John Cena is a busy guy. Two days after hosting the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards last month, he returned to WWE to challenge the Undertaker to a match at WrestleMania. That might sound like something out of a professional-wrestling sentence generator, but it’s significant given what’s happening two days before that potential dream match: the release of “Blockers,” the wrestler-turned-actor’s most significant role yet.
The human body isn’t meant to endure the physical toll of suplexes and power bombs forever, not that many haven’t tried. Cena, now 40, has been in 2,215 matches throughout his nearly two-decade career. Like many grapplers before him — remember when you didn’t know The Rock’s real name? — he now sees a second act in, well, acting.
The two performers’ arcs mirror one another as much for their differences as for their similarities: Dwayne Johnson tried his hand at comedy before emerging as an action star, whereas Cena failed as an action star before proving himself a gifted comic actor.
You probably don’t remember such WWE-produced action flicks as “The Marine” and “12 Rounds,” and for good reason: Neither the movies themselves nor Cena’s performances in them are especially memorable. It wasn’t until 2015, when he had scene-stealing roles in “Trainwreck,” “Sisters,” and “Daddy’s Home,” that multiplex audiences learned what WWE fans figured out long ago: Cena has always been more funny than intimidating.
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Consider it an update on the gentle-giant archetype. Physically imposing but helplessly goofy, Cena’s onscreen persona is among the most disarming in Hollywood. He could lift you over his head and throw you across the ring if he wanted, but he’d much rather talk about his feelings and hear how you’ve been doing. That’s especially true of his character in “Blockers,” a concerned father who tears up at the thought of his daughter leaving for college and launches an ill-advised quest to prevent her from losing her virginity on prom night.
It’s his strongest performance to date, proving that Cena isn’t just hilarious in small doses. He long ago showed that he can carry other competitors on his shoulders; now we know he can carry a movie as well.
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No one is happier about Cena’s silver-screen success than the same diehard wrestling fans who used to loathe him. For more than a decade, Cena was not only WWE’s poster boy but also its irresistible force: a borderline superhero who always prevailed when the odds were stacked against him, often at the expense of on-the-rise characters who had their momentum halted after losing to “Super Cena.” Now that he’s a part-timer who gets pinned more often than not, his longtime haters are coming around — and praising his movie performances.
This began with his gag reel–worthy turn in “Trainwreck,” playing the small-but-important role of Steven, one of Amy Schumer’s character’s lovers. In addition to a highly physical sex scene, the role called on him to use the improvisation skills he’d been honing for years in WWE. Cena is front and center in one of the film’s standout scenes, with Steven attempting to have a heartfelt conversation in a movie theater — and responding angrily when asked to quiet down by a fellow patron.
“I will fuck you, all right!? I will enter you!” he says, prompting more confusion than fear. Here’s a guy who could render his would-be opponent unconscious with ease — “I look like Mark Wahlberg ate Mark Wahlberg,” he reminds us — and yet he’s so hapless as to neutralize himself as a threat before the fight has even begun. When Schumer asks what he’s doing, he whispers back, “I’m trying to intimidate him.”
He’s tried that inside the WWE ring as well, often coming across just as silly. WWE performers are largely reciting scripts when picking up a microphone these days, but Cena cut his teeth during an era of relative onscreen freedom. He’s emerged as one of the company’s most gifted speakers over the last decade, as well as one of its best improvisers. This, as much as his 6’1″, 251 lb. frame, defines him as both character and performer — Cena knows his superhero shtick is aimed at kids, and so he self-reflexively winks at older audiences to let them know he’s in on the joke.
The Undertaker has yet to respond to Cena’s challenge, all but confirming that any confrontation between the two grapplers will be an impromptu bout. To think: Mere hours after the box-office numbers for “Blockers” are reported, he’s likely to have one of the biggest matches of his career — and one he can’t really lose. Should Cena defeat the Dead Man, he’ll further cement his legacy as one of the squared circle’s all-time greats; should he lose, it’ll free up his schedule for his next leading role.