Let’s be honest: When you heard Sony were making a sequel to Jumanji, starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, you thought it was a flop in waiting. Nostalgia is profitable, yes, but surely it can only go so far? Who was scrambling for a sequel-slash-reboot to Jumanji? Did people really like the film that much? Plus, it was going up against a little film named Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which made many of us think the studio were trying to dump it and cut their losses as early as possible. That was before it brought in $315m domestically, before its international grosses surpassed $767.8m, before it became the 5th highest grossing film in Sony’s history, ahead of Skyfall. Call it nostalgia, call it marketing or call it whatever you like, but Jumanji is a bona fide hit. Give it a couple of weeks and it may even surpass Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales in the top 10 of 2017.
As of the writing of this piece, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has a lifetime gross of over $3.1bn. He’s the star of two films that have made over $1bn worldwide and in the space of the past decade, he has established himself as a true blockbuster icon. The former wrestler whose much hyped acting debut made most critics roll their eyes has become the kind of major old school movie star that Hollywood has less need for, but under the right circumstances can remain truly unbeatable. The word ‘icon’ is tossed around so liberally these days, applied to any vague presence who can get over a hundred retweets, but it feels right to give Johnson that title. What he embodies is so potent, so contradictory yet making so much sense, that when talk of a Presidential run popped up, more people seemed excited than concerned. That says much about our own bonkers times, but it’s a time where we crave figures like The Rock.
When I was a kid, and wrestling suddenly became the coolest thing in the world once we all got sick of Pokemon, everyone knew that The Rock was the best. Even as children, we were drawn to the magnetic charm of this bulk of a man who could cause crowds to erupt with joy by merely raising his eyebrow. As a burgeoning film fan, hearing he would become an actor in the sequel to The Mummy, a movie I also loved, was a big deal. It was also a big deal in the film industry, although not one that was necessarily taken very seriously. Hulk Hogan had done alright for himself as an actor, although he wasn’t ever categorized as an actor in serious terms. He made frivolous little films, some of which made money, and he was objectively bad in all of them. At some points, he didn’t seem that good at being Hulk Hogan, even in movies where he was obviously supposed to be himself. Nobody expected The Rock to do all that well or do all that much in The Mummy Returns, although his reported salary of $5.5m still raised some brows.
To call his work in The Mummy Returns a performance feels unfair to both Johnson and the film. As the Scorpion King, the main baddie of the piece, he has all of 15 minutes of screen-time, and for most of that, he’s in the form of a staggeringly cheap looking CGI scorpion man. He barely speaks, he makes little to no impact on the plot, and he doesn’t seem particularly interested in the material. Reviews weren’t kind but they were at least understanding of how pointless the work given to him was. Here’s a guy used to doing so much with so little, but at least in the wrestling ring, spectators could see the actual man and not a cartoon-like animal. The film did well enough at the box office and it led to Johnson being offered his own spin-off movie. The Scorpion King is not much better than The Mummy Returns but it’s a better display of Johnson’s potential than his 15 minutes of nothing. His arc is more sympathetic to the future villain, he displays the expected physical agility, and he gets to look good with his shirt off. The big problem with the film as a selling point for Johnson the actor is that it’s too focused on his physical prowess. You know he’s a strong guy as a wrestler since it’s an obvious job requirement, but muscled action dudes are ten a penny in Hollywood. He needed a greater chance to show his other favoured attribute: His humour.
After a couple more generic action flicks, Johnson joined the cast of Be Cool, a middling sequel to Get Shorty, wherein he played a gay bodyguard and aspiring actor. He’s so good in this cliché of a role that it almost makes watching the film worthwhile. With a perfectly coiffed afro, his character is a shameless narcissist who takes giddy joy in being every actor stereotype you can imagine. You can practically feel the enthusiasm radiating from Johnson. Finally, a role that’s completely to his type but seems utterly against it. It’s a physical role, yes, but fundamentally the work of a real actor. This was Johnson showing the world, in the same year that he took on a more expected macho-action role in Doom, that yes, he does have the range.
The next five years saw Johnson further develop that range, and show himself as a Jack of all trades. There was the fascinating train-wreck of Southland Tales, where every actor is ponderous and more serious than necessary. Everyone presents themselves, Johnson included, as if they’re Oscar winning performances in waiting, so it’s not a high point for Johnson. He did more action stuff, as expected, but his move into children’s movies marked out his career path in a more familiar manner. This was a Hulk Hogan tactic, with obvious shades of Schwarzenegger. Movies like The Tooth Fairy and The Game Plan still focus heavily on his impressive physical form, but more slapstick orientated. The most muscled and masculine figure on-screen gets beaten by the kids. It shows how up for anything you are and can evoke a sense of humility as an actor and personality. It also helps that it’s a nicely lucrative market. None of these films are necessarily Johnson at his best, but it shows how his charm knows no ends, and that willingness to do anything for a laugh. It’s almost vaudeville in places - admit it, the line ‘Dwayne The Rock Johnson IS The Tooth Fairy’ makes you laugh.
Johnson started to find his most effective leading man niche by taking on supporting roles in ensemble pieces and being something of a back-up. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island swaps out Brendan Fraser for Johnson but allows him to play that Fraser type with panache: Think of that goofy masculinity that’s borderline caricature but endlessly appealing. GI Joe: Retaliation is essentially the big-budget equivalent of toddlers smashing their toys together, and Johnson knows the right tone to strike for such escapades.
Then, of course, there was Fast Five. By this point, the ever-present Fast and the Furious franchise had moved into a level of self-aware bombast and silliness that made it an unstoppable box office juggernaut. Johnson’s inclusion in the diverse cast felt completely right, and you wondered why he wasn’t there from the beginning. His smile alone is like the sun the rest of us hope to orbit. This franchise, which Johnson seems to be the major star of now (sorry, Vin Diesel), is powered in part by his canny combination of machismo, self-aware charm and sheer earnestness: He’s the biggest guy in the room but he also has no problem with being the one to slip on the banana peel. He’ll even do it with a smile and a song.
It’s striking how Johnson has managed to become so endlessly appealing in nearly every demographic. He can sell a goofy kids’ film as much as he can a multi-million dollar action fest. In a time where everyone in Hollywood is trying hard to be more serious, to shed their pasts as reality TV stars or takes roles with lots of crying, Johnson is consciously taking a different route. The goofier things are, the better the opportunities are for him to showcase his talents. His masculinity is one without an ounce of unearned ego. Even when he’s showing off those biceps, his focus is on entertainment rather than spectacle. Johnson wants people to like him, and it seems like everyone does. It feels good to like things, and we’re so short of that these days. That’s not to say he’s perfect, but there’s a reason he’s the highest paid actor currently working. This year, Johnson will headline Rampage, an action adventure film about a primatologist and the bond he shares with a giant albino ape. It’s a testament to Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s appeal that we’re unironically excited for it.