THE ROCK has gotten himself into a little PR trouble. You see, the only problem with trying to be the world’s everyman and hero is that you pigeon-hole yourself with roles. People look to you for one thing, like they did with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The problem is this isn’t 1985. Dwayne Johnson is the highest paid actor in Hollywood, but his movies aren’t as blockbuster-like as an instant glance would suggest.
His issue is massive exposure, as in being everywhere at once. He’s working out in China, eating a cheat meal in Texas, and flying off to Europe to film a Christmas action film. His biggest gamble yet, Warner Brothers’ comic book adaptation “Black Adam,” failed to turn a profit two months after its initial release. That means it has to make a dent in digital, something that is hard with HBO Max playing it for free. (Good for us, bad for him and WB.)
It’s one thing for Johnson to roll into the “Fast & Furious” franchise, and carve out a place for himself. It’s quite another to baseline a monstrously budgeted super antihero flick in the fall (it should have been released in the summer) without an existing IP to support its potential underperformance. If Marvel skips a beat, they can fall back on existing characters and story to stomach the blow. The Rock’s kitchen was limited to begin with, even if we did smell what he was cooking.
For the record, I am a huge fan of The Rock. He makes movies like the ones I grew up, can act just fine as an action star, is funny, and has charisma to burn. Being an action star is much different than being Daniel Day Lewis. The Rock couldn’t play Abraham Lincoln, but he could lift the late President up with one arm, so there’s that.
But you can’t deny the fact that he barely participates in R-rated fare, and has built a carefully-constructed brand as the hero who always makes it out alive. Even Arnold fell on the sword (literally in “End of Days”) in a movie once or twice during his heyday. Heck, one of his best movies involves lowering himself in a large pool of fire.
Johnson prefers to keep his invincibility pretty close to the chest, and that limits his ability to stretch in roles. The audience knows he’s going to not only win the day, but the man won’t get punched or hurt too much. Hearing Johnson and “Fast Five” co-star Vin Diesel had clauses in their contracts about how many times they were hit doesn’t surprise me.
Playing the mighty heel-turning Adam was a stretch only due to his ruthless murderous ways in the story. But not since Michael Bay’s “Pain and Gain” has he really ever cut loose. Who can fucking forget a coked-up Johnson interrupting a kids party? He tells someone that he was put on this Earth for one reason, and that’s the ability to knock someone the fuck out. That’s fun and appealing, and not something you usually hear him say in a movie.
We need more WTF with his role choices. More boldness, less of a fix than one of his old wrestling matches were.
I liked “Black Adam” a lot, but I am not a WB executive looking at returns showing more red than black ink. In pushing this wannabe tentpole down the throats of the studio and fans, as well as film critics, Johnson was playing a high stakes game of cinematic Texas hold ’em. With the arrival of James Gunn and Peter Safran, and a less-than-appetizing box office ROI, he lost that game.
There will not be a sequel to “Black Adam,” and the sole takeaway for Johnson here is simple: it’s time to do something different. Something like an R-rated movie. He doesn’t have to be the star, but it sure would help if he was.
He needs to get off the radar a bit, at least on Twitter or Instagram. It’s nice to be somewhat close to what a mega movie star is doing, but it takes away from the mystique of his star power and acting ability. At some point, the audience has to separate the man from the role. They have to wonder who will show up on that screen.
With The Rock right now, that’s hard to do, but it can change easily. All he needs to do is pick up a phone and call Quentin Tarantino. Hear my wild plan out before shooting it down. QT is well-known for rejuvenating actor’s careers, such as John Travolta (“Pulp Fiction”) and Uma Thurman (“Kill Bill”). Mr. Johnson isn’t on their level Oscar wise, but he has the spectrum and reach to enjoy the Tarantino bump.
Put some gray on that face of Johnson, and let him play a nefarious criminal instead of the do-right-all-the-damn-time hero. Tarantino would make the F-bomb flying out his mouth seem like gooey butter cake speaking its first words. If he is directing one more movie, the tenth of his career, then flipping the image of The Rock on its head would be one outstanding encore.
Maybe pair him with Sylvester Stallone for a raunchy road comedy. Paul Rudd can turn heel in certain roles (Netflix’s “Mute”), so he would also make a nice pairing with Johnson. Tarantino likes a challenge, and this would be the ticket. Going out with a bang.
Here’s the thing. The Rock doesn’t have to change entirely. Fans look to certain actors for a brand of thrill or ability, and at the age of 50 it will be hard for Johnson to change all together. But mixing in daring roles and out-of-the-box choices would broaden his appeal in a way that breeds longevity and not doubt.
We know he can kick everyone’s ass. But what else can he do? There’s still time. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson may never hold an Oscar, but he can move closer to “holy shit, he did what” with the right director.