Dwayne Johnson is absurd.
That’s not an insult. It’s just that there’s never been anyone quite like him in pop culture. How many pro wrestlers became successful actors? Andre the Giant? Hell, how many athletes have become leading men? O.J. Simpson? How many put together lasting careers? The only name remaining is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger’s a living legend, but somehow the comparison seems apt: Based on data from The Numbers, Schwarzenegger has been a leading actor in 25 films grossing about $4 billion worldwide, while Johnson has been a lead in 17 films grossing a cumulative $3.7 billion worldwide.
But we’ve had Arnie since the early 1980s. Johnson’s been at it only 15 years. I stand by my premise: Dwayne Johnson’s career arc is unheard of. This is a guy who eats an unfathomable amount of cod per day. He’s in his 40s and in the best shape of his life. Johnson made his own alarm clock app to distribute encouraging messages to his fans every morning — the best thing to happen to horology since the pendulum. He’s got a show on HBO. He is the coolest person you will never meet.
But for most of us, he’s a prolific actor on the big screen, a guy who went from a wrestler-turned-half-crab-monster in a poorly regarded sequel to one of the most bankable leading men on the planet. What on earth happened?
With “Central Intelligence” out this week and Johnson once again in the news, let’s return to Hollywood Taxonomy, my intermittent effort to, like an anthropologist, categorize actors’ filmographies using inflation-adjusted domestic box office returns from OpusData1 and Rotten Tomatoes scores. Oh. I also spent the past several days watching every feature film Johnson ever appeared in.
In his early credits, he was still the wrestler, “The Rock.” Once he had a toehold in Hollywood, he began to be credited as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Now he’s out of the cocoon and is known to the world simply as Dwayne Johnson. The metamorphosis is complete. Let’s find out how The Rock became Dwayne Johnson.
“I’m making progress. I used to be an asshole.”
—Sean Porter, “Gridiron Gang”
Films: “Walking Tall” (2004); “Doom” (2005); “Be Cool” (2005); “Gridiron Gang” (2006); “Southland Tales” (2007); “Planet 51” (2009); “The Tooth Fairy” (2010); “Faster” (2010).
These are films with both review scores and box-office returns below or equal to The Rock’s median. They’re mostly from the early and middle part of Johnson’s career, and, if anything, they show how far he’s come.
“Walking Tall” is one hour and 14 minutes long when you ignore the credits. I’d explain the plot — a Samoan Bernie Sanders beats the crap out of small-town economic baddies with a 2-by-4 — but the film is basically what would happen if an executive at Spike TV watched a Lifetime original movie on peyote and said “give me some of that shit.” It’s a story Johnson will tell many times: A good man with immense biceps and a clear moral compass can triumph over evil, whatever side of the law he may be on.
The next several films in this category were bad outings for Johnson. “Doom,” in which he plays a main character that I never ended up learning the name of, is easily the second-worst movie he has ever been in. On that note, “Be Cool” is the worst. Don’t get me wrong. “Be Cool” is a massive milestone for Johnson — it’s the very first film in which he acquits himself as an actor, one who can do comedy and not merely muscle — but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s an awful movie.
But still, there is a single scene in which a young Rock — playing a gay bodyguard trying to break into acting — gets to spread his wings. It’s the only good scene in the film, and more importantly, it’s the first time Johnson seemed like an actor, not a wrestler-turned-actor:
I am convinced “Gridiron Gang” is completely improvised. Johnson is not acting in this film, he is just being Dwayne Johnson, and I know this because I follow him on Instagram and I have his clock app and because all the dialogue in this film — where Johnson motivates gang members to play as a team and win at football — is just how The Rock talks in real life.
And just as “Gridiron Gang” is straightforward to a fault, “Southland Tales” is far too big of a movie to summarize. But as notoriously absurd as this film is, Johnson is good. He’s got a fantastic nervous tic that you don’t pick up on as an acting decision unless you watched eight films featuring Johnson prior to “Southland Tales,” as I did.
“Planet 51” we will get to later.
And while all that was Johnson playing in the D-League, somehow “The Tooth Fairy” and “Faster,” which both came in 2010, seem like the big turning point in Johnson’s career, when he cements himself as a leading man, regardless of the reviews. The pitch of the first one — a hockey player has to be a tooth fairy — is pretty good as far as high-concept kids movies go. I personally think it’s worth a bit more than its 18-point tomatometer score, the lowest in the set. Still, his next film literally could not be further from “The Tooth Fairy”: “Faster” is the story of an ex-con systematically executing people who killed his brother and got him a dime in prison. It, like “The Tooth Fairy,” is pretty underrated.
The point of this category is that when Johnson is in a movie that is bad, or doesn’t make that much money, it’s not that Johnson wasn’t good in the role. At worst — and by “at worst” I mean “in the movie ‘Doom’ ” — he was just learning.
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson
“I am Hercules!”
Films: “The Scorpion King” (2002); “The Rundown” (2003); “The Game Plan” (2007); “Race to Witch Mountain” (2009); “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” (2012), “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (2013); “Pain & Gain” (2013); “Snitch” (2013); “Hercules” (2014).
These are films with either below-median reviews or below median box office.
