequence before the meeting where Beck, talking with an associate, points out each individual player, and as he does so Berg plays a montage of football clips (ostensibly of the player described, but really NFL and XFL footage), ending with a graphic showing the player’s name and main stats. If Beck has to hurt them, there’s a good chance the key members of his favorite team could be sidelined. Hard break for a sports fan. (Say what you will about anime nerds but this is a problem they never have.)
After wiping off his face in the bathroom Beck calls his employer to plead for more time, but is told to press on right now. He storms out to the dance floor much less meekly this time, and gives Knappmiller his standard ultimatum: “Option A, you give me the ring. Option B, I make you give me the ring.” Predictably, Knappmiller chooses the one that’s going to force him to smell what the would-be chef is cooking.
[When Beck first walks into the building, he passes by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, who slyly remarks “Have fun!” to a confused Beck. The mysterious Austrian’s role in the plot is never revealed because he’s really there as a meta-reference for the audience, symbolically anointing his cinematic successor. The cameo was apparently unplanned and done on the spur of the moment.]
The Fight: The club’s strobing lights and the bouncing rhythm of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” provide an excellent backdrop for an excellently-staged little opening number. After Brian chooses the dumber option, the beefcakes immediately set in on him, and the Rock takes them down one at a time with brutal efficiency.
The fighting here could never be described as “real” but it is covered with a nice patina of realism. There are no extended tradings of punches or elaborate stunts, just quick bursts of effective violence. Beck is clearly established here as a guy who has almost-surgical precision to match his raw strength, as we see him strike at vulnerable spots and use his opponents’ momentum against them. Notably, the third jabroni who rushes Beck gets taken out with a Rock Bottom, one of the Rock’s patented wrestling moves. As far as I can tell this is the only one of those maneuvers used in the movie, so it’s nice they got it out of the way fast; plus doing so in the opening fight sends a signal not to take the rest of the movie too seriously.
Berg and his crew do more than their part to help sell Beck’s prowess, juicing up all his blows with painful-sounding thuds on the soundtrack and accentuating the movements with well-timed (read: not excessive) stretches of slow-motion. This visual style will prove to be a running theme through the movie. It works like gangbusters as it highlights some of the more complicated staging, and it’s also just, well, cool.
After calmly watching him take out their teammates, eventually the enormous Left & Right Tackle rise to face Beck simultaneously, which he greets with a sort of irritated resignation. When they line up against him, the POV is from just behind the two giants’ shoulders, the perspective making Beck look tiny in comparison– an interesting choice on Berg’s part, because while these two athletes are taller than the Dwayne Johnson’s 6’4 height, they’re not that much taller… and of course part of the Rock’s whole appeal as a performer is his own hulking size (as opposed to action stars like Bruce Willis or Chuck Norris). The Rock seems here (and in many other performances) as the best of both worlds: not a lion amongst men or a men amongst lions, but a lion amongst other lions.
Anyway, the People’s Lion makes quick work of the two Tackles opposing him, taking each out with short strikes and pounding their faces into nearby pillars. The one setback Beck suffers comes shortly after, when the Defensive End recovers enough to seize Beck in a charging tackle and slam him into the DJ’s booth. He nearly cleans Beck’s clock with a follow-up haymaker, but Beck blocks it by seizing the record player and using it to block the blow (the music comes to an end with an abrupt record scratch– which is actually appropriate here, unlike its cliched use in a million movie trailers). He actually used a turntable to turn the tables! … I’m sorry.
Knappmiller then tries to escape, but Beck hurls the record player in slow-mo at the QB’s back, dropping him like a sack of potatoes. As Beck angrily seizes the ring from Brian’s hand, he laments the idiot didn’t choose Option A. I would have. Then Beck’s own NFL-style title card flashes on the screen:
As we’ve said over & over here, one of the primary missions of the Opening Action Sequence is to set the tone for what’s to come, and this does exactly that. This scene does everything it needs to in terms of setting up what kind of movie is going to happen, and what kind of hero Beck is. Such sequences are also meant to grab the audience’s attention and provide them with a fun jolt to get ’em in the right mood, and this scene does the hell out of that.
Oh, and I was a bit disappointed after checking up on the lyrics to the song that plays through most of the fight: it turns out the refrain is “go getcho freak on,” when I had always heard it as “Rock getcho freak on.” Arguably that would have been too on the nose but I liked the idea that the movie’s very environment is even cheering on the Rock. Ah well.
Coming Attractions: The Rock meets The Walk(en).