When you see posters advertising his movies, he’s identified as Dwayne Johnson. But nobody calls him that. We all just call him the Rock. There’s something incredibly telling about that. One name — the one we see on posters — is the name of an actor, a movie star. The other — the one we all prefer — belongs to his old life, when he was more of a cartoon character than a real person. But even Johnson seems to understand this reality, even embrace it. He wants to be an action hero, someone taken seriously in Hollywood, but his movies are almost beside the point. He’s bigger than the movies he stars in. And he’s definitely better than them.
Friday sees the release of “Snitch,” which will start screening for most critics this week. I haven’t seen it yet, but I find myself optimistic that it’ll be good. There is no reason I should feel this way. When you look at his recent output, it’s a mixed bag. He’s fun in brief comedic roles in “Get Smart” and “The Other Guys,” essentially spoofing his own tough-guy persona. But then you have the utterly terrible family fare like “Tooth Fairy,” where he was billed as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and the so-so action-drama “Faster” where his grit mostly went to waste. Most times, I walk out of his films liking him but not liking the film much at all. Even when the film he’s in is a dog, he’s incredibly charismatic, and he’s funnier than just about any other pure action star out there. Outside of Jason Statham, there’s no movie star for whom I so consistently give the benefit of the doubt, no matter how many times he’s disappointed me.
Before he was an actor, he was a wrestler. A fairly successful one known as the Rock. He looked the part with his rippling muscles and cocky demeanor. But he also seemed to understand that most people know wrestling is fake, and so he walked a delicate line, acknowledging the absurdity of the whole thing while at the same time playing into the make-believe. His film career really hasn’t been that different. He knows we all call him the Rock and that his movies aren’t high art. He plays the tough guy, but a tough guy who gets that tough guys are kind of a joke. He won’t deny you the pleasure of enjoying him as a tough guy, but he also doesn’t take it so seriously.
This isn’t to suggest that people who go to his movies think of them as knowing self-parodies. Judging by the commercials for “Snitch,” the movie looks very much like it’s in the same vein as “Faster,” positioning Johnson as an action hero who’s comfortable with drama, albeit that of the B-movie kind. The guy’s clearly ambitious, and he’s willing to try anything. He’ll do inspirational sports movies (“Gridiron Gang”), he’ll do nervy indie dramas (“Southland Tales”), and he’ll do the franchise stuff (“The Scorpion King,” “Fast Five,” “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”). But his appeal lies in his ability to not seem like a comer: Whether it’s on his Twitter feed or in his “Saturday Night Live” appearances, he works the aw-shucks self-deprecation with such sincerity that if he’s faking it’s his best-ever performance. He’s been on the big screen for more than 10 years now, and yet he’s still able to keep our expectations in check. We may not like his movies but, weirdly, we don’t blame him. He’s that one kid on the baseball team who’s really likable and fun to be around, and who cares if he can’t hit? You just enjoy being with him.
That can’t last forever, of course. Eventually audiences will get tired of him, or a newer actor will swoop in and steal the parts that he used to get. But for now, Johnson is unique among movie stars, and that uniqueness is worth celebrating, even if it does mean sitting through junk like “Journey 2.” Frankly, at this point the movies are just an excuse to have him around in the culture cracking jokes and being all Rock-like. There are plenty of movie stars with more depth than him. But there aren’t many who seem to enjoy their stardom as much as he does — and make it so enjoyable for the rest of us.
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