This week, Brett Ratner's Hercules will be unleashed on the world with little fanfare, after a batch of underwhelming trailers and with no advance screenings for critics. It will likely do mediocre box office business, maybe making up its budget with international dollars, but barring a huge surprise, it'll be added to the long list of middling action flops starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. He's never starred in a non-franchise film that made more than $100 million. But is there anyone out there who isn't rooting for him?
The deck is so stacked against The Rock. He's a former professional wrestler (who occasionally returns to the ring). He was a CGI nightmare for much of his debut film appearance in The Mummy Returns. Just watch this clip and baffle at the fact that this was his introduction to moviegoing audiences.
He followed this with a string of singles and ground-outs. Peter Berg's The Rundown is an acceptable watch on late-night TV. 2004 remake Walking Tall is self-serious but does feature some great "The Rock hits people with a two-by-four" action. He played a gay Samoan bodyguard in ill-advised Get Shorty sequel Be Cool, which was hailed as a bold move at the time, but he's lost in a big ensemble and a crappy script.
All of these films made their budget back (more or less) domestically, but none of them could be called hits. In The Rundown, California's new Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in a cameo to tip his cap to Johnson, as if he was passing the action-hero torch to him, but at best The Rock was churning out projects that were doomed to be repeated on basic cable in future years. He'd cleared the limited bar set by previous wrestler-to-actor converts like Hulk Hogan but hadn't gone much further than that. The Rock's big appeal was his magnetic charm in the wrestling ring, but it proved harder to convert into watchable movies.
The next batch was even rougher: 2005 video-game flop Doom, inspirational prison sports drama Gridiron Gang, Richard Kelly's epic puzzler Southland Tales (which Johnson is pretty terrific in, but vanished without a trace), and three awful kid comedies: The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain , and Tooth Fairy. Only Doom is an outright bomb, with everything else at least making their small-to-medium budgets back. And he had supporting roles as muscle-bound jocks in Get Smart and The Other Guys, films that were actual hits but didn't really depend on his presence. By the release of Faster in 2010 ($23 million domestic), one could have reasonably asked why Hollywood was continuing to employ Johnson.
But it's so hard to get mad at the dude! Even in the worst, most self-serious garbage he is so much fun to watch, and his willingness to make fun of himself (as action star Boxer Santoros in Southland Tales or cocky cop Chris Danson in The Other Guys) suggested that he just needed the right project, with the right level of self-awareness, to push him onto the A-list.
The genius of Johnson's next move was its utter canniness: to just latch onto existing franchises and give them a Rock-flavored boost. It's unlikely Fast Five would be just as fun with someone else in the secondary hero role of Luke Hobbs—he was just the counterweight Vin Diesel needed to give that series a new lease on life. It's not clear why Hollywood thought the world needed a Journey to the Center of the Earth sequel, but Johnson was arguably an upgrade on Brendan Fraser and carried that nothing movie to a surprising $335 million worldwide take (and he got to ride a bumblebee on the poster). His inclusion in the second G.I. Joe movie almost amounted to an acknowledgement that it was ridiculous he wasn't in the first.
If another actor appeared in so many sequels so quickly, we'd call it cynical, but thank God Johnson deigned to cheer all those franchises up for us. He's still struggling with original projects: 2013's Snitch went basically nowhere and Hercules, as noted, appears doomed. But no one's gonna hang that on Johnson. His flops are at worst deemed not his fault; sometimes, such as Michael Bay's coked-out Miami nightmare Pain & Gain, Johnson is enough of a standout to merit awards consideration (at least from this revered critic). He remains an actor intensely aware of his own image and how best to manipulate it—his work as Paul Doyle in that movie was a tender take on a profoundly stupid, well-meaning meathead with serious impulse control issues.
Johnson's upcoming slate looks like more of the same: there's Fast & Furious 7, of course (he's firmly embedded in that franchise now), and chopper-pilot/earthquake action drama San Andreas, from his Journey 2 director, which, if it follows history, will probably underwhelm at the box office and live a long life on cable. Johnson will keep playing military heroes, good men placed in unreasonable circumstances, and befuddled action-hero dads. He'll occasionally toss us a gem of a performance like Pain & Gain; he'll always be the most watchable thing on-screen anytime. One thing will remain true: it'll take more than a few reviled flops to slow down his wonderful career.