Every year since 2001, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment, The Great One, The People’s Champion, The Brahma Bull himself, has appeared in at least one movie, and some years in as many as five. That’s a lot of Rock saturation, which makes his continued vitality pretty darn amazing. And he’s showing no signs of slowing down, as his starring role in the much-anticipated Black Adam is set to premiere in 2022. Plus, as of 2020, he’s the highest paid actor in the world.
More amazing is that the guy’s popularity seems to increase with every calendar year. Maybe it’s his versatility. Like action? Most of his oeuvre is right up your alley. Love to laugh? He has comedies for days. Need a good old fashioned inspirational sports flick? The Rock will oblige. Want to watch Johnson cook body parts on a Weber? That’s…really specific, but what do you know, he’s got one of those in his back pocket, too!
Johnson, once upon a time the sum of his muscles, has revealed himself to be so much more than a chiseled god among men; he’s the rare leading man who can show up in bad-to-mediocre movies and give you a good reason to watch them, that reason being him. Admit it. When a new Johnson movie drops, your interest piques. There’s no shame in that. He’s one of the best. In fact, he’s so good that MTV gave him the 2019 Icon Generation Award.
But if we’re going to celebrate Johnson’s best, that means we also have to sort through some of his worst. Here’s our ranking of every role in Johnson’s career, from bad to good.
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#35: Jem and the Holograms, 2015
Role: Cameo as himself
Johnson shouldn’t take any meaningful responsibility for Jem and the Holograms. He’s so removed from the film’s plot, in fact, that merely mentioning it alongside the rest of his body of work feels wrong. Johnson’s cameo appearance is a matter of context: He shows up singing the praises of the title band via social media, but the clip is just a repurposed Vine in which he extolls the virtues of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” It’s an effortless walk-on (if you can even call it that), and a cheap way of capitalizing on Johnson’s stardom.
Lionel C. Martin’s Longshot is an amateur-level action-comedy amalgam and a late ’90s/early 2000s nostalgia trip that qualifies as a movie only by the letter of the law. Bad as Longshot is — and it is very, very bad — its badness has nothing to do with Johnson, playing a mugger for less than a full minute of screen time before Joey Sculthorpe fights him off. Thankfully, it takes more than one crummy movie to keep The Rock from becoming arguably the biggest movie star on the planet.
Role: Derek Thompson/Tooth Fairy
All of the great action stars have a dumb kids movie listed on their filmography. It’s like weird a rite of passage. Arnold Schwarzenegger has Kindergarten Cop. Bruce Willis has The Kid. Vin Diesel has The Pacifier.
Johnson has Tooth Fairy, where he plays a hockey goon known for — get this — knocking out opposing players’ teeth on the ice. Unsurprisingly, he’s a total jerk off the ice, too — so much so that he’s turned into a toothy fairy by the tooth fairy race, ostensibly to become a better man. (He’s a pretty bad man. The dude steals a dollar from his girlfriend’s daughter and tells her tooth fairies don’t exist.) Think of this one as part of the price you pay to become an action hero.
#32: Why Did I Get Married Too?, 2010
Role: Daniel Franklin
Yet another movie where Johnson doesn’t play much of a part in the actual story, and only walks on at the very end — in this case, showing up at the film’s climax to tell Patricia Agnew (Janet Jackson) that her books helped him get through his divorce. He thanks her, then asks her out for coffee, and that’s all, folks. The rest of the movie is a standard romantic drama about couples trying to improve their marriages to varying results, but in terms of The Rock, you’re probably better off just skipping it.
#31: The Mummy Returns, 2001
Role: Mathayus the Scorpion King
Whether or not Johnson’s role in The Mummy Returns really counts as “acting” is a debate worth having, but wherever you fall, this is hardly anyone’s idea of an auspicious debut; his big moment hinges on CGI so bad it’s nearly awe-inspiring, dated even by 2001 standards, and more so now. All Stephen Sommers did here is slap Johnson’s mug on a man-scorpion’s body. Granted, he does appear in full, shirtless glory in the movie’s opening scene, but given how he goes out, the whole thing feels like a wash.
