Sunday Editor’s Pick: The Rundown (2003)

by on February 27, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun March 4 at 5:00 at Jacob Burns Film Ceneter [Program & Tix]
We’ve fallen in love with director Jonathan Demme after rediscovering his humanist comedies Handle with Care (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980) a few weeks ago at FSLC. The crush intensifies now that Demme has curated the popcorn flick par excellence The Rundown for his “Rarely Seen Cinema” at the Jacob Burns Center (we’ve just added the well-programmed Westchester theater to our listings after several reader requests). Demme will be on hand to defend his celebration of the shameless, raucus action-comedy.


As Josh Vasquez mediates for Slant:

What can one think of a film that conflates jokes concerning its hero’s fear of being molested by monkeys with his dedication to liberating an oppressed people? What can one make of a narrative featuring a female bartender (Rosario Dawson) who goes from being ogled by the camera and trading quips with customers to fiercely leading a band of the harshly dispossessed, a move presumably brought about by her changing out of a sweat-dampened, cleavage-revealing dress into a pair of sweat-dampened, cleavage-revealing combat fatigues?

Some respectables thought it quite awesome.

Scott Brown, for instance, for Entertainment Weekly:

Propelled by the pro wrestler’s refined bone-crusher theatrics and director Peter Berg’s undiluted delirium (you can practically hear the ”Very Bad Things” helmer cackling behind the camera), this action comedy is the wildly asinine crack-up derby that ”XXX” should have been.



Time Out Film Guide celebrates The Rock vehicle:

‘Have fun’ grins California governor Schwarzenegger, slapping the Rock’s boulder-like shoulder in an opening shot cameo. Former wrestler the Rock is Beck, a wannabe pasta chef and debt collector for the Mob. Beck’s latest job is to collect Travis (Scott), a wise-ass college archaeology dropout who’s gone AWOL up the Amazon, and deliver him back to daddy. But Travis won’t leave until he’s found a long lost treasure, something a local barmaid/community leader (Dawson) and nasty colonialist goldminer (Walken) are also keen to snaffle. From then on it’s jungle japes, ahoy – including mind-bending fruit, kung fu kick-outs, and a wincingly wacky Scots bagpiper (Bremner). Of course every Hollywood hero has his human flaw. Beck ‘doesn’t do guns’, because ‘he doesn’t like what they do’. Instead, through learning to love, trust and respect his fellow man, Beck falls back in love with the gun – a revelatory moment he celebrates by blasting apart half of Brazil without a trigger-guard of irony. Yes sirree, it seems Arnie’s truly passed on the torch.

Scott Foundas for LA Weekly:

Surprisingly airy, jungle-set adventure, boisterously winking at Huston, Peckinpah and the same Saturday-morning serials that birthed Indiana Jones. R.J. Stewart and James Vanderbilt’s tongue-in-cheek script, a hybridization of “Midnight Run” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” provides lots of amusing byplay for its two mismatched stars.

Like the young Schwarzenegger, wrestler-turned-actor The Rock possesses a blockish charisma, jutting out from his surroundings like a human totem pole and having a deadpan chuckle at his own expense. Given his least loincloth-intensive role to date, he’s great fun to watch, whether trying to outmaneuver a wily martial-arts opponent or just a pack of horny baboons.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

It goes without saying that Beck and Travis have to get lost in the jungle at some point, but how to arrange this? The film is admirably direct: Beck causes a Jeep to crash, and he and Travis roll down a hillside that is about nine miles long. I was reminded of the similar scene in “Romancing the Stone,” and indeed the two movies have a similar comic spirit. Once in the jungle they have all sorts of harrowing adventures, and I enjoyed it that real things were happening, that we were not simply looking at shoot-outs and chases, but at intriguing and daring enterprise.

So determined is the film to avoid shoot-outs on autopilot that Beck makes it a point not to use firearms. “Guns take me to a place I don’t want to go,” he says. When the chips are down and the going is very heavy, however, he reconsiders. There’s a lurid, overheated montage showing closeups of guns and ammo and closeups of The Rock’s eyes, and the pressure to pick up a gun builds and builds until it’s like the drunk in “The Lost Weekend” contemplating falling off the wagon.

Christopher Walken has a specialty these days: He walks onscreen and delivers a febrile monologue that seems to come from some steamy bog in his brain. Here he tells a torturous parable about the Tooth Fairy, which the locals have a lot of trouble understanding. He also has a hat that reminds me of the hat rule: Hero wears normal hat, sidekick wears funny hat, villain wears ugly hat. The movie was directed by Peter Berg, the actor, whose first directorial job was “Very Bad Things” (1998), a movie I thought was a very bad thing. Since I am quoting my old reviews today, let it be noted that I wrote in my review of that one: “Berg shows that he can direct a good movie, even if he hasn’t.” Now he has.



