Ten Movies: Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

Brian and Hemal bid farewell to the Dwaye Johnson season of Ten Movies, sharing the insights they have gleaned into the dark quotidian heart of America during this season’s journey.

More importantly, they rank the ten movies from this season and disagree very sharply on a definitive ordering of The Rock’s movies.

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What did we learn this season? The Rock’s perch upon the loftiest heights of American consumer culture is substantial but shallow; a carefully-calibrated thing that traffics heavily in explosions, fisticuffs, car chases, idealized masculinity and a studied ideological vagueness.

Yet behind all that, a faintheartedness – for all the movies he makes (2.15 feature films a year; we did the math) and the untold cultural and commercial power he wields, Dwayne Johnson is deeply wary of doing anything that might cause even the slightest brow-furrowing among his extensive consumer segments.

But then again, who are we to fault him? Do the explosions, fistfights and car chases not delight us? Are we not entertained?

Whether you’re a regular listener or a first-time visitor, this is a not-to-miss episode. And if all the highbrow prattle isn’t to your liking, just skip ahead to the rankings.

Here’s what we watched this season:

Hobbs & Shaw. A high-octane and somewhat ridiculous action thrill ride where The Rock teams up with Jason Statham to fight evil and crash cars.

Rampage. The Rock fights giant monsters, but also has a giant monkey friend.

Jumanji. A bunch of teens gets transported into an evil video game, turn into action heroes and have to brave various perils to escape back to reality.

Central Intelligence. The Rock plays a weird man-child who is also somehow a merciless CIA operative and he embroils a hapless Kevin Hart in a series of tonally incoherent adventures.

Moana. A beloved animated kid’s adventure film featuring The Rock as a self-centered Polynesian demigod who helps a plucky young girl journey across a vast and perilous ocean to rescue her village.

Red Notice. A paint-by-numbers action-comedy starring The Rock, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds, all laboring to outdo one another in endearing smarm.

Hercules. A cynical exercise in giving the audience nothing they might remember, or even notice, this one stars The Rock as a mighty hero who does nothing interesting.

Fast Five. Car chases! Fisticuffs! Familial camaraderie! More car chases! The Rock joins the beloved Fast & Furious franchise to give Vin Diesel on more thing to worry about.

The Scorpion King. In The Rock’s feature film debut, he plays a sword-wielding warrior in a movie that takes its cues partly from D&D and partly from 80s-era heavy metal album art.

San Andreas. When The Big One hits California, The Rock zips around in a variety of emergency vehicles trying to rescue his daughter and win the affections of his estranged ex-wife while a million buildings fall down in the background.

Hobbs & Shaw

As Dwayne Johnson’s cultural vitality exceeds even his legendary physical might, he breaks free from the confines of the Fast & Furious franchise to team up with Jason Statham and fight evil robot Idris Elba in the high-budget action thrill ride, ‘Hobbs & Shaw’.

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Technically the movie is called ‘Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw’. How they exercised enough restraint to avoid adding “Brought to You By Mountain Dew Code Red” to the title we will never know. The Fast & Furious movies, of course, concern the exploits of a band of action heroes who do crimes, drive fast cars and talk about how they are a family. The Rock first joined the series back in Fast Five, but word on the street is that he and series producer / main star Vin Diesel get along less than famously, so this spinoff film is a way for the studio execs to have their cake and eat it too: Dwayne Johnson, reliable draw that he is, stays in the Fast & Furious-iverse, but doesn’t have to do movies with Vin Diesel, preventing the two from clashing over who is bigger, balder and more ethnically ambiguous.

Dwayne Johnson plays Hobbs, a great big tough guy federal agent turned outlaw, who teams up with Shaw, played by Jason Statham, a great big tough guy who was always an outlaw, and they run around battling evildoers who are chasing Shaw’s sister, played by Vanessa Kirby, because she has ingested some sort of virus, maybe? Or nanotech? It’s not critical.

Anyway, this movie is exceedingly long, and the three leads run all over the place fighting bad guys and exploding cars and so forth. Eventually they realize the only way they can defeat evil robot Idris Elba is to go to Samoa, where The Rock’s family lives in the form of his charming mother and 15-20 big tough Samoan brothers. He is allegedly estranged from them, but they sort that out in about five minutes and spend the rest of the team getting ready for, and then having, a big climactic battle.

Hemal, of course, is extremely loyal to the Fast & Furious movies, largely because the late Paul Walker was so darn handsome. Brian could barely finish this one, so if our hosts disagreeing upsets you, you have been warned.

Ten Movies is part of the Underdog Podcast network and is produced with help from Seth Everett and Anthony Gill.

Rampage

If you’re familiar with the marketing materials for the movie ‘Rampage’, you know that i’s largely about The Rock fighting giant monsters. But he doesn’t just fight giant monsters, he fights giant monsters and has an enormous monkey for a best friend. Hard to see how it could miss.

