At first, he was just a famous professional wrestler trying to make it in show business. As with many athletes trying to make the leap, it was not all smooth sailing. Before long, however, he was earning praise for his basic B-movie, Ah-nold lite performances. Then something happened to and with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, which elevated him from wannabe to true winner. He’s now known as the franchise savior, having stepped into such struggling series like The Mummy, G.I. Joe, and The Journey to the Center of… efforts, and most importantly, the Fast and Furious films. Indeed, with the latest earning boffo box office (almost $400 million over the first weekend) and the previous installments also worldwide hits ($788 million for Six, $626 million for Five), Johnson seems poised to have his first ever billion dollar baby.
But there is more to this muscular mystery man than mind-blowing muscles and a tendency toward mayhem. Indeed, Johnson is one of the most self-aware stars we have, quite comfortable playing to his type as mocking it. He’s also been careful with the project he picks, using each film, no matter how lousy, to test his demographic reach while seeing if there is a legitimacy to his new career. While it’s hard to gauge his future success based solely on the limited efforts currently part of his canon, it’s clear that his present tenure as a highly sought-after action star is secure. After looking over our choices for The Rock’s best film roles, however, we can see the potential, and its powerful stuff. He could actually become one of the few genre icons who makes the leap to other, less stunt-oriented efforts.
Let’s begin with an early dud which still highlighted what makes Johnson a near-superstar today:
As part of a planned spinoff to the character, Johnson showed up at the beginning of The Mummy Returns, only to have a sorry CGI likeness arrive at the end to make audiences and critics laugh. Luckily, the next film featuring Mathayus was a prequel which did away with the need for shape-shifting F/X and, instead, allowed the wrestler to do what he does best: flex his magnificent muscles and kick a lot of butt. The end result is a lame attempt at a franchise which featured someone clearly better than the material given. Perhaps this is why Johnson has had nothing to do with the three — yes, three — sequels.
Another attempt at giving Johnson a memorable character to counteract his big badass persona — and again, another quasi-failure. Still, the athlete-turned-actor does a very good job of finding the comedy in this otherwise laugh-less loser. His interaction with the sensational Stephen Merchant and legendary Julie Andrews aside, we really do believe that this minor league hockey player “enjoys” his time as the dentally oriented pixie. When the sequel was announced, Larry the Cable Guy took over, marking another moment when Johnson bailed on material that proved beneath both his abilities and his demographic reach.
After the amazing success of the 1995 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, Hollywood figured a sequel was in order. John Travolta returned as the hitman-turned-Tinseltown heavyweight Chili Palmer, this time focusing on the music industry. Here Johnson tags along as the gay bodyguard for a pair of no-goodnik talent managers. Forced to fend for himself against an onslaught of homophobic jokes, Johnson is great, showing a vulnerability and range few thought he had. Indeed, during his tenure as a box office draw, Arnold Schwarzenegger never countermanded his own on screen persona in such a wild, wonderful way as The Rock does here.
As one of the earliest attempts to move Johnson beyond the obvious action hero mode he was pigeonholed into, this manipulative drama delivers. Based on a real life story, our lead plays an officer with the California Department of Juvenile Corrections. Hoping to help his young chargers overcome the lure of the streets, including gang violence and drugs, he starts a football team which quickly becomes the talk of the town. Of course, things don’t go smoothly, especially when it comes to finding schools willing to play this collection of immature inmates. Johnson’s character and performance makes it work, however.
On the heels of the one-dimensional Scorpion King, Johnson got a very big break thanks to the efforts of actor/director Peter Berg. Looking for someone to co-star in his action comedy about a bounty hunter heading to Brazil to capture the wayward son (Seann William Scott) of his primary employer, he hired the wrestler. Showing a solid amount of comedy chops, the character falls under the spell of some local rebels (lead by Rosario Dawson) who hope to use a statue the duo has in its possession to free themselves from the influence of a local baddie. Complete with run-ins with aggressive monkeys and poison tropical fruit, the film and Johnson are a hoot.
5 – 1
If we film critics could be granted one wish, many would choose to see a full blown prequel to this otherwise hilarious Will Ferrell/Mark Walhberg buddy comedy, specifically one dealing with the super-cops alluded to in the film’s title. Indeed, Johnson and his partner in deranged, over the top derring-do is none other than Samuel L. Jackson, and until their exit early on in Act One, we hang on every bad action movie cliche they indulge in. In fact, their presence is so powerful that we keep hoping they will show up at some point during the finale, but we never get the satisfaction. Too bad.
This is perhaps the most unusual movie in Johnson’s oeuvre, and, yes, we are counting the title coming in at number three on this list. Our hero plays a man out for revenge. He is chased by a crooked cop with a heroin problem and a hitman who has delusions of personal grandeur. Turns out, Johnson is a man whose father arranged to have him and his half-brother killed, and after surviving the “hit”, he plans on tying up all the loose ends. It’s all very existential and surreal, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive without Ryan Gosling and the weird synth-pop soundtrack. A hidden gem, this one.
After the cult success of Donnie Darko, writer/director Richard Kelly launched this surreal sci-fi mindfuck centering on a group of individuals living in a dystopian future. A nuclear attack has spawned World War III, and for the residents of the title area (what used to be Los Angeles), life is chaos. Johnson is a man named Boxer Santaros, who is battling amnesia. Of course, this means he has another identity, as well as a career that turns Johnson’s role into something quite meta. The most important thing is how good he is here. While some critics have called his performance “mannered”, it matches perfectly with what Kelly, and the character, have in mind.
Some audience members don’t want to see Johnson broaden his horizons. For them, there is nothing better than watching the former WWE idol make mincemeat out of the enemy, his body overinflated and amped to the max, testosterone pumping through every ‘roid rage moment of his maximized destruction. As Luke Hobbs, the government agent in charge of keeping Vin Diesel and his “family” free from outside harm, that’s exactly what he does. Johnson gets so many memorable hero moments that it’s impossible to pick just one, though we are partial to the scene in this latest installment of the series (Furious 7) where he “checks himself out” of the hospital.
For our number one choice, we went out of a limb and picked what, for us, is the moment when The Rock went from athlete-turned-actor to star in his own right. Michael Bay, himself a fan of bombast and excess, took the true story of a horrible crime involving kidnapping, torture, extortion, and murder and made it into a weird amalgamation of comedy and very cruel jokes. Among all the chaos sits Johnson, playing a former convict/cokehead turned born-again Jesus freak who tries to avoid temptation while earning enough money to help he and his buddies live out their dreams. He’s terrific, but the film itself is far from it.