Thursday 23 November 2017

Dwayne Johnson: From Scorpion King to King of the Jungle

With his latest blockbuster movie Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle just a few short weeks away, I take a look back over the career of The Rock, a man who quite literally started from the bottom and worked his way up to the top.

Sixteen years after his feature film debut and The Rock – or to use his 'serious thespian name', Dwayne Johnson – has climbed the Hollywood ladder all the way from novelty cameo to bonafide leading man. When his weird CGI mug first swam into view during the final act of Stephen Sommers' patchy 2001 sequel The Mummy Returns, who would have thought WWE star Dwayne Johnson would go on to become one of the biggest, most bankable, highest-paid and most admired Hollywood stars of the era?

Flash-forward to 2017 and Johnson is exactly that; with a huge profile bolstered by his vast social media following (a staggering 94 million followers on Instagram, 58 million on Facebook and a further 12 million on Twitter), Johnson is one of the busiest A-listers on the planet. This year alone he's starred in the film with the biggest opening weekend of the year, a raunchy 90s TV show reboot and soon a sequel to a beloved 90s comedy. That's Hollywood bingo right there!

The Rock alongside Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious 6.
However, it wasn't until 2011 that The Rock's status as genuine superstar was confirmed in Fast Five, a film which saw him pitted against another muscly and bald action figure in Vin Diesel.

The prospect of witnessing Johnson and Diesel flex, grunt, pose and smack one another elevated the film to another level – all of a sudden Johnson was a whole lot more than the WWE star who had starred in a string of cute kids films and forgettable bargain bin junk. No, now he was Luke Hobbs, oiled antihero and eventually begrudging ally of Dominic Toretto – two equally unstoppable forces and immovable objects who set aside their differences to become a powerful unit in its own right.

From here Johnson rocketed up the order; all of sudden the action offers came pouring in. Dubbed 'franchise viagra' due to his staggering ability to inject new life into tired franchises, the next few years saw Johnson swing from success to success.

He costarred alongside a diverse ensemble to steer the Fast and Furious series through three further hugely successful sequels (culminating with 2017's record-breaking The Fate of the Furious, the current record holder for biggest opening weekend of all time), a GI Joe sequel that made bank globally and the more family-centric Journey series, which saw Johnson replace Brendan Fraser in the lead role and consequently rake in an extra $90 million in ticket sales.

The Rock in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle along
with Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black.
From here he transitioned from ensemble casts to leading man status; Michael Bay's Pain and Gain and Brett Ratner's Hercules followed in 2013 and 2014 respectively before San Andreas and Central Intelligence lit up the summers of 2015 and 2016, carried by The Rock's insatiable popularity. He even has his own HBO show, Ballers – how many WWE stars can say that?

What is it about Johnson that makes him so universally adored? Well, it certainly doesn't hurt that he's charisma coming out of everything. With a grin that could charm the pants off a pun and muscles that put Johnny Bravo to shame, Johnson's trademark cocksure swagger, eyebrow wiggle and bicep flex makes him a modern day real-life superman. The only thing seemingly bigger than his pecks is his heart (what, where did you think that sentence was going?).

His 'first' career as a wrestling star afforded Johnson a broad appeal with families and kids. His carefully crafted public persona was one of strength and power, and Johnson's ability to laugh and poke fun at his own expense went a long way to further widening that appeal. Think back to the scene in Be Cool where he recites a monologue from Bring It On, gets cutesy in The Game Plan, aimed for the bushes in The Other Guys or donned a pair of fluffy white wings in The Tooth Fairy, not to mention a handful of guest appearances on Disney Channel favourites like Hannah Montana and Cory in the House. Who doesn't love a hunk who isn't so macho that he can't laugh at himself?

The same exuberant showmanship that saw him light up the wrestling ring translated perfectly to the silver screen, and saw Johnson regularly booking gigs that played up this duality; big and muscly yet grounded and cuddly. He's popular with dads because he can lift a truck tire and you could share a beer with him; he's popular with mums because he's got biceps and doesn't cuss (much); and he's popular with kids, teens and young people who grew up watching WWE and love singing Moana tunes on the ride to school.

The infamous cocked eyebrow.

He's a family man who doesn't seem to shun the nitty-gritty parts of fatherhood, looking at home on the school run as much as he does hosting Saturday Night Live; he's driven and determined, something which is demonstrated through his punishing gym and bodybuilding regimen; and he's genuinely funny and humble, as we found out when that infamous turtleneck and napkin throwback picture went viral. And although he gives off a bravado vibe, he hasn't let it go to his head, sharing with refreshing openness the story of his family's early struggles in Hawaii.

In many ways, The Rock's career trajectory matches up almost perfectly with that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, his precursor many ways. Both are unlikely leading men who got their start in macho competitions and embody powerful Adonis figures; both possess a number of cheesy one-liners that fans eagerly recite; both harbour political ambitions, if rumours surrounding 2020 are true.

Where does that leave him going forward? Well, Johnson seems content swimming in the popcorn film lane for the time being; after his turn as Smoulder Bravestone in Jumanji (yes that is his character's actual name), Johnson has two more musclebound heroes lined up in 2018; Rampage, directed by San Andreas director Brad Peyton and based on the arcade classic, and Skyscraper, a hostage action thriller directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, who also helmed Central Intelligence.

A sequel to San Andreas is also supposedly in the works, as is his long-awaited superhero film debut as Black Adam in, well, Black Adam. After that, who knows – but after his meteoric rise, who would bet against The Rock continuing to crush it well into the future?

This article was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.

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