Dave Bautista is having a good year. He’s been singled out as one of the best parts of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and followed up this summer’s rip-roaring second installment of the franchise with a leading man turn in Bushwick. He’s also got a bit part in one of the buzziest movies of the year, Blade Runner 2049, and starred in one of the digital shorts produced in the lead-up to the film’s release. On top of all that, he’s also just inked a deal with STX to produce and star in an action comedy franchise. It’s the kind of success that’s startling given his age—he turned 48 this year—and his status as a former wrestler and bodybuilder, but it’s a breakout that’s well deserved.
If you take a look at the careers of other wrestlers-turned-actors—or models-turned-actors, for that matter—his success is singular. John Cena settled into a comedic niche after a few small-scale dramas, and Dwayne Johnson, a rare star in an age where it’s become harder and harder to anoint anyone as such, works largely in action and comedy. To a certain degree, Bautista has followed the same kind of path. The Guardians of the Galaxy movies are more than a little comic, and a number of jokes hinge on the inability of his character, a brawler called Drax the Destroyer, to interpret jokes and metaphors. But there’s more to his performance than meets the eye.
Drax’s initial motivation is revenge, which isn’t surprising for a character that looks as fierce as he does. He’s perpetually bare-chested, and is covered in scars. But as the series progresses, that desire for retribution is balanced with grief as well as love for his found family, and the kind of anxiety that comes with not knowing exactly how to connect with others. It’s an impressive performance, and Bautista’s work since then has proven that it wasn’t a fluke. If nothing else, Bushwick is solid proof that Bautista has the chops it takes to carry a film on his own. The movie is a two-hander between Bautista and Brittany Snow, and when it works, it’s due to its leads. That said, it’s Blade Runner 2049 that really proves he’s truly a star.
As Sapper Morton, a replicant on the run, Bautista’s early scenes set the tone for the rest of the movie. The little farm he maintains is grungy in a way that the rest of the world of 2049 isn’t. The future is filled with color and pristine landscapes, but the farm is (relatively speaking) visually unremarkable. As such, the focus on Bautista’s performance is even tighter.
In a medium like film, appearances matter. Actors are constantly judged by their looks, and there’s a fuss any time anyone loses or gains a significant amount of weight for a part. To that end, a wrestler’s build doesn’t immediately seem to lend itself to a diverse roles. Bautista’s first few roles capitalized on his physical size (his character in The Man with the Iron Fists was literally named “Brass Body”). But the more we’ve seen of him onscreen, the more he’s worked to subvert the expectations set by his appearance. As Morton, he both uses and subverts those preconceptions. Morton is ultimately a gentle man, and Bautista manages to convey the faith instilled in him by the film’s central miracle without making it unbelievable when he turns violent, slamming Ryan Gosling’s Officer K straight through a wall.
That careful balance is also evident in the short 2048: Nowhere to Run. Despite how huge and imposing he is, he’s ultimately just as vulnerable as any other character in the franchise, and when he lashes out, it’s to protect a woman and child rather than to show off his brute strength.
It’s the kind of presence that started becoming evident in his wordless turn as Hinx in Spectre, where he faced off with James Bond. And it’s proof of acting chops that have already put him in a different class from his peers. He’s just as capable of comedy and action as he is of drama and pathos, and if the deal with STX is any indication, he’s poised to become a true leading man in the years to come. Blade Runner 2049 is just the beginning. It’s a franchise installment in the same way that Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is (Bautista is also supposed to appear in the upcoming Infinity War), but it’s also a prestige project given the pedigree of talent involved. There’s no question that Bautista belongs among them.
Just in the next few years, he’s slated to appear in the Escape Plan sequels as well as an IP Man spin-off and thrillers Hotel Artemis and Final Score. Granted, these roles all fall into a fairly rote wheelhouse, but he’s already proven that he can turn even the most typical roles into something interesting.
There’s some excitement to be found, too, in the fact that his deal with STX is specifically for action-comedies. It’s the kind of career route that launched Dwayne Johnson into the stratosphere, and seems to be primed to do the same for Bautista. He’s already one of the most interesting actors working today, collaborating with directors from Denis Villeneuve to Sam Mendes, and the roles he’s taken suggest he’s looking to do more than just play the heavy. So, what’s next? Fingers crossed for a rom-com.