Dwayne Johnson Misunderstands His Own Star Appeal

Once upon a time, a broad-shouldered actor who started out in the brawny sporting world made a successful leap to Hollywood—first playing villains and quirky supporting roles, then becoming a star who could headline hyper-violent R-rated thrillers as easily as family comedies. Eventually, he parlayed this superstardom into political office. I’m talking, of course, about Arnold Schwarzenegger: weightlifting champ, king of action cinema in the ’80s and ’90s, and eventual governor of California. But this career arc seems to be a model for a newer Hollywood A-lister, the square-jawed and larger-than-life Dwayne Johnson, a onetime professional wrestler, current marquee name, and potential future presidential candidate.

[Arnold Schwarzenegger: The America I love needs to do better]

Johnson’s latest movie, Jungle Cruise, which was released Friday in theaters (and on Disney+ for a premium charge), feels like the latest step in his plan for industry domination. After years of fairly anonymous action movies, he’s finally headlining a summer blockbuster. The film, which is based on an amusement-park ride, follows Frank Wolff (played by Johnson), a beefy steamboat captain who leads a plucky scientist (Emily Blunt) and her brother down the Amazon River in search of the mythic tree of life. CGI-assisted hijinks ensue, and the entire project is shot through with a family-friendly, swashbuckling spirit.

[Read: Dwayne Johnson is the world’s most indestructible movie star]

Though Jungle Cruise is perfectly watchable, I was surprised by how unremarkable Johnson is playing a regular old hero. Blunt, who is accustomed to stealing movies out from under her talented co-stars (see The Devil Wears Prada or Edge of Tomorrow), has more fun with a meatier role as a professionally overlooked scientist. Jesse Plemons delivers an eager Werner Herzog impression as the movie’s German villain; Paul Giamatti swings in for a colorful supporting turn as a cantankerous local harbormaster. Johnson is a reliable anchor for the movie’s action scenes but doesn’t get to have nearly enough fun in between.

Johnson’s uninspired performance is reminiscent of the early stages of his pro wrestling career in the WWE, where he was introduced as a clean-cut “face,” or hero, character. It’s telling that he didn’t reach megastardom until he leaned into his more swaggering “heel” personality, “The Rock.” On the big screen, Johnson has similarly thrived playing characters with an arrogant streak. His appearance as the bombastic, goateed federal agent Luke Hobbs in Fast Five helped supercharge the Fast & Furious series into the phenomenon that it is today, and his voice work as the boastful but vulnerable demigod Maui in Moana crackles with humor and verve.

But so many other entries in Johnson’s filmography give him as little onscreen personality as possible. Early in his career, he churned out solid B-movies such as Walking Tall, Doom, and Faster that showcased his physicality but skimped on character detail. Post–Fast Five, he graduated to more expensive, yet equally bland disasters such as San Andreas and Rampage, playing generic tough guys who can solve every problem. He’s better served by roles with a comedic angle, as in Central Intelligence or the Jumanji movies, but even in those, he mostly exists as a buff straight man for co-star Kevin Hart to bounce off.

[Read: ‘Rampage’ is a big, noisy nothing]

Schwarzenegger was better at choosing roles that showcased his talents. Though his breakout roles, such as the Terminator, had a villainous edge, he flourished in the ’80s and ’90s playing essentially the same type of muscle-bound hero over and over again in classics such as Commando, Raw Deal, Predator, and Total Recall. But he also showed a softer side in more comical works, including Twins, Kindergarten Cop, and Junior. Above all, he was also working with genuinely innovative filmmakers—James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven, and John McTiernan—while Johnson has relied on little-known directors for his big projects.

Jungle Cruise’s Jaume Collet-Serra is a promising director for Johnson to be working with. Collet-Serra is a purveyor of junk, sure, but also a surprising critical favorite with many great Liam Neeson collaborations (especially the terrific Non-Stop and The Commuter); his creature feature The Shallows is a modern cable classic. But though Jungle Cruise has moments of trashy fun (such as Plemons’s goofy performance), this particular film overall is smoothed out in service of broad Disney accessibility. Fortunately, Johnson and Collet-Serra will get another shot to make magic happen on 2022’s Black Adam, a superhero spin-off in the DC universe in which Johnson plays an antihero at odds with the cheerful good guy Shazam.

That movie sounds like a much better fit for Johnson, who needs to show either sensitivity or intensity on-screen to really stand out. Along with his role in Fast Five, my favorite performances from Johnson are probably his befuddled work as an amnesiac actor in Richard Kelly’s bizarre Southland Tales, and the roided-up tragicomedy of Pain & Gain, which was Michael Bay’s turbocharged version of a Coen-brothers movie. But those films underperformed at the box office, likely encouraging Johnson’s tendency toward blander, triumphant-hero material. That strategy has kept him atop the action-film heap, but mostly by default; it’s time for him to embrace the singular qualities that make him such an unconventional movie star.

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