Here's a tip for parents: If you toss the kids the keys to the spaceship and tell them to "go save Earth," make sure they hook up with former stock car driver Jack Bruno, whose skill behind the wheel will come in handy when they have to outrun the Department of Defense or some other rogue agency of the government. Yes, he's a former felon, and yes, he used to work for the Las Vegas mob, but he's a really nice guy and a lot smarter and more sentimental than the brawn would suggest. Besides, you need a little muscle when you're trying to save the world.
In case you don't live on another planet, hang onto the keys and go with the kids to see "Race to Witch Mountain," which is a fast and furious (yes "fast and furious" in that way) wild ride of a movie in which the good guys are good (some of them really, really good), the bad guys are good (very scary good) and the car chases (around a thousand of them by my count, though it was hard to keep track with all the screeching tires and twisted metal) are pretty spectacular.
The film stars Dwayne Johnson -- who still has steel-cut abs and a wingspan that would shame a 747 though he's left his wrestling days as the Rock behind -- as Jack Bruno, the Vegas cab driver who finds himself with a most unusual fare.
Though Jack is, indeed, smarter than you'd think at first glance, he really should have figured out that the teenage siblings who suddenly appear in his back seat have to be from some other world. I mean they aren't surly, there are no piercings, they never ask him to turn on the radio and they have cash. Lots of it. Come on, Jack, pay attention!
Sara and Seth (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig) do have something in common with teenagers everywhere: They don't trust adults. Only after a few narrow escapes on their way to a little spot of nowhere in the Nevada desert that just happens to have an underground labyrinth filled with mysteriously glowing pods, does Jack Bruno, as Sara calls him, begin to figure out there's more at work here than the outrage of his former mob bosses.
Still, it takes some convincing for Jack to buy into the alien thing. Fortunately Sara can levitate objects and Seth can reach through metal so you know it's more than AP classes that make these kids different. But Jack is a tough guy, trying to remake his life, do the right thing -- getting involved with aliens on the run isn't exactly what he had in mind. But he just can't help himself.
In Johnson's hands, Jack soon becomes a rock with a very soft center, which is probably the most relevant and resonant quality Johnson has as an actor -- that ability to charm everyone around him, bad guys excluded. There are times in "Witch Mountain" when he's being particularly sweet to Sara and Seth in that "Oh ya big lug" way that you can almost hear the audience sigh "ahhhh."
Director Andy Fickman and screenwriters Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback know Johnson's strengths and, well, limitations and play to them here. So there are lots of short one-liners and nearly as many intensely choreographed fight scenes in which Johnson is steamrolling through flanks of assault-rifle-carrying agency operatives (it helps that Seth can stop bullets with his mind, though it takes a lot of concentration to pull that one off) or going up against the towering programmed-to-kill cyborg sent from Sara- and Seth-land to kill them.
And if you think the cyborg is frightening, just look into the cold, dead eyes of Ciaran Hinds' Henry Burke, who's leading the "good" guys as they try to round up the aliens; they must be dissected and studied immediately, it's that important to national security, like we haven't heard that one before. The film also comes with a PG rating that has more earmarks than an Obama budget, a tip-off if there ever was one that the action, violence and fear factors are intense so parents of young kids be prepared.
Robb is exceptional as Sara, delivering the stilted alien-speak lines as if she's been talking that way her entire life. And the chemistry between Robb and Johnson is just short of terrific -- you know Jack would protect Sara with his life and not because he has to.
Fickman has said he wanted to make sure "Race to Witch Mountain" would be true to the spirit of its ancestors, beginning with 1975's "Escape to Witch Mountain." To that end, there are a couple of nice touches for fans of the earlier films, especially cameos by its alien kids now grown older (apparently aging is inevitable no matter which planet you're on).
It happens in a roadside restaurant in a showdown with the feds. Jack, Sara and Seth are surrounded, it looks impossible, and there are no guarantees the three desperadoes will make it out alive, but Kim Richards as their waitress and Iake Eissinmann as Sheriff Antony, are darned sure going to see what they can do about that.
I won't tell you what happens, but just don't be surprised if Sara and Seth show up on Jack Bruno's doorstep again in the not too distant future.
'Race to Witch Mountain'
MPAA rating: PG for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations and some thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: In wide release