Role: Detective James Ransome
Yet another Johnson movie where he barely has screen time. If we’re being honest, there are worse movies on this list, but few of them are as criminally generic as Empire State, and even fewer give him so little to work with. The film is built out of tropes deployed by director Dito Montiel without even the slightest hint of imagination: Two best buds with zero armed robbery experience cook up a plan to rob an armored truck outfit, and when they do, Johnson — playing a boilerplate hard-nosed detective — sets out to bring them to justice. Rather than lean into being terrible, Empire State settles on merely existing. It’s there. That’s about it. And Johnson’s scarcely there at all.
Role: Mitch Buchannon
Viewers may have delighted in seeing Johnson humiliate Zac Efron, but the problem with Baywatch as entertainment is laziness. The film is a naked attempt to capitalize on the success of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 21 Jump Street reboots, and Seth Gordon is neither a Lord nor a Miller; he lacks their knack for turning bad ideas into great movies. Johnson made plain his disagreements with the film’s critics post-release; he’s a “stand behind the work” kind of guy, after all.
Role: Captain Charles “Chuck” T. Baker
Planet 51 commits roughly the same faux pas as Empire State: It’s conventional to its own detriment. What the former has over the latter is Johnson, who voices the main character and therefore stays in the movie from start to finish. That’s an incredibly low bar, but it’s the bar we have to take from this stretch of Johnson’s career as a leading man.
Even if Planet 51 feels downright routine, it’s not exactly boring: Johnson plays a meathead astronaut who lands on a planet where the indigenous alien culture is modeled closely after 1950s American culture. You’ve seen films like it before, with well-rounded characters and more to say about its plot and themes.
#27: Southland Tales, 2006
Role: Boxer Santaros
All but the Donnie Darko faithful — the folks who fight tooth and nail for respect for Richard Kelly’s weirdo cult flick — embraced his 2006 follow-up, Southland Tales, which 12 years later is mostly notable as the only arthouse movie Johnson has to his name. Take his character’s backstory — “amnesiac action star becomes the most wanted man on the planet” — and you’ve more or less got a movie right there, but regrettably that conceit is stuffed into a movie overloaded with other similarly fascinating conceits. It’s ultimately unsuccessful, scarcely memorable, and chock-full of bizarre exchanges like, well, this one.
Role: Sgt. Asher “Sarge” Mahonin
Doom proves that video game movies generally don’t work, and also that Johnson is damn near bulletproof when it comes to his choice in roles. Again, we have an early entry in his filmography that might have sunk another actor, a half-cocked adaptation of the infamous first-person shooter that gets interesting only when it slips into first-person mode toward the end. Compare Karl Urban, the movie’s lead, to The Rock, playing only a supporting part, and you’ll get the idea. Urban’s not starving for work, but he’s not The Rock, either. (At least he has the honor of taking Johnson out at the end of the movie. Not many get to say that.)
Role: Joseph “Joe” Kingman
“Family friendly movies starring wrestlers can’t be good!” says Tooth Fairy. “Hold my beer,” says The Game Plan.
The Game Plan won’t blow your mind and redefine your definition of what great cinema looks like, but a) it’s not trying to, b) very few movies actually achieve that, and, most importantly, c) it’s watchable, which puts it head and shoulders above most movies like it. The Game Plan is pretty damn cloying, but Johnson carries the picture, predating the disaster that is Tooth Fairy by three years and making it look even worse by comparison.
#24: Race to Witch Mountain, 2009
Role: Jack Bruno
The movie equivalent of cotton candy: Fluffy, airy, and fun, but you’ll forget all about it as soon as the credits roll.
A remake of the 1975 fantasy film of the same name (and more or less in name only), Race to Witch Mountain is a good time. It’s about an erstwhile getaway driver for the mob who ends up smack-dab in the middle of an alien invasion plot, with two alien teens on one side, an alien assassin on another, and a government spook on yet another; it’s up to Johnson to help the teens prevent their race from attacking Earth and taking over the world. Sounds fun. And it is! It’s just predictable, and by dint of its predictability, it’s unremarkable despite its better merits.
