The moment Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson lumbered out of the wrestling ring and onto movie sets, Hollywood became determined to make him the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s easy to see the logic of that idea. With Arnold then leaving the industry for a new career in politics, a void had opened in the action-hero arena. And like the Austrian weightlifter who ruled the box office before him, The Rock had an impossibly herculean physique — a body made for blockbusters. Who better to fill the Terminator’s profile than another hulking he-man looking to transition from athletics to acting?
Right from the start of his movie career, Johnson took a page or two from the Schwarzenegger playbook. He made his big-screen debut as The Scorpion King, the villain of The Mummy Returns — a role that seemed to combine the inhuman menace of Arnold’s T-800 with the sword-and-sandal backstory of his Conan the Barbarian. The parallels continued with Johnson’s first starring role, the Mummy spinoff The Scorpion King, a prequel that pulled the T2 maneuver of turning the bad guy into a good guy.
But it was The Rundown, which turns 20 next week, that felt like The Rock’s first true bid for a spot in the pantheon, the movie that might position him as the heir apparent to the throne of Arnold. Schwarzenegger himself gave his blessing to this succession plan in the movie, with a one-line, blink-and-you-miss-it cameo. The A-lister, whose then-final starring vehicle Terminator 3 had opened just two months prior, walks by The Rock in the opening scene. “Have fun,” he says — an explicit passing of the torch from one gladiator to another.
The Rundown cast Johnson, then still credited as just The Rock, as Beck, a bounty hunter collecting unpaid debts for L.A. loan shark Billy Walker (William Lucking). Eager to put this unsavory line of work behind him and start a new career as a chef, Beck agrees to one last job with a big payout: retrieving Walker’s ne’er do well, treasure-hunting son, Travis (Seann William Scott), from a mining town in Brazil. It seems like a simple enough task, but the town is ruled by a corrupt baron (a typically flamboyant Christopher Walken) who doesn’t take kindly to outsiders stumbling into his operation, a mass exploitation of the land and its people.
The genre alchemy of the movie is clear. It’s basically Midnight Run meets Romancing the Stone, minus the romance. (Seemly positioned, in her first scene, as the love interest, Rosario Dawson is quickly revealed to be more of an action-hero ally, a revolutionary plotting against Walken’s villain.) The script could be a lot better. A lot of the antagonistic banter between Beck and Travis falls flat — in part because of the dialogue, but also because the latter is not the most sharply defined doofus on Scott’s resume full of them. He either needed to be more or less of an obnoxious rich-kid caricature.
Yet what The Rundown lacks in verbal wit it often makes up for in inspired physical humor. The film is directed by Peter Berg, coming off the bachelor-party-gone-wrong comedy Very Bad Things. Though the jittery camerawork anticipates his later collaborations with Mark Wahlberg, this is a much more playful action movie. In fact, it’s often something of a live-action cartoon: Beck and Travis take a comically protracted tumble down a long embankment, dodge screaming baboons while dangling upside down in booby traps, and exchange slurred insults after ingesting psychotropic fruit. Even the actual fight scenes — like the one where Beck disarms a room full of goons while stopping a fleeing Travis by kicking an empty clip at him — have a giddy slapstick quality.
The movie is maybe the purest distillation of Johnson’s appeal as an action star, then still budding. Too often these days, he tends to adopt a kind of salesman “charm,” beaming and mugging like a billboard for himself. (Maybe it’s the aspiring politician in him — another way he seems to still be following in Arnold’s giant footsteps.) In The Rundown, The Rock isn’t so relentlessly on. Part of the fun of Beck is that he’s both rather humorless and not some unstoppable badass. He’s a reluctant professional, trying to get through a job he doesn’t enjoy. The film makes him something of a straight man; it’s a funny choice, given that he also has the size and appearance of a comic-book illustration.
Berg isn’t afraid to make him look foolish sometimes, too — to drag this ripped human specimen through the dirt. Years before news broke that Johnson had a “can’t lose a fight” clause in his Fast & Furious contract, the actor willfully subjected himself to a litany of physical abuse; during one brawl in The Rundown, he gets kicked into the air by an opponent and then kicked in a different direction, midair, by another. The film seems to understand that The Rock might be more likable if he’s fallible; there’s lots of pleasure to be had in seeing the walking (and Walking Tall) definition of a strong man take a licking and keep on ticking.
Passing endorsement by the legend aside, Beck isn’t really a Schwarzenegger character. He’s not a killing machine, cold-blooded or glib. He fires few one-liners and — at least until the climax — fewer bullets. Though it’s a given that he’ll eventually be forced to pick up a gun (his insistence that no one will like what happens if he does only whets the audience’s appetite for the inevitable), the movie takes his aversion to firearms and killing halfway seriously. It gives the character a moral dimension that few of Arnold’s men of action possess. Beck is a giant who’d prefer to be gentle, and that makes him a funny, sympathetic action hero — and probably the most likable one Johnson has ever played.
Is it his signature role? More people know him as Hobbs, the glowering lawman of the Fast & Furious movies. But those films are ensembles, and the spinoff that puts him at the center also forces him to share the spotlight with fellow action movie star Jason Statham. Meanwhile, how many fans can even name the characters Johnson plays in San Andreas or Central Intelligence or Red Notice or Rampage or Skyscraper? The Rock is a bankable star in an age without too many of those, but there’s a reason he hasn’t really launched franchises; few of his movies find a good use for his superhuman stature or a protagonist distinguished by more than it.
The Rundown is no masterpiece. Now, as ever, it looks more like a fitfully fun diversion, a good Saturday afternoon movie. But it earns Johnson those Schwarzenegger comparisons… in part because he’s not imitating Schwarzenegger in it. For all the box-office success The Rock has achieved since,e it’s still The Rundown that makes the best case for him as an action star with more to offer than the dimensions of a Greek god. Sequel when?
The Rundown is currently streaming on Peacock and Tubi. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.
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