Steve McQueen. Clint Eastwood. Jackie Chan. Bruce Willis. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sylvester Stallone. Will Smith. These are just a few of the many actors who have shed blood, sweat, and tears over the years to bring cinephiles the very best in action-oriented films. You can probably name quite a few more without breaking a sweat yourself, but I’d be willing to bet that every name on your list has already lived through (and is well past) their physical prime. Unless, of course, you mention Dwayne Johnson.
A few years ago, I had a chance to sit down with an idol of mine in Schwarzenegger, arguably the greatest action-movie star ever. When I asked him which actor was the quintessential action star of the modern era, he mentioned Johnson alongside Jason Statham, but admitted that no one had really “made the big punch through” yet. That was a few years ago, and for Johnson, those years have made all the difference. And yet its his lifetime of hard work, dedication, and perseverance that have formed The Rock-solid foundation of his success, molding him into this generation’s greatest action-movie star.
Before you can appreciate someone’s current standing, especially the familiar faces and household names of famous movie stars, it helps to know where they came from. Born into a family steeped in the ways of professional wrestling, Johnson’s hard-working and theatrical family background played as much of a role in his upbringing as did his Black Canadian and Samoan heritage. Though his father Rocky Johnson and his maternal grandfather “High Chief” Peter Maivia are likely the most famous of Johnson’s wrestling relatives, the profession is found throughout his family, so it’s little surprise that his career took him in the same direction.
Except that wasn’t always the plan for Johnson. After moving all over the world and the United States in his youth, Johnson accepted a full scholarship to play college football at the University of Miami, which landed him on the 1991 co-national championship team. However, after being sidelined by an injury, Johnson’s athletic career led him to the Canadian Football League after graduation, playing for the Calgary Stampeder’s practice roster; he was cut two months into the season.
That was a blessing in disguise because it brought Johnson back under the professional wrestling training of his father, who was reluctant at first due to the years of hard work he knew his son would have ahead of him. Johnson wrestled under his own name as well as the stage names of Flex Kavana, Rocky Maivia, and finally, The Rock, moving from amateur events to the pros, and from “heel,” to “face,” to “The People’s Champion.” It was this experience that not only helped to shape his physique but also gave him the tools to turn a raucous and ugly crowd into millions of cheering fans. Those physical and interpersonal skills would come in quite handy as his movie career began to take off.
I have to confess to an ulterior motive for revisiting The Rock’s roots. We briefly crossed paths some 25 or so years ago when I was just a kid and he was about to head off to Miami. My step-father was a power lifter and he ran in some of the same weight-lifting circles as Johnson’s father, Rocky; I have a signed poster from Rocky Johnson in a scrapbook to this day. Dwayne Johnson also played a bit of football and other sports at Freedom High School, a rival to my own high school and a point of pride for my brother, who shares Freedom’s alumni status with The Rock. Even after he became famous, Johnson would occasionally return to a local football game or other event, a fact I always found endearing. It was with this hometown pride in mind that I have always kept one eye on Johnson’s inspiring and hopeful rise to fame.
Thanks to his continuing presence in the WWE and his imposing physical stature, Johnson was hailed by some as the second coming of Schwarzenegger. Guest spots on some high-profile TV shows like That 70s Show and Star Trek: Voyager certainly helped his experience and exposure, but his first big-screen break would come in 2001. No, it wasn’t the role of “mugger” in Lionel C. Martin’s Longshot that launched Johnson’s career, but rather the small, villainous part of The Scorpion King in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy Returns. That relatively brief role made an impression on moviegoers and filmmakers alike, leading Johnson to take on his first lead role as the very same character in Chuck Russell’s underrated action-adventure drama The Scorpion King in 2002.
That film did fairly well, but couldn’t quite break the $100 million mark at the box office. However, it would be the biggest box office take Johnson would see for one of his films for at least the next six years. During that time, Johnson starred in mid-budget action pictures like Peter Berg’s action-comedy The Rundown opposite Seann William Scott, Kevin Bray’s remake of the crime story/action-thriller Walking Tall, and Be Cool, a collaboration with current Fast and Furious 8 director, F. Gary Gray.