By the time Hercules came out, Johnson had two Fast & Furious films under his belt; he’d long proven himself as an action star capable of opening movies and carrying franchises. This is a nice way of saying Johnson didn’t really need Hercules on his resume, but middling and antiseptic though it may be, it has its fantasy genre pleasures, plus a good, steely turn from Johnson (and a great supporting cast, including Ian McShane). The more love you have for Roman mythology, the better the film plays.
#22: The Scorpion King, 2002
Role: Mathayus/Scorpion King
The Scorpion King feels like a redemptive feature — the spin-off follow-up to 2001’s The Mummy Returns. Granted, The Scorpion King isn’t a great movie either, but it’s tightly paced, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and relishes its genre as well as its retro evocations. If Chuck Russell had dropped this back in the ’80s, millennials would probably look back on it fondly as a cheesy action/fantasy cornerstone of their childhood, like The Beastmaster.
Role: Elliot Wilhelm
Be Cool is an example of a single performance holding up an entire movie. As a sequel to Barry Sonnenfeld’s superb 1995 crime comedy, Get Shorty, Be Cool disappoints; no one really asked for it, and ticket sales suggest that no one really wanted it once it opened, either.
But the film has a silver lining, and that lining has enormous muscles, inborn star power, and a real talent for arching his eyebrow. Be Cool isn’t a classic in Johnson’s filmography, but it’s demonstrative of his natural magnetism. As long as he’s on screen, the movie feels alive, practically crackling with comic energy. It may not have done well commercially, but it did wonders for his career, giving him a chance to prove his multidimensional acting chops. Turns out The Rock’s as much a funnyman as a tough guy.
Role: John Matthews
You probably don’t remember Rich Roman Waugh’s Snitch, and for good reason. The film’s all over the place — a morality tale about betraying your friends to save your own skin that eventually turns into a cartel movie. The movie tries to slow-roll its way into a highway chase/shootout, giving Johnson room to explore new facets of his persona by ditching his usual hero routine to play the soft-spoken, introspective everyman, which in and of itself is fairly compelling. The problem is the movie giving Johnson little to hang onto, lacking a singular narrative identity. It’s inert and grueling, but as far as it concerns Johnson’s continued evolution, it’s a fascinating bit of homework.
Role: Air marshal
In You Again, Kristen Bell’s character finds out that her high school bully, played by Odette Yustman, is marrying her brother, which doesn’t sit well with her. Partway through the film she has a meltdown on an airplane and ends up being subdued by an air marshal, played by Johnson. Rather than play tough, though, he gives her a pep talk. It’s surprisingly sweet, but it doesn’t come as a surprise: The Rock’s a nice guy, and as we find out elsewhere in his body of work, he doesn’t tolerate bullies, either.
#18: G.I. Joe: Retaliation, 2013
Role: Marvin F. Hinton/Roadblock
Honestly, what holds G.I. Joe: Retaliation back — apart from Channing Tatum’s near-immediate demise toward the start of the movie — is retroactive in nature. Cool as it is watching Johnson mow down bad guys with a really, really big gun, 2015’s Furious 7 performed the same public service by arming him with an equally as big gun, and quite frankly, Furious 7 did it better.
It doesn’t help that G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a movie based on a toy and comic franchise. On top of that, the film’s as dumb as a stack of bricks — but thankfully, it knows it’s dumb, and never tries to dress itself up as intelligent.
Role: Chris Vaughan
Walking Tall is a remake of the 1973 movie of the same name, a semi-biographical telling of the life and times of Sheriff Buford Pusser. The details of Pusser’s life change ever so slightly in the ‘73 film; they change even more in the 2004 version, Johnson playing Pusser as an ex-Special Forces type rather than an ex-wrestler (perhaps because having Johnson play an ex-wrestler would be too on the nose). Regardless of changes made to the story, Walking Tall works well enough as a showcase for Johnson’s gift for vibing with his co-stars, like Johnny Knoxville, cast here as his trustworthy best friend.
