To love Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is, in so many ways, to love America.
When Hollywood’s beefiest emblem of masculine cool carries his latest action vehicle San Andreas into theaters Friday, it won’t be his co-stars (Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, and millions of pixels of wanton CGI destruction) audiences come to worship with their box office dollars.
It’ll be the 6-foot-5 wall of multicultural muscle with 17 WWE championships under his belt so popular across all four quadrants, he ruled WrestleMania 31 just by showing up and lip-synced unabashedly to Taylor Swift on television in the span of a week.
He’s the “franchise Viagra” who out-Vin Dieseled Vin Diesel by exponentially multiplying the amount of testosterone charging though the veins of the Fast & the Furious blockbusters.
The superstar who posts inspirational messages to his 23.6 million combined Twitter and Instagram followers about the benefits of hard work, positivity, and #family.
The aw shucks regular guy who got ordained online just to surprise one lucky superfan by officiating his wedding.
The movie star so ’Murica, he broke the news of Osama bin Laden’s death on Twitter before anyone else (technically, he’s also a Canadian citizen):
But once upon a time, The Rock was on the outskirts of Hollywood looking in—a bona fide wrestling star looking to go mainstream even as he admitted to getting lipo on his pecs, dropped one-liners about poontang, and called lady parts “pie.”
He’d earned his WWE stripes and near-unanimous fan devotion with a cocksure persona that earned him legendary nicknames—the Brahma Bull, The People’s Champion, The Great One—and indelible catchphrases: “Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?”
The Rock’s bare-chested peacocking and euphemistic showboating slayed in the ring and raised eyebrows, literally, but they did not a mainstream star make. To get from The Rock to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would take a real attitude adjustment.
Johnson was still tethered to his WWF contract and his wrestling persona when he made his first proper Hollywood film in 2001. In The Mummy Returns, he played the thankless, shirtless role of the Scorpion King, an ancient warrior who sold his soul to the god Anubis only to return centuries later as a monster-man with spider legs and a bad CG facelift.
“The Scorpion King and The Rock are both conquerers,” The Rock said at the time, referring to himself in the third person while promoting the film. “The role was tailor-made for me.”
Luckily, the movie made money. (It also earned The Rock his first mainstream kudos—the Teen Choice Award for Choice Movie Sleazebag, proof of how far he’s come.) Its spin-off, The Scorpion King, was the payoff for The Rock; his first starring vehicle scored $160 million worldwide and gave him a foundation for a legit career in film.
He left the sword and loincloth behind and followed The Scorpion King with two grounded buddy actioners: 2003’s The Rundown opposite Seann William Scott, which critics embraced, and 2004’s Walking Tall with Johnny Knoxville, which they did not. In fact, as Johnson forged his path into the action game testing the waters in projects across multiple genres, few of them were winners. (Looking at you, Doom.)
He took chances and diversified with a surprising comedic turn as a gay bodyguard/aspiring actor in Be Cool, a cameo in Reno 911! The Movie, and a major role in Richard Kelly’s ambitious sci-fi satire Southland Tales.
And in this time, The Most Electrifying Man In Sports Entertainment became The Most Electrifying Man In All of Entertainment by shrewdly trading in his crowd-pleasing brand of brow-raising brio for a relatable strain of All-American humility.
That transformation started as The Rock went Disney as a footballer with a daughter he never knew he had in The Game Plan, his first family flick and his last credited picture as “The Rock.” The movie made $147 million worldwide, making it the most successful Johnson-fronted film to not feature violent action at the time.
Then came Get Smart, Race to Witch Mountain, and Tooth Fairy as Johnson followed in the tradition of Mr. Nanny-era Hulk Hogan and Diesel in The Pacifier with a dose of friendly neighborhood brawn for the whole family. A scene-stealing blip of an appearance in 2010’s The Other Guys was a stroke of perfect casting: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as the NYPD’s hotshot star cops.
Meanwhile, he made sure to keep one bicep in the action game, starring in 2010’s modest B-movie revenge thriller Faster. But his action cred skyrocketed when he joined the Fast & Furious franchise as U.S. agent Luke Hobbs, whose dogged international hunt for Dominic Toretto and his crew led to the most evenly matched and homoerotically charged mano a mano fight scene of the series.
Johnson’s cache as a marquee star was on the rise, too; he opened the adventure sequel Journey 2: The Mysterious Island to bigger global returns than its predecessor. Topping out at $335 million box office, the family sequel is still his best performing non-ensemble starring vehicle to date.
His four-movie 2013 ran the action gamut: Crime drama Snitch came and went, but Johnson notched another commercial win as Roadblock in G.I. Joe: Retaliation and co-starred in Michael Bay’s violent black comedy Pain and Gain. And after reprising his Hobbs role in Furious 6—this time as part of the Toretto family, sealing his place as a franchise staple—he transcended a generic script and hot competition from Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy to eke out a modest second-place showing at the weekend box office for Brett Ratner’s Hercules, a sword-and-sandals hero’s slice ’em-up that, in the very least, could claim that it boasted a starring turn by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Like Fast & Furious co-star Vin Diesel, Johnson’s displayed a social media savvy that’s only enhanced his brand as America’s brawniest sweetheart. Unlike Diesel, he’s mostly avoided falling down rabbit holes of ill-advised passion projects along the way. (Coincidentally or not, Johnson’s only enemy in San Andreas besides California’s fickle fault lines is a character named Riddick.)
In the last few years he decided to carve a new career path. He switched agencies because his CAA reps were too “cynical” about how he should conform to leading man conventions, he told The New York Times, and didn’t support his desire to return to the wrestling ring. “There wasn’t a blueprint of the half-black, half-Samoan former football player-wrestler, who then made his way to Hollywood,” Johnson told Variety. “I was willing to take the risk and then I became myself—it sounds funny to say that.” He also started his own production company. HBO’s June sports drama Ballers, which Johnson stars in and executive-produces, debuts on June 21.
But first: In the new earthquake flick, Johnson plays an L.A. Fire Department helicopter-piloting hero who drops everything to save his daughter and estranged wife when the Big One rips its way up from Los Angeles to San Francisco. He doesn’t throw a single punch, even if he’s driven by the same primal paternal instinct that sent Liam Neeson after his daughter’s kidnappers in Taken, putting that particular set of skills to good use.
Sure, the script is packed with groan-inducing, corny dialogue and a plot with more zany cracks than the poor, quake-ravaged streets of San Francisco.
And maybe Johnson’s hero shirks his duties as an emergency first responder to save his family as hundreds of thousands of faceless strangers perish to death in the rubble.
He’s The Rock; he can be forgiven for a great many slights, including dereliction of duty. We want to see him win. It’s the American way. And despite scathing early reviews, with no other big-name megastars to shoulder the messy San Andreas alongside him, it’s Johnson’s off-screen star power that will make many root for him this weekend. Because no matter what movie he finds himself in, he’s become a new kind of People’s Champion.