However there were also box office disappointments like the video game adaptation of Doom, the inspirational sports drama Gridiron Gang, and the barely seen action/mystery/comedy Southland Tales. It wasn’t until 2007’s family sports comedy The Game Plan that Johnson again saw one of his movie gross over $90 million; it was only a year later that Get Smart debuted, and he enjoyed his first substantial role in a feature film that earned over $100 million. That’s a milestone he’d become more and more familiar with in the years to come as he began acting in big-budget franchises that started busting box offices left and right. It’s the success of those cinematic series that cemented Johnson as a bankable action star and allowed him to branch out into other projects.
After 2010, a year that saw Johnson star in five films including the $100+ million box office performance for Adam McKay’s The Other Guys, Johnson landed a role that would prove to be his most lucrative yet.
The Fast and Furious franchise, one that started with a reboot in 2001 led by big man Vin Diesel, was performing remarkably well at the box office and kept getting bigger (if not better) every year. But 2011 saw the arrival of Johnson in Justin Lin’s Fast Five as the imposing Luke Hobbs, a law enforcement agent for the Diplomatic Security Service tasked with tracking down wanted criminals, criminals like Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his gang. Whether or not Johnson knew this would be his biggest break yet isn’t clear, but what is very apparent is that he channeled all of his experience over the course of his career into making sure the introduction of Hobbs was unforgettable. That dedication led to one of the best, most intimate action scenes in the entirety of the franchise:
Johnson’s Hobbs proved so successful that he became a series regular, now working alongside the team in Fast & Furious 6, Furious 7, and the upcoming Fast and Furious 8. That success, both critically and commercially, allowed Johnson to appear in other franchise installments like the 2012 sequel Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which each brought in over $100 million.
While standalone films like 2010’s Faster and 2013’s Snitch struggled at the box office, Johnson continued to work with familiar Hollywood names like Michael Bay in Pain & Gain and Brett Ratner in Hercules, a movie he made while recovering from substantial injury. However, Johnson’s biggest film to date that wasn’t already a sequel, but has possibly spawned a franchise, was Brad Peyton’s disaster picture, San Andreas, which put The Rock front and center as the film’s sole action hero, reminiscent of similar pics from the 80s and 90s. This movie may be Johnson’s first franchise-starter to see him return to a solo role instead of one of the well-muscled cogs in an ensemble machine. And while all of this body of work is impressive, it’s plain to see that Johnson is just starting to realize his full potential.
The Sky’s the Limit
The bulk of Johnson’s filmography to date is composed primarily of action films, but he’s definitely shown a capacity for comedic work and has enough charisma to pull off some surprisingly dramatic turns. The guy makes it look easy, unless you happen to follow his myriad social networking accounts and sync your own alarm up with The Rock Clock, because then you’ll realize how much time, effort, and sweat equity Johnson pours into everything he does. With films as disparate as Central Intelligence with Kevin Hart, Disney’s family friendly animated film Moana, the aforementioned new installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, and the R-rated feature reboot of Baywatch due out over the next year or so, Johnson clearly likes to keep busy and expand his range as an actor.
And yet there’s another professional side to Johnson’s career that he’s been honing over the last decade or so: that of a producer. Having watched action-movie stars like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, and others take a relative few steps back from the relentless pace of action-packed movie-making as they got older, I cringe a little bit each time they try to step back into the shoes of their younger selves on the big screen. There are still roles for them, to be sure, just like there will be roles for the 44-year-old Johnson down the road. But the smart move that Johnson has made in recent years is getting involved in more of his own projects as a producer, a role that should last much longer than his heavy-lifting, hard-hitting presence on-screen ever could.
His current producer credits include the HBO sports dramedy series Ballers, the inspirational documentary Rock and a Hard Place, and upcoming movies like San Andreas 2, Rampage, and Shane Black’s Doc Savage. But if you think he’s skimping in the action-movie department, think again: Johnson still has two more Journey movies scheduled in addition to the planned Shazam! adaptation, where he’ll play the villain of the piece, Black Adam.
After the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone in the 80s and 90s, no athletic actor seemed willing or able to step up to the plate and claim the rank of Best Action-Movie Star of the 21st Century. No one, that is, except Dwayne Johnson, whose humble beginnings, commitment to his acting craft, and his hard-earned, signature physicality has made him the greatest action-movie hero of this generation. Enjoy this international treasure while you can, ladies and gentlemen, because like our action-movie heroes of yesteryear, even The Rock can’t keep this up forever.
Enjoy some of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s many roles over the years in our gallery below: