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The (People’s) Champion of the Movie Swerve

The (People's) Champion of the Movie Swerve

The following post contains SPOILERS for a variety of movies starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Professional wrestling has its own language. It dates back to the days of “kayfabe,” when the fact that the matches are rigged was still a closely guarded industry secret. Good guys are “faces.” Bad guys are “heels.” Fans who don’t realize the show is staged are “marks” (fans who are wise to the ruse and love it anyway call themselves “smarks” — for “smart marks”). Scripted events within matches or shows are “works;” unplanned ones are “shoots.” And on and on and on.

The wrestling term for a dramatic shift in an ongoing storyline is called a “swerve” — a shocking twist no one sees coming. The most famous swerve of all time might be the legendary moment at WCW’s Bash at the Beach 1996 when Hulk Hogan, the ultimate wrestling face, seemingly came to the rescue of his buddies Sting and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, only to turn on them and join their opponents, the newly formed “New World Order.” Marks in the building at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach were so outraged that Hogan swerved them and betrayed his friends that they pelted him with garbage. One guy even jumped the guardrail and tried to physically assault him. Driving a paying customer so crazy that he tries to kick the crap out of you: now that’s a swerve.

By 1996, Hogan had already had a long and successful run in the World Wrestling Federation. He’d also tried his hand at movies. Though his ascendance in the pro wrestling world was helped immensely by his small supporting turn in “Rocky III,” Hogan never quite crossed over to big screen success — his starring vehicles ranged from middling (“No Holds Barred,” which grossed $16.0 million in theaters) to sad (“Suburban Commando” made $6.9 million) to downright depressing (“Mr. Nanny” earned just $4.3 million). It would take another man to truly transition from wrestler to major Hollywood actor.

That man was Dwayne Johnson — known to wrestling fans as The Rock — who is headlining a new movie hitting theaters this Friday entitled “Snitch.” Though The Rock never quite matched the heights of Hulk Hogan’s massive popularity as a wrestler, Johnson’s done something Hogan never could: become a full-fledged movie star. And while he’s never played a wrestler in a film, The Rock’s done a canny job of covertly sneaking a few of the tricks of the wrestling trade into his movies. In particular, he’s become the modern master of the movie swerve.

A perfect example is Johnson’s recent hit, “Fast Five,” the fifth film in “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. He plays Agent Luke Hobbs, a member of the Diplomatic Secret Service assigned the case of drag-racers-turned-thieves Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker). Hobbs is the ultimate hardass: sweating, spitting, and barking orders at his team, he thinks of nothing except completing his mission. “We didn’t kill those feds!” O’Conner says when confronted by Hobbs. “I don’t give a shit! I’m just here to bring in two assholes whose names hit my desk.” he replies. Why — or even what — doesn’t matter to Hobbs. Just the names. Just the job.

And then: swerve! The very man O’Conner swore was responsible for those murders tries to kill Hobbs and his team. At the last minute, they’re saved by Toretto, O’Conner and their crew. Suddenly, Hobbs changes his mind. He’ll not only stop his pursuit — he’ll help them pull off their $100 million heist. After they succeed, he even lets the crooks go — for 24 hours.

The big screen version of the video game “Doom” inverts that arc. There Johnson plays Sarge, the, uh, sergeant of an elite team of Marines assigned to investigate a disturbance on a Martian science facility. Sarge is the ultimate hardass: sweating, spitting, and barking orders at his team, he thinks of nothing except completing the mission (you may begin to sense a pattern here; let me know if you don’t, we’ll review). Sarge and his men find that the disturbance is a full-on infection of the staff by an alien 24th chromosome, which gives good people super powers and turns bad people into hideous monsters. Surely Sarge, fearless Marine leader, is one of the good guys.

And then: swerve! Sarge starts indiscriminately killing everyone he meets, whether they’re infected or not. By the film’s final battle, he’s revealed as “Doom”‘s big bad, squaring off against the last surviving member of his squad, Reaper (Karl Urban). By this point, Sarge has been infected with the Martian chromosome and he starts transforming into an even scarier looking version of The Rock. 

Johnson’s at the center of a similar twist in the movie adaptation of the old TV series “Get Smart.” This time Johnson co-stars as Agent 23, a master spy employed by a secret government agency known as CONTROL. 23 isn’t the ultimate hardass — “Get Smart” is, after all, a silly kids comedy — but he is CONTROL’s very best field agent, the man assigned all the toughest and most important cases. After CONTROL’s headquarters are compromised by the terrorist organization KAOS, 23 is forced to take a desk job while rookie Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is sent to Russia in his place to track down a missing nuclear weapon. Everyone at CONTROL hates Smart, a know-it-all analyst who forces his co-workers to sit through lengthy and boring briefings — everyone, that is, but Agent 23, who befriends him and plays paintball with him.

And then: swerve! After a series of smaller twists that make it seem that Max is a double agent for KAOS, 23 reveals that he is the real double agent, and he kidnaps Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) and escapes with the launch codes for the missing nuclear bomb. Once again, The Rock plays the role of the surprise big bad, and he squares off against Max, the last CONTROL agent left in his way. 

These sorts of role reversals were nothing new for Johnson. “Turns” — from face to heel and back — are the lifeblood of wrestling storytelling. Though most wrestlers typically play one role, face or heel, throughout their career, The Rock was a master of bouncing back and forth between hero and villain depending on the needs of a storyline. He was introduced to WWF audiences as “Rocky Maivia,” a squeaky clean good guy who played off Johnson’s genuine heritage as a third-generation professional wrestler. When audiences got tired of Johnson’s one-dimensional babyface, he channeled his frustration into a new character — “The Rock” — who referred to himself in third person and berated fans for turning their backs on him.

The Rock joined a stable of African-American wrestlers called the Nation of Domination, and continued delivering elaborate promos ridiculing the audience and his opponents. The Rock was a heel through and through, but Johnson was so charismatic and his insults so hilariously inspired that crowds started to cheer for him. Riding the audience sentiment, The Rock became a face again. And then: swerve! Johnson joined the biggest WWF villain of them all, owner Vince McMahon, as a member of “The Corporation.”

In retrospect, Johnson’s ability to seamlessly transition from face to heel bode well for his chances as an actor. And he brought his mastery of the heel turn with him to the movies, where he’s swerved audiences time and time again. His villain from “The Mummy Returns” became the hero of “The Scorpion King.” His supercop from “The Other Guys” was killed off just minutes into the film after he and his fellow badass partner (Samuel L. Jackson) attempt an idiotic leap off a building. You could even argue that Johnson’s career path is one swerve after another: what else would you call following macho action vehicles like “The Rundown” and “Walking Tall” with a music business satire like “Be Cool?” Or pairing a mainstream inspirational sports movie “Gridiron Gang” with the weird indie sci-fi fantasy “Southland Tales?” Or following that with a Disney movie like “The Game Plan?”

After heeling on his older fans with a whole series of kids movies including “Tooth Fairy,” “Planet 51,” and “Race to Witch Mountain,” Johnson returned to action: “Faster,” “Fast Five,” and now “Snitch.” Later this year he’s got “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” “Pain & Gain,” and “Fast & Furious 6,” where he returns as Agent Hobbs. Previews have already teased at least two swerves: instead of trying to catch Toretto and O’Conner, he comes to them asking for their help in catching Toretto’s girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who seemingly died in the fourth “Fast & Furious.” Knowing Johnson’s filmography, plan on a few more surprises. When The Rock really gets cooking onscreen, you should always expect the unexpected.

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