Rock releasing another blockbuster, Disney’s Jungle Cruise, and John Cena and Dave Bautista both flying high. COURTESY
With the Rock releasing another blockbuster, Disney’s Jungle Cruise, and John Cena and Dave Bautista both flying high, wrestlers have taken on the movies, and won
Of the 50 highest grossing movies internationally in the 2010s, virtually everyone was either part of a pre-existing franchise or a remake. That is in stark contrast to the 1990s where many of the top 10 biggest grossers of the decade worldwide were films based on original ideas and in part vehicles for stars like Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks and Will Smith. Long gone, now, are the days where putting a specific star on the poster could likely guarantee a profit.
But there is at least one man who subverts the trend: the larger than life Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Having started his career as a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) wrestler, he made the transition into films around the turn of the millennium. Since making his leading-man debut with 2002's The Scorpion King, for which he was paid $5.5 million – a record for an actor in his first headline role – Johnson has become a bonafide superstar whose films have grossed more than $10 billion worldwide. As box-office specialist and Screen International editor Charles Gant says, these days “very few stars are considered bankable [and] Dwayne Johnson is at the top of that short list”. This is something Gant puts down to the fact that his “charisma, versatility, everyman appeal and credibility in action roles is a unique combination”. The latest tent-pole blockbuster to bet on Johnson for box-office gold is Disney's comedy Jungle Cruise, which is released around the world this week, and is another rollicking family adventure to match previous Johnson hits such as the Jumanji films and Race to Witch Mountain. Inspired by the Disneyland ride, it is a period romp that sees Johnson play Frank Wolff, a hardnosed but noble captain of a steamboat in the early 20th Century transporting a British scientist (Emily Blunt) down the Amazon river on a quest for the mythical Tree of Life.
Other wrestlers who have flirted with Hollywood in the past include Jesse Ventura (Predator, Demolition Man) and Steve Austin (The Expendables, The Longest Yard) while fans of 1987 fairytale comedy classic The Princess Bride will also remember the wrestler Andre the Giant making a strong impression in the role of Fezzik, the timid rhyming behemoth who is in the employ of diminutive Sicilian criminal Vizzini. However, even though he shone in the role, stardom was not to be. When he appeared in the Rob Reiner classic, he was already in a great deal of pain, particularly in his knees and back, from years of taxing action in the ring and, in 1993, he had a premature death at 46 from heart failure.
What makes the current trio of wrestler Hollywood stars stand out is how much they have to offer on screen beyond their physical prowess. While they may resemble old-school man mountains like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, they are able to subvert looks and heroic wrestling schticks, taking not just typical tough-guy roles but comedic parts that have shown they are not afraid to laugh at themselves, while still harnessing their sex appeal. Johnson's whole public persona is basically Santa with muscles, Cena is the goofiest goof in Hollywood and Bautista's knack for a kind of pantomime physicality in his performances has endeared him far beyond the wrestling crowd. The three of them stand as outliers in modern mainstream Hollywood cinema, whose male stars, certainly, can tend towards the hyper-masculine, ultra-serious and sexless.
Masculinity aside, you could say that the wrestling ring is a perfect rehearsal room for Hollywood stardom: a space where you can create broad crowd-pleasing performances within a fantastical and absurd milieu. “At its core pro-wrestling is just people playing characters,” as Alvarez says. “Particularly in WWE, wrestlers are given scripts to memorise and recite in front of the cameras, they play characters that sometimes are not close to who they really are, and they act out imaginary scenarios.” Alvarez says that Johnson took particular advantage of wrestling as a testing ground for performance, managing to develop a unique way of connecting with an audience. “He was hugely charismatic and learned early how to play off live pro-wrestling crowds. He learned to use his smile, his mannerisms, the eyebrow, and every night had live feedback from a crowd as to what worked and what didn't.” Succeeding in professional wrestling relies on having an instinct for audience reaction – what makes a crowd pop and boo – and that canniness has informed these wrestlers' choices as actors: they all seem uniquely self-aware of their image and how to play to it and against it.
Bautista has turned his overly-serious wrestling persona on its head and slid effortlessly into being the kind of funny personality that defies expectations. In the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, he has turned the green-skinned Marvel superhero Drax the Destroyer into something more than a generic CGI heavy with his sardonically witty line readings. In comedies Stuber (2019) and My Spy (2020), he also took the serious heroic archetype and played with it by being slightly incompetent – all talk and no trousers, like a 20-stone, heavily tattooed Hong Kong Phooey. Meanwhile Cena as a wrestler was always the infallible wholesome hero – think Captain America in jean shorts – but his ascendancy to Hollywood has seen him again enjoy success by flipping the script. Setting aside his early WWE Studios produced action movies, Cena's first significant Hollywood role came in 2015 comedy Trainwreck, in which he played Amy Schumer's impossibly chiselled but sexually incompetent boyfriend who, in one of the funniest and most awkward sex scenes in recent years, could only achieve orgasm by thinking about himself at the gym. In 2018's Blockers, he also winningly played the dorkiest, most overprotective dad imaginable on a quest to stop his daughter losing her virginity on prom night.