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If you’re a Gen Xer, you may remember the beloved arcade game on which ‘Rampage’ was based. They’ve added some stuff, but the story is the same – giant mutant animals fighting and smashing up a city. 

Dwayne Johnson plays his usual: a strong, confident, supremely competent ex-military guy, though in order to align with the fairly minor demands of the plot, they also make him a primatologist. Due to the machinations of some sort of evil bio-tech company, his monkey friend George has been mutated to King-Kong proportions, along with a couple other animals. The Rock and an attractive lady scientist must track the mutant animals to Chicago, whence the evil bio-tech company has summoned them, in defiance of all logic.

‘Rampage’ came out in 2018, and was directed by Brad Peyton, who you may remember from such Dwayne Johnson vehicles as ‘San Andreas’ – a reactionary disaster epic we reviewed earlier in the season – and ‘Journey 2: The Mysterious Island’ – a low-budget kid’s thriller that is honestly not worth the time it takes to watch. The Rock, in his desire to produce upwards of half-a-dozen feature films a year, has a notable fondness for directors like Peyton and Rawson Marshall Thurber. They may not bring a strong artistic perspective to the project, but they know how to produce content.

The movie also stars Naomie Harris as the attractive lady scientist who is given nothing interesting to do, Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy as the villainous siblings who run the evil bio-tech company and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a delightfully roguish government agent guy, but Johnson’s real co-star is the giant monkey, who, we must admit, is pretty good.

Ten Movies is part of the Underdog Podcast network and is produced with help from Seth Everett and Anthony Gill.

Jumanji

The Rock isn’t just immense, he’s also charming and funny, cinematic gifts on display in this family-friendly action comedy. Worth your time? Hemal and Brian agreed, for once.

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In ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’, a band of mismatched high school students are sucked into an evil video game, where they inhabit the bodies of Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan. Also one of the Jonas Brothers, eventually. 

Much of the movie’s comedy derives from this conceit – a nerdy 17-year-old suddenly finds himself in the body of a gigantic action hero. The Rock pulls this off with a confident joie de vrie, as do his co-stars, especially Jack Black, channeling a queen bee cheerleader.

Technically this is the third Jumanji movie, building on the two oddball Robin Williams’ movies from the 90s – Jumanji and Zathura – but the filmmakers have wisely elected to mostly start from scratch, keeping only the outward trappings of the earlier films.

Hemal and Brian, your beloved co-hosts, have been bitterly divided on the cinematic works they’ve watched for this season of Ten Movies, but ‘Jumanji’ was a rare point of concurrence. We hope you find similar enjoyment in it.

Ten Movies is part of the Underdog Podcast network and is produced with help from Seth Everett and Anthony Gill.

Central Intelligence

Teaming up with Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson tries his mighty hand at slapstick comedy. Is it an instant classic or a tonally incoherent mess? Brian and Hemal have your answer.

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In ‘Central Intelligence’, Kevin Hart plays a boring middle-class accountant and The Rock plays a weirdly naive man-child who is also somehow a merciless CIA operative. Because Hart was nice to him in high school, The Rock gets him involved in a confusing high-stakes game of murder and subterfuge. Presumably someone is trying to sell the top-secret codes to ruthless international terrorists, because in these kinds of movies someone is always trying to sell the top-secret codes to ruthless international terrorists, but honestly it doesn’t matter that much.

It is perhaps not accurate to say “these kinds of movies”, though, because ‘Central Intelligence’ is all over the place. It’s a spoof, it’s an action-comedy, it’s a buddy-comedy, it’s a lowbrow gross-out satire; it’s a great many things, possibly to the detriment of its coherence as a cinematic work.

Released in 2016, this marks the third film Dwayne Johnson has made with director Rawson Marshall Thurber, a man who relentlessly shoots for the middle. But at least The Rock is doing something other than his usual stoic hero routine here, putting in a largely comic turn as a foil to Kevin Hart’s protagonist. Did we buy it? Listen and see.

Ten Movies is part of the Underdog Podcast network and is produced with help from Seth Everett and Anthony Gill.

Moana

In ‘Moana’, Dwayne Johnson delivers his most beloved performance as a self-centered Polynesian demigod – if, that is, you are a nine-year-old girl or the father of one, as Brian is. But did Hemal like it?

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In a bit of a departure from our usual fare, this week we’re looking at an animated film. But for many Americans (ie – nine-year-old girls and their parents), this may very well be the movie The Rock is best known for. Released in 2016 by everyone’s favorite multinational entertainment conglomerate, the Walt Disney Corporation, ‘Moana’ tells the story of a plucky young girl venturing into the forbidden and dangerous seas of a fictional Polynesian ocean world to save her beloved island village from a mysterious corruption.

In another departure, unable to rely on his mighty physical presence to do the heavy lifting for him, The Rock is forced to bring depth, charm and interiority to a lovable but flawed character through voice acting. Who knew?