Walter Chaw for Film Freak Central:

There’s an ebullient lustre to Peter Berg’s dedicatedly obnoxious The Rundown, an action film with so little pretension that it actually comes off as smart. It’s the same peculiar phenomenon that makes of Laurel & Hardy geniuses after the fact, banking on timing and carefully cultivated absurdity to at once define and rejuvenate the mismatched buddy-on-the-run genre. Consider a scene in which Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fights a tribe of pygmy Brazilian freedom fighters, edited and choreographed like a Yuen Brothers wu xia married to a Weissmuller Tarzan flick. Delirious and ridiculous, exciting in spite of itself, The Rundown is the kind of adrenalized filmmaking that is, in fact, more intelligent and misanthropic than it seems. More, it’s not a fluke: actor Berg’s directorial debut Very Bad Things remains, along with Doug Liman’s Go, one of the great underestimated time-capsule pitch black comedies of the late nineties.

Its action choreographed by Hong Kong action veteran Andy Chang and carried for long stretches by Johnson’s action-figure charm and Walken’s alien elocution, The Rundown is the same kind of surprise as The Transporter was a couple of years ago. It’s an amalgam of heroic bloodshed and late American blockbuster, forging from that union a piece that speaks (again like Very Bad Things) in a sharp way about where we are as a society and the peculiarities of what we’ll tolerate in our entertainment. What separates The Rundown from any number of action films cranked out of the Hollywood machinery annually is the realization that it lingers: its slam-bang is stickier than others, from an early image of an African-American college quarterback getting smote by a night club turntable all the way through to a closing shot of a returning hero lifting an idol to the adoring approval of an underprivileged throng. It’s slick, it’s loud, and it’s catalyzing–a gadfly of a film from a subversive filmmaker approaching the mainstream but not quite there yet.



Michael Wilmington for The Chicago Tribune:

As one would expect, the movie spits out one pyrotechnic chase, bloody slugfest and gunfight after another, with minimal regard to logic and maximum dependence on wish fulfillment and smashing fight choreography (by “Scorpion King’s” Andy Cheng). But the formulas work much better this time out–and The Rock cuts a more dashing figure in L.A. Armani chic. He looks better, or at least less campy, in a suit–and he also has better antagonists and sidekicks. “The Rundown” has what we usually want to see in movies like this: bravura action, tongue-in-cheek humor, but most of all attitude–precisely that quality Johnny Depp gave this summer’s surprise action hit “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

What makes an action movie click? Usually the stories are so similar, the formulas so ironclad and the jokes so stale that, as all those “Bad Boys 2’s” and “Charlie’s Angels 2’s” come rolling off the assembly line, you feel as if you’ve been watching the same movie over and over–and, in a way, you have. That’s why even a hint of freshness and zip in the moviemaking and acting, which is what you get in “The Rundown,” is so welcome. In the first gambling-debt-collection sequence, where Beck observes such tact and gentlemanly restraint before bashing everyone’s brains in, director Berg and writers R.J. Stewart and James Vanderbilt set the joshing, playful tone for the entire movie.

Berg seems to be having as good a time as the actors. An actor-turned-director, he played the schnook male lead opposite scheming Linda Fiorentino in John Dahl’s classic femme fatale film noir, “The Last Seduction,” and he also directed “Very Bad Things,” a “Reservoir Dogs” crime comedy that was tasteless but daring. If Berg were acting in this movie, he’d probably be playing Travis, and that may be one reason he plays up Scott’s role so much. But the shared spotlight helps the movie, as does the hipsterish self-mockery with which Walken infuses Hatcher, a crook with a phony social conscience.


Chris Kaltenbach calls it “an action-adventure flick that could turn into this generation’s Raiders of the Lost Ark,” for the Baltimore Sun:

Like Raiders, this movie flatly refuses to take itself seriously. It also exists as a series of chases and pitched battles strung together under the guise of a quest for some precious object (in this case, an idol revered by a town of South American slave laborers). And it has a strong female character in a key supporting role (although here, she and the hero never become an item).
And if director Peter Berg is no Steven Spielberg, that’s no big problem. The Rundown may lack the charm and impish inventiveness of Raiders, as well as its devotion to all the cinematic conventions that came before. But it’s a more-than-solid piece of filmmaking, with generous doses of humor and action aplenty – though not of the non-stop variety; Berg and screenwriters R.J. Stewart and James Vanderbilt know enough to let the movie (and their audience) stop for a breath every once in a while.
Best of all, though, is veteran scene-stealer Christopher Walken as Hatcher, owner of the local gold mine. He’s one despicable hombre, since he owns pretty much the entire town, pays his workers slave wages and basically gives the word tyrant a bad name. In typical Walken fashion, he makes Hatcher seem the most rational being on the planet. Watching Walken is always a pleasure; thankfully, in The Rundown, he’s not the only pleasure.



