Dwayne Johnson. Better known as The Rock. Dwayne, "The Rock," Johnson. Need I say more?
I don't even need to see the whole movie to tell you it's going to be amazing. How can it not be? It's a movie about Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson acting like he's Hercules. He doesn't even need to be a good actor for his performance to be stellar. The Rock already is Hercules, insofar as a modern-day professional wrestler-turned-actor can resemble a statuesque Greek legend from ancient times. The real question here is why it took this long for Hollywood to put two and two together and finally. It doesn't even take a director as experienced and talented as Brett Ratner to help us realize this; all one really needs to do is point a camera at the guy and let him be himself. Or, at least, be The Rock.
Let me revisit some highlights from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's film career to better remember what brought him to this moment:
The Mummy Returns
Johnson's first big role outside of his wrestling career was as a half-villain, half Deus ex Machina plot device in this 2001 Brendan Fraser-lead Indiana Jones tribute. Casting The Rock as an unintelligible half-naked warrior who later turns into a half-man, half-scorpion monster painted with some truly awful early 21st century CGI was pretty much the perfect way to introduce the man to the non-WWE watching universe.
The Scorpion King
The Rock revisited his role from The Mummy a year later in a spin-off origin story. The movie didn't really succeed in its mission to turn the film series into a proper franchise. But it was also the first time The Rock was handed a true leading role. People started to notice his potential.
Johnson truly came into his own on screen in this 2004 masterpiece about The Rock solving a small town's problems by hitting them with a gigantic piece of wood. Walking Tall stands up as one of his best movies to this day. It also provides a fascinating window into the man's unique approach to being an action movie star: whether he was playing a hero or a villain, The Rock realized he could win audiences by borrowing some of the bizarre, over-the-top swagger that he brought to the ring during the glory days of his WWE career. But he also began to temper it with a genuinely earnest do-good persona as well.
This is a terrible movie based on a legendary video game series. The treatment of its source material was abysmal, borderline offensive. The only—only—redeeming quality the film has is it gave Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson an excuse to whisper the phrase "big fucking gun" in anticipation as he gazed upon the glory of the BFG 9000.
Also, one more point before we (hopefully) never speak of Doom again: rewatching the film for this article made me realize what I think was its fatal flaw. It cast Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, but didn't make him the Doomguy. Why on earth would you anybody think that was a good idea?
This is a weird, overwrought movie in which The Rock plays a dad who's forced to begin working as an undercover informant in order to reduce his son's criminal sentence after he's arrested for holding a friend's drug stash. It's like Breaking Bad, if Breaking Bad was a movie where Walter White was played by The Rock and wasn't very good. It showed the very clear limits of The Rock's acting ability when he tries to play a straight-faced serious role in a film also trying to convey a serious sociopolitical message. Directors, take note: that is not what Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is good for.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation
G.I. Joe succeeds where Doom failed. Because this movie realized that The Rock is, essentially, a real-world version of the iconic action figures on which it is based, and played up his superhuman persona as a result. He has a rocky start at the beginning of the film when he's joking around with with his best bro and fellow Joe Channing Tatum. Once the movie gets down to its silly action sequences, however, The Rock hits his stride. It's not quite as good as Transformers, that other modern Hasbro reboot. But it's pretty darn good. That being said, I'm left wondering if G.I. Joe, much like Doom, would have had a better shot at reaching Transformers-level stardom if it had put Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in more of a central role from the beginning of its reboot.
Pain & Gain
Speaking of the awesomeness of Transformers, is there any surprise that director Michael Bay managed to bring out The Rock's greatest theatrical performance to date? Many of Bay's detractors have derided this movie as the blockbuster-friendly director's weak attempt to make an offbeat movie in the style of the Coen brothers, given that its a self-aware darkly humorous movie about a heist that goes terribly wrong. Once again, these critics are wrong. Sure, Bay doesn't have as firm a handle on things like "subtlety" and "humor" that the creators of Fargo do. But that's what makes this movie so great—it's borrowing their style, but applying it to the rhythm and bombastic tone of a director who uses screen-filling, city-block-destroying explosions as an essential color in his (admittedly limited) palette. Pain & Gain uses The Rock the same way that Transformers uses Optimus Prime: it plays up the character's inherent ridiculousness to truly bizarre, comic proportions. In doing so, Bay also manages to bring out deeper emotions from Dwayne Johnson than I ever thought possible. This is an eccentric, excellent movie, and much of that is thanks to The Rock.
Now: Will Hercules overcome Pain & Gain as The Rock's best movie? I don't know, but it certainly has all the right ingredients. I will go into the movie theater this weekend with my fingers crossed, and report back to you with what I find.
Illustration by Sam Woolley