Dwayne Johnson is the new David Hasselhoff. No, he’s not launching a singing career in Germany, but taking on The Hoff’s iconic role as Mitch Buchanan in the action-comedy big screen reboot of Baywatch. And it’s just the latest example of the former wrestler being called upon to breathe new life into a franchise.
WWE stars making the leap to movies was old hat long before Dwayne Johnson ventured out of the ring, following the likes of Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper. But Johnson is undoubtedly the one to have enjoyed the most success over a prolonged period. And his star power is still growing, as he combines his brawn and comedic aptitude to winning effect. We should have seen the signs when he treated wrestling fans to special move the People’s Elbow, described brilliantly on Wikipedia as a “running delayed high-impact elbow drop, with theatrics.”
It’s easy now to forget that the man then being billed as The Rock made a rather inauspicious start to his Hollywood career, with a much-hyped but actually small role in the prologue of fantasy-adventure sequel The Mummy Returns in 2001. He appeared briefly as the Scorpion King, only to return as the face of a laughable CGI giant scorpion at the film’s climax. However, commercial success did lead to a spin-off in which Johnson starred as the Scorpion King. It was a moderate box office hit, but Johnson didn’t return for any of the three (three?!) sequels.
From there followed a run of so-so action flicks like Welcome to the Jungle and Doom, as well as sports drama Gridiron Gang, which raised his profile as a bankable star – and actually not-half-bad actor – with bags of charisma. But if these roles were a fairly predictable and formulaic route for a giant (in every sense) athlete like The Rock, his next choice was an interesting and risky one. Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s 2006 followup to Donnie Darko, saw him cast as an amnesiac action star with a screenplay that seems to predict the future. The film was a massive flop, taking a bashing from critics and audiences alike (though it’s gained more love in the years since.) But Southland Tales did at least see Johnson stepping outside his comfort zone, trying something different – if slightly overacting as the eye-popping, finger-twiddling Boxer Santaros. During promotion for the film, he described the script as “ambitious and ballsy” and hoped people would be “challenged… want to figure things out.”
So perhaps it was the disappointing reaction to the film that led to Dwayne’s diversion into family-friendly and Disney fare, such as Race to Witch Mountain, Planet 51 and Tooth Fairy (all too reminiscent of Hulk Hogan’s Mr. Nanny). But Johnson also showed a knack for comedy in Get Smart and The Other Guys, riffing on his action-man persona to what is now trademark effect.
However, it was after all these, with Fast Five, that the big man began to find his place as the go-to franchise trouble-shooter. Joining the cast of a dwindling Fast and Furious series – the fourth entry had dipped to a 28% score on Rotten Tomatoes – Johnson’s involvement has helped turn it into a box office juggernaut. The reviews and the receipts have shot up since his addition, with plans to take the series up to at least ten films. There’s even talk of a spin-off for Johnson’s character Hobbs.
Taking note, the makers of GI: Joe sequel Retaliation – needing a way to build on the uninspiring first effort – turned to our Dwayne. He bumped original star Channing Tatum down the billing as he and Bruce Willis became, quite literally, the main poster boys. Director Jon M. Chu said: “Everything was like closing in and we did not have a cast yet, but we all knew that it was important to find the right guy that would set everything up. And when you look out in the landscape, who is that masculine action hero that isn’t just a pretty boy? Dwayne is that.” Retaliation was a reasonable success, grossing $375m worldwide compared to the $302m brought in by its predecessor The Rise of Cobra. No followup has emerged as yet though.
The last few years have really cemented Dwayne Johnson’s status as a bonafide Hollywood megastar. He’s headlined 2015’s disaster hit San Andreas (with a sequel in the works), returned to comedy in a fruitful double act with Kevin Hart in Central Intelligence and even added singing to his growing list of talents by working his considerable pipes in Disney animation Moana.
But Johnson’s not content to be cast in movies: he’s also become a powerful producer in both film and television, with particular success in HBO’s Ballers – in which he also stars. That producer role extends to a somewhat controversial remake of John Carpenter’s ‘80s cult classic Big Trouble in Little China, with Johnson in line to take on Kurt Russell’s iconic character Jack Burton, and an executive producer credit for Baywatch.
In the pipeline is the upcoming Jumanji reboot/sequel, where Johnson will re-team with Kevin Hart – but could the wrestler-turned-actor-turned-producer be about to turn President? There’s a lot of buzz at the moment about a genuine chance of a bid for the White House in 2020, with the man himself saying “we’ll see.”
Whether that happens or not, the artist formerly known as The Rock is sure to go from strength to strength on screens big and small for many years to come yet. He may not be up for Best Actor anytime soon, but he has genuine talent, and that, coupled with his sheer screen presence and knack for comedy, make him a proper “People’s Champ”.