This week, Dwayne Johnson gets another chance to prove his magnetic star power in Central Intelligence, an action comedy co-starring Kevin Hart that sees Johnson as an intelligence operative that makes James Bond look like C-3PO. If the past is any indication, the combination of action-Johnson, and comedy-Johnson will lead to big dollars at the box office; another gold star for the man who started his career as the wrestler called The Rock 20 years ago.
In that, Johnson is a trailblazer. One of the rare veterans of the WWE that was able to parlay his star-power and experience in the ring into a big Hollywood career. More than that, Johnson has shown a dexterity and diversity of performances that put him in a unique Hollywood class: he can do action (obviously!), comedy, drama, kids films, and he doesn’t always have to even be on screen to do it. (See Moana later this year.) But with 15 years and so many performances, what constitutes the very best work of the man called “The Rock”? Let’s look at the Top Five performances – according to us – of Dwayne Johnson.
5) San Andreas
In the midst of a boatload of superheroes and sequels last summer, Dwayne Johnson proved that there is still such a thing as star power in modern films by making San Andreas one of the biggest hits of 2015. It was a story as old as Hollywood: one man – in this case, helicopter rescue pilot Raymond Gaines – who is forced to overcome tremendous and extraordinary obstacles in order to save the person he loves. But because this is The Rock, you believed that one man can beat an earthquake, even if it’s the long-prophesied “Big One” that has threatened to swallow California whole for a hundred years. Yes, Dwayne Johnson is just that good.
Now some critics faulted Johnson’s lack of emoting as a downside to San Andreas, but does The Rock need to get weepy to show that he’s an emotional man? Leave the extravagant tears and histrionics to actors like Colin Firth or Eddie Redmayne, because Johnson shows Gaines’ sadness and regret about losing one daughter by throwing every ounce of his survival knowledge into single-minded saving his estranged wife and younger daughter. Johnson proudly wears Gaines’ devotion to family, and his disappointment when his job gets in the way, but the way he feverishly yet determinedly races up the California coast to save Blake, played by Alexandra Daddario, we’re all comforted by a single thought: We wish The Rock was our dad.
4) Pain and Gain
Pain and Gain is mostly known for being Michael Bay’s return to some semblance of storytelling, but its success lies largely on the unnaturally broad shoulders of Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, and yes, Dwayne Johnson. Based on the true story of three Florida muscle heads in the 90s who tried to get rich through kidnapping and murder, Johnson played the only real repentant member of the trio, Paul Doyle. Wahlberg got the flashier part as the man with the plan, a man whose inflated sense of self-worth and self-confidence bordered on delusional psychosis, but it was up to Johnson to paint a compelling picture of why easy money often isn’t so easy.
Of the three main characters, Paul is the most sympathetic, and the only one whose motivations seem neither greedy nor base, he’s just a parolee trying to turn his life around when he falls under the sway of Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo. Johnson’s Doyle found religion in prison, but Lugo’s religion is fast money, fast cars and a body that’s consistently buffed and tanned; sadly, Doyle can’t hold true to both faiths at the same time. It’s weird to see Johnson become a wreck of a man, he’s such a primary specimen of physical excellence, but Johnson convincingly plays Doyle unwound, broken even, as the promises made by himself and Lugo lead only to misery and regret. Te only salvation left for Paul in the end is to return to prison.
3) The Rundown
Although Dwayne Johnson had officially broken through on film with The Scorpion King (based on his brief cameo in The Mummy Returns), it was The Rundown that established him as a star on the rise. At the time, it seemed preordained that Johnson was bound for movie greatness, and even though he had yet to escape his WWE past (he was still being billed as “The Rock”), he was nonetheless christened as the next American movie action star. When The Rundown opens, Johnson’s mob enforcer Mr. Beck passes Arnold Schwarzenegger in the entryway of a club. “Have fun,” is all he says, and all he really needs to say. There was definitely a feeling that the torch was being passed as Johnson strode into that club to make a point, and that point was, “a star is born.”
It would have been easy for Johnson to exploit his tough guy visage in his first major action movie outing (John Cena did it in 12 Rounds), but even at this early stage he showed shrewdness and maturity. Mr. Beck was saving up to start his own restaurant, and he abhorred the use of guns to get the job done, and only resorted to fisticuffs when all else failed. While trying to downplay his physical acumen, Johnson also knew the value of a strong team; The Rundown was directed by Peter Berg, Seann William Scott was cast as his unwilling (and unwitting) bounty, and Christopher Walken was the film’s villain. That’s some powerful company to put on a new talent, but Johnson showed himself more than up to the challenge. He had fun sure, but more importantly he showed that he was here to stay.
2) Be Cool
Borrowing a lesson from Schwarzenegger, Dwayne Johnson knew he couldn’t just stick to hitting people, we was going to have to branch out too. A few years into his ascension he did just that by playing aspiring actor/hired muscle Elliot Wilhelm in the Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool. John Travolta and Uma Thurman may have gotten top-billing, but Johnson was the scene-stealer, and he showed that he was good enough and secure enough to play with a team, while playing against type as a gay Samoan triple threat that can sing, dance, act, and in a fitting meta reference to Johnson’s real-life persona, can raise his eyebrow suggestively on cue.
Be Cool, of course, was not a great movie; even the director, F. Gary Grey, disavowed it and confessed that he got greedy thinking he could cram an R-rated movie into a PG-13 suit. Johnson somehow rose above that though by turning his image inside out, and like Schwarzenegger he showed he had a natural flair for comedy. Grey got a lot of mileage out of the eyebrow gag, but as Johnson proved handily he had so much more to offer. You want to see The Rock sing Loretta Lynn? Do you want to see him perform a “monologue” from Bring It On!? Do you want to see him be a back-up dancer to Christina Milan? That’s all a Dwayne Johnson we hadn’t seen before or since, and no matter how you feel about Be Cool, by the end you’ll be dying to see Elliot and Nicole Kidman in Samoan Rendezvous.
1) Fast and Furious franchise
It always seemed that Dwayne Johnson was bound for greatness on his own, but could he take others with him on the road to greatness as well? That was the question answered when Johnson began getting a reputation for being “franchise viagra”. Did your flagging franchise need a jolt of energy? Just call Dwayne Johnson, and he’ll back a Brinks truck up to your backdoor! That’s not exactly true, but Johnson’s arrival to the Fast and Furious world coincided with the point at which the Vin Diesel/Paul Walker series went from modest hit to box office titan, and now they’re talking about spinning off Johnson’s DSS Agent Lucas Hobbes into his own solo adventure where presumably he’ll still be fast and furious, but at his own pace and frequency.
So what made Johnson such a potent addition to the Fast and Furious series? Diesel’s rule-breaking, fast-driving Dominic Toretto needed someone who could believably stand up to him, and believably stand up for the law in a movie series that essential celebrates the criminal. In the context of Fast 5, Hobbes might have just been a jerk thrown into the mix to give Toretto and the gang a bad time, but of course Hobbes has his own code, and begrudgingly he and Toretto eventually become the good and the bad who team up to fight the ugly together. When the gang are absolutely, positively caught against the wall, it’s Hobbes that saves their bacon, or as he observes in Furious 7, “I am the cavalry.” You certainly can’t doubt the commitment, or the power, of a man that can flex his way out of a cast that covers his entire arm.