When casting for Southland Tales, director Richard Kelly allegedly hired intentionally trashy actors to add to the feel of the film. Lucky that he did: hiring Dwayne The Rock Johnson as the baffled Boxer Santaros lent the film its single reliable core. Similarly, when the dead-cert follow-up to Get Shorty, Be Cool, flopped, its only saving grace was The Rocks turn as a bodyguard dreaming of Hollywood stardom.
In short, despite a litany of sub-par films, the Rock has somehow emerged as one of modern cinemas most likeable, charismatic and entertaining beefcakes for a long while now, with hints of Bruce Willis in his Die Hard days and even a touch of Harrison Ford in that famous troubled brow. The fact is, hes extremely watchable, and his latest effort a pedestrian kids matinee is still no exception.
In Race to Witch Mountain, a remake of a forgettable 70′s scifi, Johnson plays Jack Bruno, a Las Vegas cab-driver who used to drive getaway vehicles for the mob (the sort of thing that might come in handy, you might think). After a run-in with a former colleague outside the UFO convention on the Strip, he is startled to find two children in the back of his taxi, offering a fat roll of cash and asking him to drive.
Bruno takes them for runaways, but these are no ordinary escapees; being more like a cross between the Midwich Cuckoos and the cast of Heroes. Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) are willowly blonde straplings who talk like Data from Star Trek and use flickery gadgets like the one Al talks to Ziggy with in Quantum Leap.
And they’re on the run from an alien assassin with a face like the Predator and the body of Robocop, in a quest to save their home planet (and the Earth into the bargain). As Henry Burke (Ciarn Hinds), the FBI chief assigned to track them down and dissect them reminds his team, “They’re not children. They’re not even human.”
That may be, but in Bruno, and later, UFO-scientist Dr Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), these extraterrestrials find themselves a perfect nuclear family: Mom does the thinking, Dad the heavy lifting and the kids are the only ones who really know whats going on, of course.
Race to Witch Mountain is solid classic Disney fare: executed to a smooth formula that offers safe family entertainment. The baddies are mean and unrelenting without actually being evil and the goodies despite abilities such as telepathy and telekinesis consistently outwit their pursuers with the aid of dogs and friendly waitresses rather than flying knives Sylar-style.
The car chases are fast, exciting, well-shot and ultimately tame more reminiscent of the swerves and pyrotechnics of a rollercoaster track than the mangled metal mayhem of a Bourne movie. Theres quite a lot of shooting and things blowing up towards the end, so very young children may become scared and/or bored.
All in all, this is Saturday matinee fare with a simple message about family and another one about ecology shoehorned in for good measure. Its elevated to entertainment only by the Rock and his endearing brand of baffled heroism. Until he can find a decent franchise of his own, this will have to do.