A great piece by Adam Nayman from the forthcoming issue of Cinema Scope traces the history of professional wrestlers on film with particular attention the film-producing career of the WWE. Here he is on Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) in “Pain & Gain.”
Johnson’s wrestling stardom was predicated on the post-kayfabe recognition of his own ridiculousness: decked out in gaudy suits and sunglasses, shamelessly spouting catchphrases in between boasts, the character nodded to Thunderlips et al while raising one skeptical eyebrow at the entire show. That same self-awareness pervaded Johnson’s performances in kiddie flicks (“The Tooth Fairy,” 2010) and auteur works (“Southland Tales,” 2006) alike, but in “Pain & Gain” he touches on comic genius by inhabiting Doyle’s perplexed anguish rather than mocking it. He’s a straight arrow bent so grotesquely out of shape as to become (lethally) weaponized, and while Michael Bay’s oddly Coenesque comedy is hardly an exercise in empathy — for its characters or its audience, which it all but piledrives into submission — one wonders if Johnson isn’t in some way pouring one out for all his predecessors and peers consumed by their appetites. At the same time, his indelible acting in a movie with its share of critical champions will hopefully serve to remove some of the stigma from the history of wrestlers-turned-actors — a minor but refreshingly unpremeditated victory.
Traditionally, wrestling movies have been the lowest rung on the Hollywood totem pole: Not for nothing do Joel and Ethan Coen drive home the abasement of “Barton Fink’s” titular playwright by assigning him to a Wallace Beery picture. (“Whaddya need, a road map?”) But at least a few, especially those, like Johnson or Andre “The Giant” Roussimouff have found success by playing against their tough-guy images — or, in Johnson’s case, playing into and against it at the same time. For obvious reasons, wrestlers are often called up on to play the heavy — see the other Johnson, Tor, in “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” above — but it often works best when they bring some lightness with them as well.