The Rise of Dwayne Johnson

By  · Published on June 15th, 2016

How The Rock not-so-quietly became a more charming, modern day Schwarzenegger.

Before getting to the important business of discussing Dwayne Johnson’s magnificence and versatility as a movie star, we must address Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger’s advent as a leading man in the 1980s presented the cinema with something wholly new, with his astonishing physical impossibility initially restricting him to roles as barbarians, robots, or an expression of pure id (see Commando, one of the greatest things to ever exist). Eventually, once the shock of his mere being wore off, Schwarzenegger was revealed to be an eminently effective actor, with sharp timing and a self-awareness about his sui generis place in the culture that led for the most part to his choosing material suited to his skills. His run as a major star was wildly successful, so much so that “Governor Schwarzenegger” became not a misquote of a Stallone joke from Demolition Man but a reality. What this meant – yes, there was a point to all this beyond fan swooning – was that once he retired from movies to begin his political career there was an Arnold-shaped hole in movies. After some time as a void threatening to collapse the very institution of art itself, one man emerged to fill it, and fill it he did while also redefining it in his own shape. That man was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Wrestling as first Rocky Maivia, and then upon his fortuitous heel turn as The Rock (he would have another run as a face, because plot twists are good), Johnson quickly attained ubiquity within the form and in relatively short order was a mainstream cultural figure. His charisma derived in equal measures from Schwarzeneggerian physical impossibility and an innate sense of the theatrical that was in scale with his mountainous physique. Inevitably, Hollywood came calling. After a run of early-to-mid-80s retro-Schwarzenegger, eventually and without an easily quantifiable moment to pinpoint the transition, Dwayne Johnson simply was a movie star, and despite the clear and frequently cited precedent here, a movie star entirely his own entity, no longer beholden to any existing model.

Thinking about what makes Johnson such an appealing star, two answers come to mind: the first is not very helpful although wholly sufficient, “He just is.” The second and more expansive one is that he could very well be a compendium of traits balanced and calculated to form a mass of broad appeal. He is, in a grand tradition tracing back to time immemorial, a gentle giant: the giant part needs no explanation – just look at the guy, for heaven’s sake – and the gentleness exudes both easily, with his disarming smile, and without ever being mistaken for weakness (which is, let’s face it, unthinkable). He’s multiracial, which in an era of increasing consciousness about the importance of representation in media is a great aid to popularity.

Finally, the most important element to Johnson’s success in movies is the simultaneous willingness and ability to try seemingly anything. The best example is Be Cool, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s sequel to Get Shorty. Johnson plays, Leonard’s words, “Elliott the human door blocking their way: six-five or so up close and maybe two-sixty. Not bad looking, the hair clear and shining . . . the guy maybe only part Samoan, Chili seeing African in his features.” The number of actors alive who could be cast in the movie adaptation, thus, is approximately one. Elliott is also gay, and while that shouldn’t be a sticking point it still is, and was more of one eleven years ago. Johnson, though, took the part, and played it with gusto. It’s not the sort of thing that earns a gold star for allyship (not that I’m on the rules committee), but his rendition of a two-hander from Bring It On as an audition monologue certainly merits bronze.

The joys of watching Johnson play to his strengths – note, in particular, Fast & Furious 7, where he rips a cast off a broken limb so it won’t impede his movement, and then later punches a drone to death barehanded – are just as great. And he has a particular flair for comedy, both physical and verbal, which has made the ads for Central Intelligence during the NBA Finals something less than a chore. There is something primally funny about the simple act of putting a guy (Kevin Hart) next to another guy who’s a foot taller than him (Dwayne), so even if all else improbably fails there’s still that. A true movie star, promise fully realized, is someone who can inspire that sort of confidence. Dwayne Johnson does so. Like, if you will, a Rock.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all