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The Rundown: One of The Rock’s Under-appreciated Early Action Gems

Dwayne Johnson as an action movie icon?! Yep, nobody saw that one coming.

By Benjamin Bullard
Beck (Dwayne Johnson) dons a gun in The Rundown (2003).

For nearly a decade leading up to the turn of the millennium, 1990s pro wrestling fans held a collective hoarders' monopoly on one of the most poorly-kept secrets in all of entertainment. As the rest of the movie-watching world eventually would come to find out, fan favorite Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was sitting on an obscenely rare and rich mix of charisma and screen-ready star gravity — and as wrestling fans intuited, it was probably only a matter of time before his celebrity would extend far, far beyond the ring.

The Rock had just one leading screen credit to his name (The Scorpion King, the 2002 spinoff of Universal Pictures' The Mummy franchise) when film audiences finally got to see him step into the screen spotlight in a role that really let him flex his acting muscles. That film was 2003’s action comedy The Rundown (streaming here on Peacock), and for Johnson’s budding film career, its mission couldn’t have been simpler: All The Rundown needed to do was share Johnson’s star potential with the wider moviegoing world… and to do it, preferably, with approachable and accessible panache.

For more Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson:

The Mummy Returns Director Didn't Even Know Who The Rock Was When Casting The Scorpion King
Vin Diesel on Why Dwayne Johnson "Needed to Come Back" to Wrap Up Fast Saga
How Fast X Added Mystery To Dwayne Johnson's Surprise Return as Hobbs

The Rock in The Rundown: An action star right from the start

Liked by critics even as it underperformed at the 2003 box office, The Rundown nevertheless absolutely nailed the assignment of showing what The Rock could do on a longer acting leash than he’d been given within the tighter genre confines of The Scorpion King. Teamed with costar Seann William Scott and an unbelievably awesome supporting cast (Christopher Walken, Rosario Dawson, and Trainspotting fan fave Ewen Bremner), The Rock spoke softly and carried a big metaphorical stick as a high-end bounty hunter named Beck; the kind of action-movie guy who stays planted like a tree when the inevitable maelstrom of chaos begins swirling all around him.

There’s almost a torch-passing quality to Johnson’s star emergence in The Rundown, a point the movie drives home early when none other than an uncredited  Arnold Schwarzenegger — the Terminator himself! — trades a quick and funny flyby greeting with Beck inside a bustling high-end nightclub. From there it’s off to the races as Beck bites at the chance to exit the bounty-hunting business once and for all, even if it means taking on the ultimate bounty hunter’s risk.

Beck’s one-final-score mission doesn’t actually sound too impossible — at least not at first. His wealthy bounty-hunting client Billy (William Lucking) offers him a cool $250,000 for the there-and-back extrication of Travis, his son (played by Scott) — a wayward rich kid whom Billy believes is frittering his youth away down in Brazil, living a castaway’s jungle life while looking for a strange (and perhaps nonexistent) ancient golden artifact with an appropriately mythical-sounding name (O Gato do Diabo, aka "the devil's cat").

Beck (Dwayne Johnson) holds a gun in a man's mouth while pointing another in The Rundown (2003).

Like any good action hero, Johnson plays Beck as a reluctant but capable stoic. Hiding a poet’s (or in this case a restaurateur’s) heart underneath all that hero's muscle, all he really wants is to scrape up enough cash from his smack-’n’-pow gig to leave the bounty business behind and open up a nice little Italian bistro. It’s fun to watch The Rock sigh and shake his head in resignation at all of his bounty targets’ predictable stubbornness: Like the audience, he knows things won’t go well for any bonehead who refuses to come quietly. And in this movie, nearly everyone he encounters (except, perhaps, for Dawson's cool-headed character) is exactly that kind of bonehead.

Scott’s on-brand portrayal of Travis as a trash-talking goofball gives Johnson plenty to shake his head at once he’s on the ground in Brazil. But the real danger radiates from the movie’s actual baddie, a stone-hearted mining magnate named Cornelius Hatcher (played by Walken). Just like Nicolas Cage in every movie Cage has ever been in, Walken eats up the scenery anytime he’s onscreen, playing Hatcher as an eccentric villain whose exploitative use of the local labor force threatens to incite a workers’ rebellion.

It’s a definite powder-keg situation for our reluctant and soft-spoken hero, and by the time the fateful spark at last does ignite, Beck has no choice but to explode with equal (or greater) fury. The Rundown’s action scenes come in spectacular set pieces that bounce comedic silliness (like Travis’ stupefying martial arts antics) against some seriously next-level stunt work. And whether it’s Beck’s cartoonish and laughably lengthy tumble down a miles-long mountainside, or wrangling livestock as weapons against Hatcher and his enforcer goons in an impossibly outnumbered final standoff, Johnson picks up Ah-nold's action baton inheritance and, well, just simply runs away with it.

As he’d go on to thoroughly verify through his later Fast & Furious franchise blockbusters, The Rock came ready-made, right from the start (who knew?!), as an awesome and fully-formed action hero in The Rundown. Here in one of his very first roles as an emerging Hollywood A-lister, his butt-kicking bounty hunter’s gig brings out Johnson’s signature trait as a quiet storm of pent-up tension… complete with a requisite smattering of well-placed wisecracks, the better to assure viewers that his character’s probably a pretty nice guy somewhere underneath it all.

If you’re a Dwayne Johnson fan but have somehow missed out on his earliest screen appearances, watching The Rundown is a total no-brainer. It’s definitely not The Rock like you’ve never seen him before… it’s simply The Rock like he was always destined to be.

Stream The Rundown on Peacock here.