#16: Reno 911!: Miami, 2007
Role: Agent Rick Smith
There’s nothing quite like watching big tough guys make asses of themselves, or in this case blow themselves to kingdom come; Johnson has such a good understanding of how to blend his macho veneer with perfect comic timing that his moment here feels like a comedy all-timer. You know he’s not going to stay in the movie for long. Everything Reno 911! is about sheer incompetence, even from supporting characters, and Johnson nails that dynamic.
#15: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, 2012
Role: Hank Parsons
We could probably erase Journey 2: The Mysterious Island from movie history and nobody would miss it. But any movie that has The Great One, the master of The People’s Elbow, playing the ukulele while crooning “What a Wonderful World” is a movie worth checking out, if only to satisfy your curiosity; it’s also better than Journey to the Center of the Earth, the 2008 remake of the 1959 Henry Levin original, which admittedly isn’t a very high bar.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island has a better sense of the movie it’s supposed to be, letting Johnson really go ham on cranked-up ridiculousness along with the supporting cast of Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Hudgens, and Michael Caine. Johnson has a way of bringing out the best in his co-stars: The more of a blast he has, the more everyone else appears to enjoy themselves, too
Role: James Cullen
Calling Faster “basic” is, perhaps, an insult to the basics of action cinema. It’s a simple movie with a simple premise, simple ideas, and simple, nay, humble demands of its audience, its cast, and its crew, and yet: It works.
Simplicity’s a boon when your movie has the fundamentals of its genre down pat. Faster isn’t anything new, mostly a no-frills, ’70s-inspired revenge movie where Johnson plays a man who, fresh out of prison, sets out to bump off everyone involved in the murder of his half-brother; Billy Bob Thornton plays the corrupt cop on his trail. In keeping with the film’s stripped down mien, the character names boil down to single words: “Driver.” “Cop.” “The Killer.” Director George Tillman Jr. isn’t screwing around. Neither’s Johnson. Faster is a forgotten movie in his filmography, likely overshadowed by the Fast & Furious films, but forgotten or not, it’s a gritty gem.
Role: Ray Gaines
Question: Why put an actor like Johnson in a disaster movie? You can’t punch an earthquake. You can’t Rock Bottom an earthquake. All you can really do is hover around in a helicopter, ride a boat over a tsunami right before it crests, swim into a sinking building to save your daughter from drowning, and reconcile with your estranged wife.
Johnson is more than his muscles, of course; he’s heart, grit, and determination with a generous helping of kindness. So actually, maybe he’s exactly the dude you’d want piloting rescue choppers for the fire department. He certainly looks like the heroic type, and if you’re hanging on for dear life during a natural disaster, you probably want to be hanging onto a guy with muscles the size of your head.
Role: Sean Porter
There’s a reason movies lean on formulas: They work. So if Gridiron Gang, the first movie that really allowed Johnson to flex his muscles (pardon the pun) as an actor, is very much driven by the inspiring sports drama formula, we’re okay with it.
Johnson, if not in 2006 then certainly today, is known as a pretty positive guy, habitually sending out positive missives into the online world through social media; Sean Porter, the juvenile detention center he plays in the film, reflects that side of his personality, encouraging teen inmates at L.A.’s Kilpatrick Detention Center to be more than the “losers” they’ve been deemed by society, tirelessly fighting to teach them about teamwork and personal responsibility. That Gridiron Gang just avoids treacly after-school special status is impressive enough, but Johnson’s leading performance impresses even more.
#11: The Other Guys, 2010
Role: Detective Christopher Danson
Similar to Reno 911!: Miami, Johnson’s role here is all about tinkering with the expectations of action stardom. Countless buddy cop movies have big-name badasses in the lead roles, pulling off impossible stunts, cracking wise, fighting crime, and saving the day while racking up millions in property damage; The Other Guys isn’t one of those movies. It’s the real-world parody of those movies, where the impossible stunts end in untimely death for the big name badasses. Tip: Maybe don’t aim for the bushes. Maybe don’t jump off of roofs at all, even.
