By R. Emmet Sweeney
He stands, with perfect posture, brandishing a 2×4, a scimitar, a rail gun searching for an endpoint to a tale test-screened and ghost-written until it’s been sapped of any life and coherence. And yet there he is, a presence curiously untainted by all the Hollywood accoutrements. His physical solidity is continually undermined by a penchant for self-parody this whole hero bit is absurd, ain’t it (as he snaps a goon’s arm in two). So he flashes his shark’s grin, grits those incisors, and does what he can. And what he does is carry a film not into greatness, but at least to hearty pulp, the kind that leaves a bewildered smile on the face of audience members, because the effort and love were there if the material was not. This isn’t the age of the action hero times are too depressing, too conspiratorial but The Rock soldiers on, his solid sobriquet reflecting his endurance of the industry that lacks an Aldrich or Fuller to expand upon his voluminous gifts.
Today he’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, character turned man, as the grip of huckster/genius Vince McMahon loosens and more sober screenplay choices open up. Next is the male weepie “Gridiron Gang”, a bit of football uplift that leaves enough sharp edges to make the plot-mush go down smoother. The Rock inhabits the role of the coach convincingly, the troubled kids turning to organized sport mirrors his own youthful misadventures, and his craft betters with each turn of the spool. He cries with grit and yells with tenderness. Legitimacy might not improve his films but he’s courting it whole-heartedly. He wants to be liked that’s what made him a star in the WWE/F. His showmanship was unparalleled, each rote punch and kick caricatured into a shimmering shimmy of exaggerated power. Every motion underlined, but not put in quotes because this fight, while choreographed, was serious for the fans and therefore serious to him no one worked harder in the ring, took as many bumps. The Rock is a stickler for realism, at least when it comes to blows listen to him boast on “The Scorpion King” or “Walking Tall” commentary track on the commitment to those sequences the consultations with Army Special Forces types and doing his own stunts. His background forbids anything else.
This sticks out the fact he has a background. Today stars want to be stars as kids all actors know is acting. The Rock is an exception he made his living playing football in the Canadian Football League until a bum shoulder forced retirement. Then he played cities all over the world as “The Rock” in the ring, honing performance, timing, expression. Every move he makes speaks to this experience, adds weight to when he puts the pads on in “Gridiron Gang” to challenge a kid to knock him down (and even this dramatic moment is undercut by the sight of his frame bursting out of the high-schoolers jersey).
The films got better “The Rundown” (2003) was graced by Christopher Walken’s cracked monologues, while The Rock further honed his self-deprecating muscle-man persona, aided by the jibes of Sean William Scott. Another wrinkle he refuses to use guns (until the corpse piling climax), a principled stand also taken up in “Walking Tall” (2004), his most emblematic work. It contains quick and dirty fight scenes, campy humor, and a rigid belief in the value of hard work a bizarre combination embodied in the smirking, chiseled visage of the man himself. Johnny Knoxville takes over the Scott role in cutting him down to size.
He internalized the sarcastic conscience of Scott/Knoxville in the “Get Shorty” sequel “Be Cool” (2005), explicitly parodying the self-image that he had already so thoroughly deconstructed in straighter films. But his performance is brilliant as gay bodyguard Elliot Wilhelm, he outs his love of performance, no longer masked under blood and guts. No, here he just emotes spectacularly so in his one-man rendition of a scene from “Bring It On,” playing both sides of a cheerleader bitch session. It dwarfs the rest of the film by its utter fearlessness what comparable box-office draw would have the confidence to pull off such a feminizing stunt? It’s remarkable, and his version of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough” might even top it.
“Doom” (2005) was cheap red meat for his core audience, bland, workmanlike, and thoroughly forgettable (despite the fact his hero turns psychopathic villain) but then he went and starred in Richard Kelley’s infamous “Southland Tales” (2006), an apocalyptic satire so derided by critics at Cannes it may never see the light of day. He plays an action star stricken with amnesia a further elaboration of Elliot Wilhelm, the chiseled body stricken by an identity crisis. LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hope Sony doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t mutilate it too badly.
The Rock is the ideal post-modern action star a self-referential comedian who breaks down his image at every turn yet manages to satisfy our (my) primitive urges for beat downs with earnest conviction and immense physical prowess. He’s utterly fascinating and completely ignored, but hopefully “Gridiron Gang” will turn the expected buck and some middlebrow maestro (Ridley Scott? Paul Haggis?) will cast him in some piece of revolting Oscar bait. With a modicum of control over his projects afterward, the matinee adventure film, driven by character and wit, would ease back into theaters, and our afternoons would be richer for years to come.