Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B+
starring The Rock, Seann William Scott, Christopher Walken, Rosario Dawson
screenplay by R.J. Stewart amd James Vanderbilt
directed by Peter Berg
by Walter Chaw 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. If not for a few glaring moments where Berg displays the first symptoms of obfuscating Danny Boyle disease (CGI pullouts, nauseating zooms, and meaningless hyper-edits), particularly in its prologue, The Rundown would be something of a cult all-timer.
Beck (Johnson) is a "retriever," a glorified debt collector who's hired to bring back his boss's wayward treasure-hunting son Travis (Seann William Scott) from a Brazilian rain forest. Once there, Beck encounters evil mine-owning tyrant Hatcher (Christopher Walken) and bartender-with-a-secret Mariana (Rosario Dawson), as well as a quest for a gold cat artifact for no other reason, really, than that stupid action movies always have a stupid MacGuffin. Impossible to escape note are sequences depicting a little person being used for absurd comedy (it's funny and disturbing in equal measure) and a village full of dark-skinned labourers exploited for plot effect in the same way a similar village is misused in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
That Johnson himself is of indefinite racial heritage only adds to the ambiguous stew simmering under the crust of the film, all of it bearing mention not just because it's potentially offensive, but also because Berg appears to be interested in challenging tenets of political correctness as opposed to blundering over them blindly under the mantle of cultural acceptability. What I'm saying is that The Rundown is very possibly trying to offend (if Very Bad Things is any indication)--and that it doesn't obviously offend is revealing of our culture's comfortable predilection for hating disability and certain minorities. While not Shallow Hal in terms of the gulf between sign and signified, the film engages in a similar conversation. In one of the quieter moments, Beck bonds with a rebel leader across language barriers through a discussion of Muhammad Ali and the Rumble in the Jungle. Funny? A little. More to the point, there's a racial dialogue happening in The Rundown that is disarmingly subtle.
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.
Universal presents The Rundown on DVD in a dazzling 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer (fullscreen sold separately) matched by a fulsome DD 5.1 audio mix that attacks you from every angle. A climactic gunfight is startling for sure, but almost better is a night scene involving the distribution of a narcotic fruit that finds all manner of animal sounds and mysterious rustles emanating from every direction. Black levels are gorgeous, colours are bold--a showcase presentation. Packed with special features as well, The Rundown sports two film-length commentaries that are insufferable each in their own way. The first pairs Berg and Johnson (called "The Rock" throughout), who make stupid gay jokes in the way that closeted homosexual men do to affirm their heterosexual kinship with one another. Not much information to be gleaned here, save a time or two when bad stunt doubles are pointed out with much laughter. The second track, which is slightly more informative, features producers Marc Abraham and Kevin Misher, though, in truth, I was more interested to hear their description of directors as "criminals, they just try to grab everything that they can" and their outrage over AIN'T IT COOL NEWS' practice of sending moles into test screenings. I have a revolutionary idea for you: Stop doing the test screenings. Both yakkers spend the predictable amount of time fawning over Walken.
The disc itself opens with a trio of trailers for Beyond the Mat, The Skulls III, and Honey, segueing from there into a series of short documentaries. "Rumble in the Jungle" (10 mins.) is a nice look at the centerpiece pygmy fight from choreography to rehearsal to CGI and wirework. It's nicely paced, breezy, informative, and matched by "The Amazon: Hawaii Style" (5 mins.), which talks about a real-life bandit attack on the crew that resulted in the production relocating to Hawaii. "Appetite for Destruction" (8 mins.) details the effects work behind some of the more conventional set-pieces, while "The Rundown Uncensored" (6 mins.) is a deeply stupid mockumentary about the "scandalous" love affair on-set between The Rock and "Camilla" the baboon. Puerile is the word.
"Running Down the Town", an excellent piece featuring production designer Tom Duffield (4 mins.) as he walks the viewer through the construction of a convincing South American village in the middle of the Amazon, is offset by "Walken's World" (5 mins.)--essentially just Walken working on a few lines. Rounding out the platter: a lengthy "Deleted Scenes" block (14 mins.) containing an additional fight sequence and an alternate, better last line for Walken's baddie (a befuddled "Pig"); a host of ROM-based screensavers, wallpapers, and weblinks; three brief interview clips concealed as Easter eggs (click "left" twice at the "cast and filmmakers" option on the bonus menu; click "up" above the "Scenes" selection on the main menu; and click "up" over the "English 5.1" option on the "Languages" menu); and extensive cast and crew biographies. A sleek cardboard cover slips over the Amaray case. Originally published: April 1, 2004.