Mick LaSalle for the San Francisco Chronicle:

This is a very good film for the Rock, who proves he’s just as much a star in street clothes as he was in a loincloth (“The Scorpion King”). And it’s a very good one for director Peter Berg, who demonstrated with his debut film, “Very Bad Things,” a certain joyful, twisted screen personality that’s all over “The Rundown.” The action sequences are novel, the performances are slightly askew, and the camera work is vigorous and mostly effective.
Here’s an example of something unexpected that Berg does with the camera that suggests the movie’s flavor: He shows three people in a little boat in the Brazilian rain forest. Then he films them overhead and pulls back the camera. He keeps pulling back until they’re just a dot in the distance, and then farther back, until the boat can’t be seen by the naked eye. Then, still in the same shot, he zooms in on a truck riding down a jungle road.
Walken has become such a national institution that the temptation to write specifically for his voice must be overwhelming. There’s a scene in which he has to explain to his henchmen why he resents Beck’s coming to town to retrieve Travis. “It’s like you’re waiting for the tooth fairy . . .” The script, by R.J. Stewart and James Vanderbilt, has him getting bogged down in an extended tooth fairy analogy, made further complicated by its having to be translated into Portuguese for his workers. It’s funny writing, but what puts it over is Walken’s reliably dead-eyed, deadpan delivery.


Matt Norris for Cinema Blend:

If you are looking for deep meaning in this movie, give it up. The Rundown isn’t here to make you smarter. Rundown is here to entertain you and it does its job. It uses the same action flick formula that so many other movies use. The key difference is The Rundown actually makes that old formula work again. As Beck attempts to get Travis back to Los Angeles, they make a wrong turn and end up in the heart of the jungle. The banter between Beck and Travis bring many a laugh from the audience. They also teach us a valuable lesson: if a baboon latches onto your leg, it’s better to let him finish (with apologies to Cousin Eddy from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.) As to be expected, along the way, the duo begin to like each other and you know they’ll eventually team up to bring down the evil Walken.
What keeps The Rundown from becoming bogged down like many other action movies is the speed at which Director Peter Berg pushes the movie. The opening scene is sure to impress you and look for a cameo from a certain governor wannabe! The fight scenes are well choreographed, yet grounded in reality. No stinkin’ hovering bad guys in this one! The pace of the movie is intense; nary a scene drags. You feel as if you jumped on a roller coaster and before you know it, the credits are running.
Berg doesn’t let his movie get sidetracked by unnecessary character development or cheesy subplots. We are told what we need to know and that’s about it. Berg along with editor Richard Pearson squeezes more out of the action genre than we have seen since the days of Midnight Run.



Stephen Himes for Flak Magazine:

The post-ironic action hero has to be vulnerable but stoic, amoral but human, bad-ass but funny — in other words, the anti-Terminator (or rather, the anti-Terminator Terminator; Arnold’s roles in T2 and T3 showed him getting the joke). Enter The Rock, filling the void left by two aging action stars: not just Schwarzenegger, but also Jackie Chan. Chan is more Buster Keaton than Bruce Lee, but The Rock’s physicality combines Schwarzenegger’s power with Chan’s gymnastics; his persona is equal parts Chan likability and Arnold toughness. it’s noteworthy that not only is The Rundown tailor-made for the broad shoulders of The Rock, but for its other leads as well. The brilliance of R.J. Stewart’s script is that it gives Scott and Walken material that plays to their strengths, while providing enough room for inventiveness. Scott’s routine is more restrained than, say, Chris Tucker’s; he’s turned dumbfoundedness into an art. His banter with The Rock is easy — they don’t step into each other’s spotlights, and neither seems determined to push the other out of the screen, as Tucker always seems to want to do with Chan in the Rush Hour movies. The Rock and Scott realize that the key to the movie is their relationship, both parts playing off each other. As for Walken, well, he works best when he’s the only one who understands what he’s talking about. The screenplay provides Walken with three grand speeches; the best — by which I mean most insane — is when Walken tries to explain to Brazilian jungle people who the tooth fairy is. The intrigue of Walken’s nutsoid monologues is that he’s baffled about why we’re baffled, as if he’s speaking as plain as day; here, he’s squinty and befuddled, accenting all the wrong syllables.

Yet Berg’s finest touch involves The Rock fighting monkeys — during this primatial spar, Berg cuts to a chorus of monkeys watching the fight, clapping and carrying on like, well, the human audience. Berg knows his monkeys well; he’s basically given us a 90-minute People’s Elbow. For the uninitiated, The People’s Elbow is the completely ridiculous secondary finisher The Rock created to hyperbolize his already outlandish ring act (Mick Foley once called it “an abortion of wrestling”). The Rock will body slam his opponent, take off his elbow pad and fling it into the crowd, and while his opponent is lying there, he runs to the ropes, bounces off them, runs and jumps over his opponent (still lying there), bounces off the opposite ropes, runs up to the prone body, comes to a complete halt, looks around at the crowd, and then drops down and smashes his elbow into his opponent’s nose. Then The Rock pins him. And the crowd roars with delight during the whole thing. Somehow, The Rock manages this sublimely ridiculous wink while going about the very serious business of defending his WWE World Title, and this is Jackie Chan’s secret: It’s not the ass that gets kicked, but how you create drama and humor in the ass-kicking itself. The Rock is no Chan or Keaton, no Schwarzenegger or Stallone, but he is a fascinating amalgam honed in the squared circle of audience appreciation. And The Rundown leaves little doubt that he’s the future of the action movie.


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