Role: Davis Okoye
Like San Andreas, Rampage puts Johnson in a role where he’s outclassed by his opposition. Even The Rock can’t go toe-to-toe with giant apes, giant wolves, and even more giant crocodiles. Except he can, so long as he’s armed with a Milkor Mark 14 grenade launcher.
In case it’s not clear, friendship is a major recurring theme in Johnson’s roles, whether he’s teaching people how to be friends with one another and work together, whether he’s learning how to make friends himself, or whether he’s just playing the best friend anyone could ever hope for. In Rampage, his friend happens to be an albino gorilla named George. Sounds odd, but if any actor can sell friendship with an oversized mutant animal, it’s Johnson.
Role: Will Sawyer
So Skyscraper is a little too close to Die Hard and The Towering Inferno for comfort. Big deal. Johnson, by now, has finely honed his action star persona to the point where it feels lived in; Will Sawyer feels relatable in part because, as audience to The Rock’s films for nearly two decades, we’re well acquainted with his performative stance as an actor and as a celebrity, so we have a comfortable idea of what to expect from his blockbusters.
But Skyscraper gives us a modern version of Die Hard through its depiction of masculinity. Johnson embodies masculine ideal that most dudes can scarcely hope to attain — physically, at least. More easily attainable is his progressive, vulnerable, more-emotionally slanted masculinity. That’s the side of Johnson we see in full display in Skyscraper, and a side audiences ought to embrace.
#8: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, 2017
Role: Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Spencer Gilpin)
File Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle under “movies that shouldn’t work, but more or less do anyway.”
Frankly, Jumanji needed Johnson more than Johnson needed Jumanji. At the time of its release, he was already one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and a sequel of sorts to the 1995 Robin Williams movie was never going to elevate his star to new heights. But there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from car chase heist films for lower-key projects, and honestly, Johnson’s presence here is one of the movie’s greatest draws. Granted, Jack Black’s a hoot, too, assuming you like Jack Black’s schtick.
In Jumanji’s sequel, Jumanji: The Next Level, Johnson continues his over-the-top performance alongside Kevin Hart. If you wanted even more Jumanji after the first film (or maybe your kids did), Johnson continues to deliver the same energy as the first, albeit with a more complicated plot and more laughable moments. At this point, Johnson is a veteran at family-friendly films as much as he is at the serious action genre. It’s a decent entry into his film career.
#7: Central Intelligence, 2016
Role: Bob Stone/Robbie Weirdicht
A lot of us were probably like Robbie Weirdicht in our high school days. Not to such extremes as we see in Central Intelligence, but certainly on the outside of the in-crowd, picked on by the popular kids — which means we also knew a guy like Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart).
Nobody likes a bully, and nobody has it out for bullies quite like Johnson. He’s the People’s Champion, fighting for the little guy (in this case, literally), standing up for anyone who can’t stand up for themselves. Out of any studio comedy Johnson has been in, Central Intelligence perhaps makes best use of his brawn, his sense of humor, and his unfailing warmth. The guy would go through a wall for people he cares about, on screen and off.
Role: Agent 23
Hey, if The Rock can turn heel in the WWE, why can’t he turn heel in an enthusiastically goofy update on Mel Brooks’ and Buck Henry’s 1960s comedy TV series, too? Get Smart marks the rare villain role in Johnson’s career, and like every other role in his career, he embraces it with gusto. Maybe the guy wants to be bad every now and again.
Of course, before he gets to be bad in Get Smart, he has to play good — and also a little oafish, walking into walls, stapling documents to people’s foreheads, and so on. Johnson layers 23 with a cool, charming veneer so effectively, that his eventual double cross actually comes as a surprise. In 2008, Get Smart stood out as one of Johnson’s best turns to date. Ten years and many more movies later, it still does.
