Take an American action hero role call and who will you find?
Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are still around, yet deep in the nostalgic throes of their Expendables action series. Superhero movies sit atop of the action genre, yet there stars (Robert Downey Jr., Christian Bale) are dramatic actors playing action roles. Ditto Matt Damon, who although his Bourne series changed the way action movies were made, hardly declares the Oscar nominated actor an action god.
And sure, Tom Cruise is still the blockbuster king with his Mission: Impossible franchise still raking in the big bucks. Yet at 52 years old, there is only so long that the Cruiser can keep up with his “I do my own stunts” pace.
Truth is the biggest action stars of the last decade come from outside of the USA. Jason Statham? British. Hugh Jackman? Australian. Gerard Buter? Scottish. Then you have Asian martial arts stars
such as Tony Jaa (Thailand), Iko Uwais (Indonesia) and Ziyi Zhang (China).
America, once the action movie star mecca of the world that bore all types of action star from Stallone to Michael Dudikoff, is in the throes of a major drought. Yet one man stands tall as the American action hero that once defined the genre: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Standing at 6 foot 5 and weighing 260 pounds (that’s 196cm and 120kg for Australian readers), Dwayne Johnson has the classic look and girth for action hero greatness. Yet despite making the leap from the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) to movies back in 1999 as The Scorpion King in The Mummy 2, Johnson has only hit his stride over the last few years, combining that charismatic personality and intimidating presence to superstar effect on the big screen.
While films such as Welcome to the Jungle (aka The Rundown), Walking Tall and Faster showed Johnson’s potential, it was his role as DSS (Diplomatic Security Services) agent Luke Dobbs in Fast Five that gave Johnson’s run for the American movie superstar crown major mileage, stealing scenes and carrying a lagging franchise on his shoulders, with his presence the perfect addition to an already testosterone filled cast, among them Vin Diesel who partakes in a glorious old school fisticuffs with Johnson to the delight of many an action fan.
It was a role that set Johnson up for a very prolific 2013 where he appeared in a whopping 5 movies (earning the mantle of top-grossing actor by Forbes Magazine), one of which was a reprisal of his now beloved Hobbs character in Fast & Furious 6. He also headlined G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a sequel that (once again) benefited from Johnson’s presence and reminded what it was like when action movies featured a behemoth hero cracking wise while laying the bad guys to waste.
What makes Johnson unique is that he honed his action star chops in the best acting school you can find: the WWE, a place where America’s great unique art-form is staged, combining entertainment with athleticism and feats of strength. Those who can excel at all three while winning the crowd over (numbering in the billions when you include worldwide TV audience) will be propelled into instant stardom, with a lucky few breaking into pop culture glory.
As “The Rock” Johnson did just that, becoming one of the greats in the wrestling entertainment business who can still get a huge pop no matter what building he walks into.
After all what is the WWE than the best action melodrama to grace the TV screen? You have your heroes, your villains, your alliances, your betrayals, your drama, your suspense, your freaks, your sex appeal and – most of all – your action choreography.
It’s a world that Johnson mastered, bringing that experience to Hollywood where - much like in the WWE - Johnson climbed a steady ascent to the top.
Now Johnson faces his biggest test with the release of his passion project, Hercules. It’s a role he has rigorously prepared for with a gruelling 8 month training schedule, the muscle building exploits of which he’s shared with his devoted social media fan base of over 7 million Twitter followers and 37 million Facebook followers.
For action hero stardom physical prowess is a big bonus. Schwarzenegger wowed with his Mr. Olympia body while swinging broad sword in Conan the Barbarian and carrying large tree trunks in Commando. Stallone in turn lifted his game, with each passing Rocky and Rambo a display of muscular fitness at its most perfect (although perhaps not the most natural). Then you have Jean Claude Van-Damme, the “Muscles from Brussels” living up to his name while doing his patented leg splits.
It was simple: The more shredded and pumped an action star looked, the more convincing they will be at firing a Gatling gun or ripping a man’s throat out. That all of course changed when TV star Bruce Willis ran around in his wife-beater in Die Hard. Now even Helen Mirren is starring in action movies.
Yet that ‘80s aesthetic has come back, with the likes of Statham, Jackman and especially Johnson shredding muscle to amazing effect or as Johnson affectionately refers to it: “Clanging and banging!”
Although Johnson is an American born of Samoan heritage, there is no doubt that the role of Greek mythological hero Hercules was one he was born to play. Two others have already tried this year – Twilight star Kellen Lutz in The Legend of Hercules and fellow WWE star John Morrison in Hercules Returns – yet to paltry results.
Johnson doesn’t need Hercules to be a critical success to cement his standing as a movie star. A look at the filmographies of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis show more duds than darlings. However he does need it to draw big time box office dollars. Considering the films heavy media presence (headlined by Johnson at his charismatic and personable best), a weak release slate, and Johnson’s legion of fans, it looks certain that it will do just that.
Action movie stars of the blockbuster variety who pledge allegiance to ol’ glory are a rare find these days. Yet in Johnson that rare find is in itself a national treasure, a glorious throwback to the old school and a demanding screen presence during the now.
Johnson’s career is made up of one accomplishment after another. Add “America’s last great action hero” among them.