“The Scorpion King” — Johnson’s first top-billed role — tells the story of how Johnson’s character in “The Mummy Returns” became king of Gomorrah.2
The third film he was in had the highest Rotten Tomatoes score Johnson would see as top-billed performer, a 71. In “The Rundown,” Johnson is a bounty hunter sent to the Amazon to bring home the spoiled son of a gangster but who instead successfully leads a rebellion to defeat a “Blood Diamond”-esque industrialist played by — why the hell not — Christopher Walken. The film is important for one reason: It’s the first film where Johnson drives an automobile and thus the first film where Johnson wrecks a car. In movies, Johnson is a singularly horrible driver.3
“The Game Plan” — a very, very Disney4 movie in which Johnson plays a quarterback who bonds with the daughter he didn’t know he had — is the only film Johnson has ever made where he doesn’t use violence.
|DWAYNE JOHNSON…||SHARE OF FILMS|
|Is/was a member of the armed forces||50||
|Is a cop or first responder||38||
|Wrecks a car||29||
|Is a parent||29||
|Is a criminal||21||
|Has a pet||17||
|Is an athlete||13||
He doesn’t punch anyone! He solves his problems using ballet!
While “The Race to Witch Mountain” was a mediocre film5 in general, it’s also the first film in which Johnson crushes it in what will become his bread-and-butter, a family-friendly action movie. But this is somewhat squandered by Johnson’s other 2009 film role, “Planet 51,” an animated film that has a completely identical plot. Aliens show up and need to get back home despite the local government reacting out of fear and trying to destroy ’em, but thanks to some local heroes willing to overlook the differences of others we can overcome bigotry. Same plot. Same year. I don’t even think he had to memorize new lines.
“Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” is the sequel in a franchise that seriously tried to build a Jules Verne Cinematic Universe. It featured Johnson, Michael Caine and the dweeb from “The Hunger Games.” The best part was the last scene, where they heavily tease a sequel involving “From the Earth to the Moon,” a film that does not yet exist four years later.
The following three consecutive films are outstandingly distinct. There’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” a standard shoot-’em-up action film and the only movie ever to go out of its way to speedily murder Channing Tatum. There’s “Pain & Gain,” which is far, far better than its 49 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, and is without question the best performance from The Rock up to that point in his career. And then there’s “Snitch,” which, following “Walking Tall” and “Gridiron Gang,” constitutes the final film of what I’ve come to call the “Dwayne ‘The Concerned Citizen’ Johnson” trilogy, which features The Rock weighing in on social issues such as economic decline, mandatory minimum sentencing and gang warfare. And like in “Pain & Gain,” Johnson does cocaine in this movie.
The last film in this category is also the most instructive. “Hercules” rules. It came out in the heart of the summer movie season a week before “Guardians of the Galaxy” became a surprise hit, and its reviews are frankly criminal. Johnson manages to say the line “Fucking centaurs,” and you buy it. Do you realize how hard it is to sell the line “Fucking centaurs”?
“Gotta catch wolves, you need wolves. Let’s go hunting.”
—Hobbs, “Furious 7”
Films: “The Mummy Returns” (2001); “Get Smart” (2008); “The Other Guys” (2010); “Fast Five” (2011); “Fast and Furious 6” (2013); “San Andreas” (2015); “Furious 7” (2015).
These are The Rock’s films that crushed it. They’re movies that had both above-median reviews and above-median box office.
“The Mummy Returns” is in here as a fluke. The Rock, who has eight minutes of screentime in a two-hour movie, is a poorly CGI’d Happy Meal toy.
The next two films, “Get Smart” and “The Other Guys,” feature Johnson in a supporting role alongside more seasoned pros. He’s not in these films much at all but still stands out. I think sometime between “Be Cool” in 2005 and “Southland Tales” in 2007, he figured out how to nail the supporting parts.
In “Fast Five,” “Fast and Furious 6” and “Furious 7,” Johnson is a shot in the arm for a franchise that was all pavement and no pounding before he got involved. A savvy, fast-talking international cop — the intellectual match of the notoriously crafty protagonist played by Vin Diesel — he manages to antagonize while still remaining the good guy, which isn’t easy to pull off. Also, the three-film arc led to his killing a helicopter with a minigun he ripped from a drone — a drone he personally took down by hurling an ambulance he was driving at it — and the world is better for having seen that.
But the Fast & Furious films are ensemble affairs. If you want to grok solo-Rock, watch “San Andreas.” He manages to remain kinetic in a film where he is largely performing static — behind the wheel of a helicopter, plane, car and boat. He secretes enough charisma in a five-hour period to convincingly win back an ex-wife. The emotional climax of the film6 is legitimately earned and gut wrenching, which is not what you think of when you think of The Rock’s movies. He came a long, long way from eight minutes of chiseled grunting in “The Mummy Returns” to anchoring an emotional climax in summer blockbuster like “San Andreas,” and did it faster than the average person pays off a student loan.
When The Rock started out, he was not a good actor. I mean that as a compliment.
Because it demonstrates the single most important thing about Dwayne Johnson. It’s not even a secret. The Rock was not born with a God-given talent for acting, he wasn’t born with pecs you can open bottles off of, he wasn’t born with a natural charisma. He worked to get there. In the end, he’s the only actor willing to admit that it’s never “effortless.”