How Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson became a king in Hollywood

The setting was Columbia, Missouri. The year was 2002.

All I can remember is riding an old bike down a dark road next to the university. I had class the next day, but I didn’t care. There was a new movie in theaters called The Scorpion King, starring this guy named The Rock. You throw caution to the wind when a cinematic delight is on the horizon. A pro wrestling legend who made his film debut the year before in The Mummy Returns, here was someone who instantly got your attention.

The spin-off would go on to make $165 million worldwide on a budget of $60 million, marking the first successful flick in Dwayne Johnson’s career. Looking back on it today, where the actor and entertainer turns 47 years of age, it’s not hard to understand a career that has spun around the gauntlet of film genres while focusing on two important things: an emotional connection and entertainment in every venture.

If there’s one thing I can say about Johnson, who hasn’t put down the mantle of entertainer OG since he got started 17 years ago, it’s that every time I leave the theater after watching one of his movies, I feel alive. I feel good. Fulfilled upon leaving the theater, I remember what movies are designed to do, and how they can make you feel.

The first sign of this came a year after Johnson’s debut, when he co-starred with Seann William Scott, Christopher Walken, and Rosario Dawson in Peter Berg’s The Rundown. Playing the bounty hunter, Beck, Johnson got to show off every facet of his game in the film. There was the physicality he brought to the action sequences; the romantic charm in scenes with Dawson; the wild-eyed humor in a sequence where he is drugged and being attacked by bamboos. The film was a modest box office success, but delivered the IQ of an experience with The Rock in a movie theater. You left wanting more of that.

Johnson’s success continued with a variety of roles in action hero roles like Walking Tall, comedic turns in Be Cool and Get Smart, and movies for the kids such as The Game Plan and The Race to Witch Mountain. His dramatic turn in Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales was a bold look that Johnson ran with, showing his desire to stretch out his ability. While the film wasn’t successful or well-rounded in its own right, you appreciated Johnson’s game of chance.

A small role in Adam McKay’s The Other Guys still rings hilarious, and a darker action turn in the 2010 film, Faster, showed what Johnson could do with a familiar role that broke bad in a vigilante arena. Wherever he went, there was appeal and ambition.

However, it wasn’t until 2011’s Fast Five, a full ten years after his debut, that Johnson truly took off in Hollywood. Coming into a film series that was missing something and needing fresh legs, franchise star, Vin Diesel, brought in Johnson off a fan request to play the vicious yet noble special agent, Luke Hobbs, who would hunt down Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and his crew. It wasn’t just the role of the heel, one that the actor played for years inside the ring wrestling. This was a bigger deal, and one that led to one of the greatest onscreen fight scenes in the movie history.

You could have sold pay-per-view tickets to the showdown between Diesel and Johnson alone, which took place halfway through the film. Hobbs crashes through a room, ramming into Diesel’s muscle car. He gets out, charges Toretto, and it’s on. An extended sequence of two guys beating the life out of each other. Superman arm crashes. The two bursting through a window, destroying a table. Co-star Ludacris said it was the clash of the titans, and he was spot on. You needed a cigarette and shot of tequila after that scene.

Johnson would remain in the franchise for Fast & Furious 6, Furious 7, and The Fate of The Furious. It was in the seventh entry that he encountered another worthy adversary in Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw. Once again, a pulverizing action scene that got plenty of rewinds on DVD and Blu Ray. You wanted more of these two, and got it in the eighth installment of the series, which wasn’t as strong as the previous adventures, but thrived whenever Johnson and Statham shared the screen.

Why? Like Johnson, Statham is adept at the comedy aspects of an action film as well as looking sharper than ever during fight scenes. He can do more than just stand there and brood for five minutes. The two would eventually sign up for the series’ film spin-off, Hobbs and Shaw, which arrives in August. The trailers promise one thing: wild, ridiculously over the top action and a boatload of one liners and barbs between the two actors. You won’t go for just the action; the seats will be stuffed due to the chemistry of the leads and the laughs they will provide. It’s like taking a regular action comedy, hooking it up to NOS, and throwing the tank into a ring of fire. Expect chaos, greatness, and chills.

All Johnson seems to do these days is walk into a film series, and become so memorable that remakes, reboots, and sequels are required. He enlivens the room wherever he goes, and it’s true in and outside the set. This month, he’s on the cover of Time Magazine as one of the most influential people in the world, and Gal Gadot, who co-starred with him in two Fast & Furious films, had this to say about him in her excerpt. “He is the true embodiment of the idea that people may forget what you said, people may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s not a lie. Every time you leave a movie with The Rock, you want more of what he’s cooking.

Take Skyscraper, last year’s riff on Die Hard that saw Johnson play a one-legged hero in a high rise fighting bad guys to save his family. It’s just a fun ride that never fails to entertain and transport you. I turned to a fellow critic afterwards, and compared the experience to a double cheeseburger at the movies.

How about Rampage, where he befriends a primate who becomes a target of the government, and Johnson must protect him? Easy money right out of my wallet. In Moana and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Johnson taps into that kid in all of us, delivering a unique brand of entertainment and continuity. Here’s an actor who can keep mom, dad, and the kids hooked in. In one instance, playing a teenager trapped inside the body of a bodybuilder. It’s effortless. That was on full display in this year’s hilarious true story wrestling comedy, Fighting With My Family, which he produced and co-starred in.

It’s the reason he’s one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood and currently the busiest player in the game. Following him on Instagram is like taking a whirlwind tour of the world in the driver’s seat of a souped up muscle truck. He’s here, there, and all around. One moment, he’s stopping to take a selfie with fans, and the next he’s hanging with kids at a charity event before jumping on a plane to go work. In another, he’s exchanging smiles and words with a sports team.

The reason he’s stayed grounded throughout monumental success is due to the fact his heart never leaves the right place. Johnson takes the hard knock upbringing he had, being the son of a pro wrestling legend and a hard working mother who had to balance the chaos of home, and plugs it into his drive, which in turn fuels his career. The Seven Cents Production company got its name from the amount of money his mother had in the account at one time while raising Johnson. He never forgets where he came from, and that’s where the emotional connection is forged. You believe in what he’s doing on screen, because you want to, not because you are forced to watch.

It’s a ride that isn’t slowing down. Along with Hobbs and Shaw, Johnson has Jungle Cruise with Emily Blunt, Red Notice with Gadot, San Andreas 2, a remake of Big Trouble in Little China, and most important, Black Adam on the horizon. The DC comic book character will eventually match wits and strength with Zachary Levi’s Shazam! in an upcoming collaboration.

Don’t forget about HBO’s Ballers, a role that allows Johnson to tap into every facet of his persona as well as stretch dramatically, returning this year. Playing a former football player turned player representative, Spencer Strasmore, the actor gets to call back to his University of Miami days as well as work his comic timing, charisma, and also dig deep like he did in Southland Tales. There were scenes in last year’s third season that showed the depth that Johnson can go to when he wants. The man doesn’t need an Oscar or Emmy though, just your attention.

When I think of the epitome of old school entertainment in Hollywood, I think of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. It’s that simple. I remember taking that bike ride down that dark road late at night while in college to go see a movie with a guy who looked like the real deal. A man who once screamed out “The Rock Says” in the ring. Someone who could slip into a versatile array of looks on screen, and hold your attention. Someone who wasn’t afraid to look goofy, try new things, or fail.

He’s the real deal.


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