In addition to Dwayne Johnson’s vocal talents in the role of Maui – who first antagonizes but eventually befriends and aids our young hero, Moana – the movie also features some absolute best-in-class musical numbers from Lin Manuel Miranda.

Ten Movies is part of the Underdog Podcast network and is produced with help from Seth Everett and Anthony Gill.

Red Notice

Is ‘Red Notice’ a fun-filled romp with beloved A-list stars or a soulless exercise in branded entertainment product? Brian and Hemal discuss – you decide.

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Released almost as a surprise directly onto Netflix in 2021, ‘Red Notice’ stars Dwayne Johnson as a heroic federal agent (when does the man NOT play a heroic federal agent, we ask?) who is forced to team up with Ryan Reynolds as a smarmy art thief. Together they battle various antagonists – chiefly Gal Gadot, who does a lot of twirling around in a fancy dress and jumping out of windows.

The movie was written, directed and produced by Rawson Marshall Thurber – his third time working with The Rock (he was also responsible for ‘Central Intelligence‘ and ‘Skyscraper’). Despite the comical implausibility of his name, Thurber seems to have his thumb on the pulse of the American cultural zeitgeist – giving the people what they want, some might say, or perhaps delivering tepid lowest common denominator fare. It’s a fine line, friends.

Ten Movies is part of the Underdog Podcast network and is produced with help from Seth Everett and Anthony Gill.

Hercules

Another Dwayne Johnson movie about swords and wizards? Yeah, but this one is straight-up terrible. This week, Brian and Hemal watch ‘Hercules’ – and they are not pleased about it.

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Director Brett Ratner seems to specialize in lowest common denominator filmmaking, and this is certainly that. ‘Hercules’ features one inspired act of casting – get the biggest, mightiest actor to play the iconically biggest and mightiest hero of Greek myth – but not much else. 

An almost cynical exercise in giving the audience nothing to challenge or interest them, the movie strips the original tale of all its darkness and emotional weight, takes the story out of the realm of the supernatural and then – insult to injury – doesn’t even give us cool fight scenes. 

There’s a host of other great actors on board, including ​​Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Rebecca Ferguson and John Hurt, but none of them are given much to do other than shout corny dialogue and be indistinguishable from one another.

Even The Rock is wasted here, as the movie is interested solely in his physique, not his performance or humor. Dude doesn’t even get a sword.

Ten Movies is part of the Underdog Podcast network and is produced with help from Seth Everett and Anthony Gill.

Fast Five

What happens when a big ridiculous cartoon action star meets a big ridiculous cartoon action franchise? Well, friend, you get something very like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in Fast Five, his debut in the beloved, increasingly absurd Fast & Furious franchise.

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As with San Andreas, Brian and Hemal diverged sharply in their appreciation for Fast Five. On the one hand, Hemal really loves these Fast & Furious car chase movies and is deeply invested in the baroque lore of the series, while Brian hadn’t seen any of them and was at a loss to understand why all the characters were so uninteresting.

At the heart of your hard-working hosts’ disagreement is the concept of spectacle. Unlike some action films that work to evoke a visceral reaction in the viewer (“Ahh! The guy almost fell right off the thing!”), Fast Five is aiming for more of a meta-appreciation of its action set pieces (“Ha ha, I can’t believe they had Vin Diesel drive his car out of that plane! Radical!”). The characters are invulnerable to all harm, so your enjoyment of the movie derives not from any sense of tension, but from appreciating the ever-escalating absurdity of events onscreen.

But these movies make hundreds of millions of dollars and show no sign of letting up, so we approach this film in a spirit of humility. Check out the episode and join us in our modest assessment.

Ten Movies is part of the Underdog Podcast network and is produced with help from Seth Everett and Anthony Gill.

The Scorpion King

Twenty years ago, America’s favorite pro wrestler was The Rock – a magnetic trash-talking antagonist delivering justice and theatrics from the top turnbuckle. But could he translate this popularity and bravura performance to the silver screen? It didn’t work for Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin, but Dwayne Johnson was cut from a different bolt of cloth, as we would soon see in his feature film debut: ‘The Scorpion King’.

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Will you enjoy The Scorpion King? That depends. Do you enjoy heavy metal music? Do you enjoy Dungeons & Dragons? Are you a 14-year-old boy?

While this is essentially a silly B movie, it’s also a fun romp, featuring swords, evil kings and scantily-clad sorceresses. It also has a certain amount of sincerity, weirdly enough. The people who made The Scorpion King filmed a lot of scenes with Dwayne Johnson leaping off a rope with a broadsword not because they thought we would buy it, but because they wanted to see it.

Surely you’ve seen the movie, in snatches on TBS, if not for a proper viewing, so fire up this very excellent episode of our podcast and hear all the insightful things Brian & Hemal had to say about it.

Ten Movies is part of the Underdog Podcast network and is produced with help from Seth Everett and Anthony Gill.