Having long since conquered the box office — and our hearts — Dwayne Johnson (née The Rock) is back to scale a very tall building in “Skyscraper.” He’s been in starring in movies of his own for the better part of two decades, and shows no sign of slowing down; the only thing that seems likely to slow down Johnson’s career at this point is a bid for the White House.
Whether that happens in two, six, or 10 years, the wrestler-turned-actor-turned-maybe-politician will have built up an impressive body of work that rewards revisiting. Here are his best lead performances:
18. “Faster” (2010)
Character: James “Driver” Cullen
Carla Guginos: 1
Perhaps the most ridiculous movie Johnson has ever been in — and he was in “Doom” — this automotive revenge thriller finds its star at his most self-serious. It’s a virtually silent performance from the Rock, who has as much physical charisma as anyone on earth but is needlessly hampered by the tough-guy schtick this time around. (The most absurd example: After failing to kill one of his targets with a knife, he “visits” him in hospital and shoots the poor bastard to death while he’s in surgery.) “Faster” features much in the way of murky morals and stylized violence, most of which distracts from its star’s aura rather than enhancing it. — MN
17. “San Andreas” (2015)
Character: Raymond “Ray” Gaines
Carla Guginos: 1
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A textbook example of what Johnson needs to avoid in the future, “San Andreas” is an extremely boring summer blockbuster that makes the fatal mistake of assuming that all you need to make a movie is The Rock and $100 million worth of decent CG. In truth, those two things will get you most of the way there, but there’s one key ingredient you’ll need to complete the picture: An actual character for The Rock to play. That omission becomes “San Andreas’” biggest fault. Johnson is one of the most charismatic people alive, but this movie has less personality than a tectonic plate. Literally the most interesting thing about Fire Department Helicopter pilot Raymond Gaines is that people call him “Ray” for short. Beyond that, he’s just an overprotective dad who’s trying to reunite his family — he doesn’t even get to fight the earthquake at the end, which is super lame. — DE
16. “Tooth Fairy” (2010)
Character: Derek Thompson
# of actual children’s teeth pulled during production: Hopefully none, but you never know
After a string of underperforming action flicks (“Doom,” “Walking Tall”), Johnson shifted to family-friendly fare. “Tooth Fairy” was the worst of these, putting the People’s Champion in a tutu and sending him on a fairytale journey through the world of everyone’s least-favorite made-up childhood figure. (That he’s a hockey player nicknamed Tooth Fairy due to his habit of knocking out his opponents’ molars is, at least, fairly clever.) As he always does, the Rock makes the most of the material; even he can’t elevate sequences like the hockey-rink reveal that he’s sprouted wings and must go tend to his mythical duties, but there are plenty of performers who would have done it worse. The kiddos liked it, too, as “Tooth Fairy” made $112 million at the box office — try fitting that under your pillow. — MN
15. “Skyscraper” (2018)
Character: Will Sawyer
Burning Question: What if “Die Hard,” but in an even bigger building?
A wannabe “Die Hard” on steroids that makes “The Towering Inferno” look subtle, Johnson’s latest super-sized action vehicle is so eager to please it scores a few points off its daring hijinks, but nothing that can rescue it from a workmanlike quality that trades self-awareness for bland gravitas. “Skyscraper” starts in an unlikely place: The Rock is broken. A muscular FBI hostage-rescue leader, Will faces a sudden tragedy in the field that takes him out of the business and lands him a prosthetic leg. The next thing you know, he’s scaling a Hong Kong tower in 30 seconds flat in order to save his family.
Between this and “Rampage,” Johnson seems determined to keep dumbing things down so nothing can upstage his muscular antics. Gone are the days of “Southland Tales,” when an ambitious Rock on the rise seemed to display a pure desire to explore riskier projects; these days, he gives ambivalent audiences what they want.