#5: Fighting With My Family, 2019
The Rock mostly plays an outrageous version of himself in this one. It’s a fun role in a fun film about wrestling and family. The Rock smiles, yells, and struts around with his muscles as a famous mentor to main character Paige (Florence Pugh) as she prepares for her WWE debut. The film is the perfect blend of comedy and drama centered around familial expectations and larger-than-life personalities. And as we know, if there’s anything The Rock excels in, it’s wrestling and playing it up for the camera. Alongside Lena Heady, Vince Vaughn and others, overall the movie is a successful heartfelt film, and The Rock’s cameo makes it even better.
#4: Fast Five, 2011; Fast & Furious 6, 2013; Furious 7, 2015; The Fate of the Furious, 2017; Hobbs & Shaw, 2019
Role: Luke Hobbs
Fact of the matter is, Johnson’s work as Luke Hobbs — DSS agent turned partner and ally to Dominic Toretto’s crew — doesn’t change that much from one Fast & Furious film to the next. That’s not a criticism. Johnson’s portrayal doesn’t really need to change between entries, as Hobbs doesn’t really change. He’s the hard-nosed type, a lawman devoted to the law, until of course the law fails him, and those on the opposite side of the law prove they possess stronger moral compasses than federal agents he calls his partners.
Paired up with Jason Statham in their standalone film Hobbs & Shaw, the family takes a back seat to Johnson’s character. Like other Fast & Furious films, there’s banter, car chases and lots of daring stunts and explosions. Idris Elba plays a technologically enhanced villain, and there’s also a world-threatening virus going around? Regardless, Johnson and Statham have another chance to show off their on-screen chemistry and build out their characters a little bit without the family front and center. We get to see a glimpse of his family, but Hobbs is still Hobbs. And that’s okay.
For Johnson, the Fast & Furious movies feel transformative. They’re arguably the most visible movies he’s starred in to date, being global smashes and critical darlings at once. If you call yourself an action film aficionado, you probably dig these films; if not, well, consider hypnotherapy.
Johnson plays a pretty good scoundrel, and Maui is the most delightful scoundrel of all: an egotistical demigod with a heroic streak buried deep beneath the pain of rejection. He’s carried that pain all his life, covering it up with great acts of bravery performed mostly in service to slapping a band-aid over his emotional wounds; somewhere along the way, he also develops an impressive set of pipes, belting out tunes with the casual ease of a true showman.
In this case, the movie needed its star as much as its star needed the movie. Not that The Rock, in 2003, was starved for box office success: Longshot went down like a lead balloon, but The Scorpion King proved he could open a movie, and The Mummy Returns made stupid bank (which may not mean much, as far as Johnson’s presence is concerned).
The Rundown, by stark contrast, did diddly in the domestic box office, and didn’t even make back its budget when taking global box office into account. What it did do is give The Rock the chance to show what he’s capable of as a leading man in ways that The Scorpion King just didn’t. The latter mostly makes demands of his bulk. The Rundown needs him to actually put in acting legwork, vibe with his co-stars, and nail punchlines as often as punches; the results work like gangbusters, outdoing the action roles he wound up scoring all the way into the early 2010s. Why The Rundown wasn’t a bigger success is somewhat baffling, but it’s as important an entry in The Rock’s filmography as it is excellent.
Role: Paul Doyle
Here it is: The most bizarre, least Johnson-esque, unabashedly off-the-chain entry in his filmography, the movie that gives us a grisly answer to the age-old question of whether or not you can smell what he’s cooking. You’d probably rather not, because it turns out he’s cooking severed human hands on a grill.
Pain & Gain is a Michael Bay joint and a leading part for Mark Wahlberg. For Johnson, Pain & Gain marks new ground to tread, a pitch-black comedy that filters everything about him that makes him great — his humor, his physique, his charisma, his humanity — through the darkest lens possible and comes up the wildest character in his career. In 2013, we’d never seen him do anything like Pain & Gain, and we may never see him do anything like it again.
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