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Between the Rock and a hard place

September 22, 2003|Robert W. Welkos

As the rebel leader Manito in director Peter Berg's high-octane comic action-adventure "The Rundown," martial arts expert Ernie Reyes Jr. seems to defy gravity as he spins and twirls and delivers precision, scissor-like kicks to the abdomen and head of muscle-bound action star the Rock.

At only 140 pounds, Reyes may not look the equal of the Rock, whose chiseled physique seems ripped from the pages of an action comic book. But while he might be small, Reyes (who is part Filipino, Spanish, Chinese and Irish) is no one to mess with. After all, the 31-year-old son of black-belt legend Ernie Reyes was only a child when he competed against adults and was ranked in the top 10 of American martial arts competitors.

"The Rundown," which stars the Rock as a tough guy who is hired by a father to bring back his son from the Amazon, opens Friday. Reyes' scene-stealing sequences in it mark the end of a decade-long, self-imposed exile from features. He was the stunt double for Donatello in the 1990 blockbuster "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and returned as Keno, the pizza delivery boy who befriends the turtles, in 1991's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze."

Worried that he would be typecast as an action hero for kids, Reyes occasionally performed in film and television roles over the past decade, including a brief, nonspeaking appearance in "Rush Hour 2," but he remained close to his martial arts community. He came to rehearsals one day to say hello to famed Hong Kong fight choreographer Andy Cheng, who "asked me if I wanted to work in the movie," Reyes recalled. "I said, 'Of course.' " Reyes said he waited around and was introduced to director Berg, who wanted to see how fierce he could be. "I was hyped up," Reyes said. "I let it all out. I started screaming and I grabbed him by the legs and lifted him over my head like I was going to body slam him and then I let him go. Peter said, 'Hey, man, why are you so angry?' "

But it worked. Berg cast him on the spot.

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-- Robert W. Welkos

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