Any press kit includes the cliched question of what attracted an actor to a project, and the answer boils down to some variation of “smart script.” For Johnson, the appeal seems to stems from the script’s absence, and he needs to break from that routine. He has the extraordinary charisma and physical strength that make up for a multitude of faults, but at some point in every major actor’s career, quality starts to make a difference. “Skyscraper” plays out like a metaphor for diminishing returns — Johnson keeps climbing, higher and higher, until there’s nowhere left to go but down. — EK
14. “Rampage” (2018)
Character: Davis Okoye
Big: Meets Bigger
It’s hard to forget where you were when big met bigger, but it’s even harder to remember what happened next. A movie so aggressively forgettable that it made everyone who saw it feel like the Guy from “Memento,” “Rampage” only came out a few months ago, but it already feels like something your local Redbox machine just made up to mess with you. This inert action blockbuster about a man trying to contain his Godzilla-size gorilla friend represents the nadir of Dwayne Johnson’s ongoing quest to become the world’s least offensive star; he wants to be the glistening international symbol for a good time at the multiplex, but the bigger he gets, the smaller he appears. As edgy and entertaining as a political campaign ad, Johnson’s performance in “Rampage” is so anodyne that it almost seems to confirm the rumors that he’s running for President.
Much like the hero Johnson played in “San Andreas,” the character of Davis Okoye is so stiff and sexless that he feels reverse-engineered from his own action figure. There are no sharp edges here: Davis is noble, but he’ll knock you out. He’s an animal-lover with a heart of gold, but he’s also a shredded ex-soldier whose arms are so large that he’s only allowed outside in states with open-carry laws. His sarcastic sense of humor is limited to jokes that are too basic to be lost in translation or misunderstood in Chinese. Johnson is a Herculean demigod whose biceps could were listed second and third on the call sheet, but Davis remains sexless from start to finish, even while every other character drools over him like he’s a fleshy mound of catnip (at least “Jumanji” contrived an elaborate excuse for the actor to be so neutered and nonthreatening).
For all of Johnson’s charm and physique, there’s a palpable fear to his performance here, as though he’d be mortally wounded by losing even a single one of his fans. As a result, he probably lost a few more than that. — DE
13. “Snitch” (2013)
Character: John Matthews
# of actual snitches who get actual stitches: 0
Johnson’s least memorable projects are those that sit uncomfortably between the action and drama categories — not because he doesn’t have the acting chops to pull it off, but because he’s such a larger-than-life figure that it’s somehow easier to imagine him as a superhero than as a normal guy. “Snitch” — which is the closest thing he’s ever made to a message movie — takes on mandatory-minimum sentencing laws via the story of a determined father entering the criminal underworld in order to save his son from facing 10 years behind bars. The Rock brings his usual grit to the role, playing both family man and badass with relative ease. — MN
12. “Baywatch” (2017)
Character: Mitch Buchannon
Does the Rock literally consult his balls before making a major decision?: Yes, and they’re very wise
Dwayne Johnson tends to be at his least interesting when playing morally impeccable Superman types, and so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that one of his most boring roles came when he reincarnated David Hasselhoff’s most famous character — Mitch Buchannon! — as a lifeguard so heroic that he’s rescued 500 people, and so masculine that he literally consults his balls before confronting the bad guys. “Baywatch” is one of those movies where all of the other characters just sort of stand around and gawk at the Rock’s godly physique — an understandable reaction in real life, but not always a great way to spend $20. At one point, Zac Efron has to remind Mitch that he’s not the Equalizer. At another, a woman in a bikini tries to have sex with Mitch while he’s rescuing her from an exploding boat. The R rating adds a little spice to Johnson’s usual shtick, but it’s not enough to save this whole thing from drowning. — DE
11. “Race to Witch Mountain” (2009)
Character: Jack Bruno
Carla Gugino?: Carla Gugino.
It can be easy to forget now that Johnson has become one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but there were some dark years before he joined the “Fast and Furious” franchise. Case in point: “Race to Witch Mountain,” which finds the Great One playing straight man to two alien kiddos with whom he must, you guessed it, race to Witch Mountain. Johnson is easily the best aspect of the film, despite spending much of it in the driver’s seat of a taxi while looking perplexed at the fantastical goings on; his bemused performance helps bring the silliness back down to earth, which proves necessary time and again. — MN
THE LIST CONTINUES ON THE NEXT PAGE.