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An Appreciation of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

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. Let’s hope Sony doesn’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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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