Why the Rock Is Charming, Even When His Films Are Not

Dwayne Johnson in Baywatch_Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji_Split - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Photofest; Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Despite appearing in some not great titles ('Baywatch'), the 'Jumanji' star continues to stand out.

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Jumanji:Welcome to the Jungle]

The opening scene of the underrated 2003 action comedy The Rundown features a bounty hunter named Beck walking into a nightclub, and passing an older man who wishes him good luck. This non sequitur might not be so noticeable, except the older man wishing Dwayne Johnson’s Beck luck is none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a symbolic passing of the torch, from an elder-statesman action star to an up-and-comer. Nearly 15 years later, Johnson remains one of the most reliable, widely loved action stars in modern movies. Like Schwarzenegger, he’s been active in a range of movies, including family friendly fare like this weekend’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Arguably, Johnson’s kept up a solid balance of movies for the whole family as well as more mature action films over his career. He’s become one of the best parts (if not the best part) of the Fast and Furious franchise over the last decade, while also starring in Disney films like The Game Plan (2007), Race to Witch Mountain (2009) and last year’s Moana. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which is technically a sequel to the 1995 Jumanji, is something of a mix. The premise features four teenagers who inadvertently get stuck in a video game version of the mysterious board game from the original, and are visualized in the tropical world by distinctive adult avatars. The quartet are, thus, primarily played by Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Johnson, cutting a comically heroic figure as Dr. Smolder Bravestone even though he’s embodied by an awkward nerd stuck in detention for helping his football-playing ex-friend cheat.

From his first appearance, Johnson plays up the confusion and delight of a gawky teen suddenly transforming into a massively ripped adult. Bravestone can’t help but poke at his bicep muscles, and impresses the adult versions (Black and Gillan) of the teenage girls who got stuck with him thanks to one of his character’s video game strengths: smoldering intensity. The movie feels like an unexpected blend of Indiana Jones and The Breakfast Club, its strongest scenes depicting the strange and goofy camaraderie of the motley quartet. (It’s just as delightful to see Johnson and Hart bounce off each other, their comic chemistry a pleasing echo of last year’s Central Intelligence.) As is often the case, even if the entire film doesn’t come together, Johnson shines brightly.

This is, perhaps, one of the strongest connections Johnson has with Schwarzenegger: no matter the movie, even if it winds up being a rough sit, the star weathers it. Schwarzenegger’s career has been far from flawless, whether in family fare like Jingle All the Way or as a supervillain in Batman & Robin. But he could withstand those projects, just as Johnson has easily moved on from less successful films like G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) and this year’s Baywatch. If anything, Johnson is the standout of these movies, even when he’s not dominating the frame, as with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Though he’s the biggest (literally and figuratively) person in the film, Johnson has a smooth connection with his adult co-stars, all of them clearly getting a kick out of playing into teenagers in grown-up bodies. Here, Johnson is playing another riff on his action-hero looks, just as he did in the otherwise wince-inducing Be Cool (2005) and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain (2013): they’re all characters who look tough but have serious neuroses bubbling under the surface.

In Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Johnson gets a chance to make those neuroses all too recognizable. Even as a character with a goofily adventurous name as Dr. Smolder Bravestone, his voice cracks with telltale signs of puberty, he struggles to maintain a brave face (whispering to himself, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry!”), he dreads walking around the jungle without allergy medication and he proves laughably inept at interacting with the fairer sex. (There is indeed a cliched gag here where Johnson and Gillan, both nerdy teens outside of Jumanji, kiss each other in outrageously terrible fashion, but they sell the terrible kissing so much that it’s genuinely funny.) Roles like these are an excellent reminder that as adept as he is in action fare, Dwayne Johnson’s solid comic timing might be his secret weapon.

It’s been just about 15 years since Schwarzenegger saw in Johnson an heir of sorts to action-movie royalty. That nod in The Rundown has long since paid off, and Johnson is now among the most charming and welcome movie-star presences. Even in the most ridiculous of stories — and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, fun as it is, is pretty ridiculous in its setup — his confidence and skill are impossible to ignore. He’s in so many family films now that it’s as welcome as seeing him kick ass in action movies. One of Johnson’s upcoming projects is sure to blend the two again: Disney’s Jungle Cruise. If nothing else, it’s safe to presume he’ll be fun to watch even if the movie doesn’t work. That streak of his is just about unstoppable.