Once upon a time, a broad-shouldered actor who started out in the muscular sports world made a successful leap to Hollywood – first playing quirky villains and supporting roles, then becoming a star who could make headlines. Hyper-violent R-rated thrillers as easily as family comedies. Eventually, he turned this superstar into political office. I’m talking of course about Arnold Schwarzenegger: weightlifting champion, king of action movies in the ’80s and’ 90s, and eventual Governor of California. But that career arc appears to be a role model for new, box-jawed, larger-than-life Hollywood star Dwayne Johnson, a former professional wrestler, current brand name, and potential future presidential contender.
Johnson’s latest film, Jungle cruise, which hit theaters on Friday (and on Disney + for a fee), appears to be the latest step in its plan to dominate the industry. After years of rather anonymous action films, he is finally headlining a summer blockbuster. The film, based on an amusement park ride, follows Frank Wolff (played by Johnson), a beefy steamboat captain who leads a brave scientist (Emily Blunt) and his brother down the Amazon River in search of the mythical tree of life. . CGI-assisted hijinks ensue, and the whole project is carried out with a family spirit and swagger.
Although Jungle cruise is perfectly watchable, I was surprised at how well Johnson plays an ordinary old hero. Blunt, who has a habit of stealing films under his talented co-stars (see The devil wears Prada or Edge of tomorrow), has more fun with a meatier role as a professionally overlooked scientist. Jesse Plemons delivers an enthusiastic impression of Werner Herzog as the film’s German villain; Paul Giamatti embarks on a colorful support tour as the cantankerous local harbor master. Johnson is a reliable anchor for the action scenes in the film, but doesn’t have enough fun in between.
Johnson’s uninspired performance is reminiscent of the early stages of his professional wrestling career in WWE, where he was introduced as a “face” or net hero. It’s telling that he didn’t reach the megastar until he delved into his more boastful “heel” personality, “The Rock”. On the big screen, Johnson has also thrived playing characters with an arrogant streak. His appearance as bombastic Federal Agent and goatee Luke Hobbs in Fast Five helped to overload the Fast Furious series about the phenomenon he is today, and his voice works as the boastful but vulnerable demigod Maui in Moana crackles with humor and verve.
But so many other entries in Johnson’s filmography give him as little on-screen personality as possible. Early in his career he produced solid B-series films such as Walk with your head held high, Loss, and Faster who showed his physique but skimped on the details of the character. To post-Fast Five, it moved on to more expensive, but equally bland disasters such as San Andreas and Carnage, playing generic tough guys who can solve all the problems. It is best served by roles with a comedic angle, as in Central intelligence or the Jumanji movies, but even in these, he exists primarily as a straight guy for co-star Kevin Hart to bounce back.
Schwarzenegger was better at choosing roles that showcased his talents. While his escape roles, such as Terminator, had a villainous side, he thrived in the ’80s and’ 90s playing essentially the same type of muscular hero over and over again in classics such as Commando, Raw tuning, Predator, and Total recall. But he also showed a softer side in more comedic works, notably twins, Kindergarten policeman, and Junior. Importantly, he also worked with genuinely innovative filmmakers – James Cameron, Paul Verhoeven and John McTiernan – while Johnson relied on little-known directors for his big projects.
Jungle cruiseJaume Collet-Serra is a promising director for Johnson to work with. Collet-Serra is a purveyor of trash, of course, but also a surprising critical favorite with many great collaborations with Liam Neeson (especially the formidable Nonstop and The commuter); his creature characteristic the shallows is a modern cable classic. And yet Jungle cruise Has moments of trashy fun (like Plemons’ wacky performance), this particular film is broadly smoothed out in the service of Disney’s wide accessibility. Fortunately, Johnson and Collet-Serra will have another chance to do magic in 2022 Black adam, a superhero spinoff set in the DC Universe in which Johnson plays an antihero at odds with the merry good guy Shazam.
This film seems to suit Johnson much better, who has to show his sensitivity or intensity onscreen to really stand out. Along with his role in Fast Five, my favorite performance of Johnson is probably his muddled job as an actor with amnesia in the bizarre Richard Kelly movie Southern tales, and the distorted tragicomedy of Pain and gain, which was the turbocharged version of Michael Bay from a Coen brothers movie. But those films underperformed at the box office, likely encouraging Johnson’s tendency towards more bland, triumphant material. This strategy has kept it at the top of the heap of action movies, but mostly by default; it’s time for him to embrace the singular qualities that make him such an unconventional movie star.