This Friday will see the release of The Rock’s (None of this Dwayne Johnson nonsense, he’s The Rock) newest action tentpole Hercules, with him playing the historic hero. You’ve probably already made up your mind if you’re going to see this film or not, you’re not anxiously waiting on the fence. You probably haven’t given a second thought to Hercules. But I have, and for the first time in a long time, I’m worried about The Rock.
When you really stop to think about it, The Rock has built a career becoming one of the most unlikely box office superstars. In 2013 Forbes named him the highest grossing actor of the year with his films that year bringing in $1.3 billion. But I say box office superstar with a caveat: He only smashes numbers when he’s part of an ensemble. Put the guy in an ensemble cast and he’ll rake in big bucks for you. But have him headline a film? That hasn’t proven the same box office results. He’s not necessarily abysmal on his own, but the question remains, is he finally at the point in his career where he can smash the box office by himself?
Wrestlers have always faced a bizarrely unexplainable but clearly existent glass ceiling in the film world. Behind The Rock, Rowdy Roddy Piper is perhaps the 2nd most well-known wrestler turned actor. But even though he has one of the most memorable and beloved fight scenes of all time, even he could never advance to more prolific levels. Just think about it, before The Rock, They Live was probably the farthest a pro wrestler had gotten in Hollywood.
The Rock’s entry point into films was essentially a one-off gimmick playing the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns. And then that one-off gimmick turned into it’s own film with The Scorpion King the following year. And then before you knew it he was in other films that weren’t The Scorpion King sequels/prequels and he was advertising his films under a bizarre name of Dwayne Johnson. Did anybody else not know that his real name wasn’t The Rock before any of this? No? Just me? To be fair I was only 10-12 years old when this was going down.
The Rock began to carve out a name for himself in the action genre. He followed up The Scorpion King with The Rundown and Walking Tall, both competent and enjoyable action films – but neither made any money. Walking Tall barely made back its budget, while The Rundown didn’t meet its budget. Despite being classified as failures, there was something about The Rock that stood out and made you take notice. He had the makings of a truly great action star. He had the physique, you believed he could beat anyone up, and he had a real charisma about him on screen. Unfortunately, neither of his first two outings as a legitimate action star paid off, and he went into a spiral of bad filmmaking.
Up until 2010, it was a dark time for The Rock and his fans. He was doing a bunch of supporting roles and headlining terrible Disney films. It wasn’t just that these films weren’t blowing up the box office like the executives wanted them to, it was that these films were putting The Rock to waste. None of them –besides some glimmers of what could be in his silly performances in Get Smart and even more so in The Other Guys – really understood how to utilize The Rock. There is something so watchable about the guy, the problem was that he was making unwatchable films.
You know that feeling of euphoria, life-affirmation, gratitude and renewed belief of the possibility of world peace we all felt when Lebron announced he would return to Cleveland? I had that same feeling when The Rock returned to action films. When Faster came out, I made sure to see it opening weekend to support and sustain The Rock’s return to action. It was a pretty underrated action thriller bolstered by an amount of character depth that not even myself knew The Rock had in him. Unfortunately it didn’t do well at the box office, only nominally surpassing its $24 million price tag. Fortunately, great things were just around the corner, and The Rock began to prove his stellar value as a franchise utility man. The bizarre reinvention of The Fast & the Furious franchise that was Fast Five was successful in no small part thanks to the addition of The Rock, with the film doubling it’s worldwide intake from the next highest grossing film in the franchise with a whopping $626 million intake. He lent his newfound power to Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which grossed $100 million worldwide than the previous film. G.I. Joe: Retaliation managed to be an unlikely success with the inclusion of him, besting the previous film with an additional $75 million worldwide. And so began the age of The Rock.
As previously mentioned, his 4 films in 2013 grossed a collective $1.3 billion dollars making him the highest paid actor of the year. In that year he released G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Fast & Furious 6, Snitch and Pain & Gain. Here’s the thing though, just over $1.16 billion of that collective gross came from G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Fast & Furious 6. Neither Snitch nor Pain & Gain grossed $100 million worldwide – in fact neither cracked $50 million domestically, even though both featured The Rock’s best acting efforts (It should also be noted Pain & Gain isn’t an action film, and Snitch barely is, but you get the point). His franchise ensemble efforts – something he has become bulletproof at landing – carried almost all the weight of his box office success that year.
Naturally there is some apprehension as to whether or not Hercules can make the impression he wants it to. It’s putting itself in a summer full of indistinguishable blockbuster attempts like it, and also putting itself in the same year as another Hercules film (The Legend of Hercules). Granted that film sucks, but it is also part of a trend this year where 3 swords and sandals flicks have been released (The Legend of Hercules, Pompeii and 300: Rise of an Empire) with 300 the only one to not fail at the box office. Is The Rock too late to the party? At the same time though, there has never been a better time to bet on The Rock than now. That $1.3 billion speaks volumes of his box office reach, and The Rock will promote his films with an enthusiasm and vigor that few others can. If you follow any of his social media accounts, you no doubt have seen dozens upon dozens of reminders/updates about Hercules, Fast & Furious 7 and his upcoming San Andreas – because the dude posts only a few different types of photos: Promo material, gym photos, photos with fans, a varying mix of each of them, and just things of pure beauty and wonder. Here’s the thing, 37+ million people are going to see each one of his promo posts, his fanbase making him a safer bet for studios than he was pre-social media. His supporters are more visible now than they were a decade ago, all that remains is that they be more visible at the box office. The Rock is cooking like he never has before, but will anyone show up to the barbecue?
The Rock is on the cusp of becoming a true action star. Action hero is an elusive title to hold, as so many varying categories of requirements play into how valid of an action star you are. It’s also very hard to predict an action star, we usually only realize when someone has ascended to that level in the moment. One thing is for sure, to be an action hero you have to be able to open up an action film on your own to winning numbers. This is the challenge The Rock will face come Friday. Hercules – based on the trailers – depicts the title character as one who is coming face to face with who he truly is and what his abilities truly are. I can’t help but feel that the film holds a similar importance for The Rock. We’ll know for sure when the numbers come in on Sunday.
Box office numbers via Box Office Mojo.