The Rock is a great actor—not like Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier, of course. He belongs to the forgotten genre of the character actor. Dwayne Johnson is great in the same way that John Wayne or Walter Brennan were great. So why has he been in so many lousy films?
His latest film, “Skyscraper,” provides a perfect laboratory to try to figure this out. It’s not so much that “Skyscraper” is a bad film (though it is) but that it’s actually a bad film because The Rock is the headliner.
That’s not to say that he’s bad in it. He’s just as good as he always is. The best moments in the film all involve him. He manages to bring emotional depth to a few scenes that should have had none. This is basically what he’s been doing for his entire career. From the world of wrestling forward, he’s always managed to be convincing and arresting.
In fact, he’s probably one of the few genuine “star draws” of our time. Back in the day, Hollywood would structure films, scripts, and schedules around their stars, because stars were bankable. Not many actors and actresses running around these days can generate wide-ranging interest by their mere involvement. But The Rock is one of the few who almost always does. Most of the time his films are subpar. Yet he continues to be bankable.
This seems to be the heart of the problem. If people will go see something just because The Rock is in it, then it doesn’t need to be good. It just needs to have The Rock. It’s almost as if scripts and all the rest are just gravy, at least from the studio’s perspective. He’s a consummate professional who gives his all to the smallest and silliest of lines.
A BMW in a Junkyard Is Out of Place
So when Johnson is in a film like “Skyscraper,” it highlights how weak everything else came out. What’s weakest in this film is how little it felt like they were actually in this tower of Babel-esque skyscraper. The computer generation wasn’t noticeably bad, the whole thing just felt fake.
Yet somehow The Rock never belies that reality. He always seems right in every scene, if the viewer can isolate his performance. But that’s virtually impossible. So it’s almost as if the juxtaposition of excellence with inferiority creates such a powerfully distinct contrast that the viewer can’t help but be disoriented and displeased.
“How Did This Get Made” is a podcast dedicated to bad films that are fun to watch as bad films. What’s truly funny and wonderful about atrocious films is how clueless they are. The best bad films generally don’t know they’re bad films. Often it is a bad performance that makes them truly hilarious.
But it’s unclear that The Rock has ever given a bad performance. It’s kind of like the opposite of the turd in the punch bowl. He’s like a pristine Beemer in a junkyard. But if you saw a beautiful, brand-new car in a junkyard, it would be impossible to ignore the junkyard surrounding it.
In “Skyscraper,” it’s also hard to convince the audience that The Rock is ever in actual danger. He strikes such a heroic pose that it’s hard to believe there’s any possibility of risk for him. And that is the entire point of a film like “Skyscraper.”
In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis always seems to be seconds from death, even after dozens of viewings. The viewer knows what is going to happen yet it’s still an entertaining film because the language of threat is spoken so clearly throughout.
Numerous things contributed to that feeling in “Die Hard.” The simple fact that he wears a beater shirt, with slacks and no shoes, communicates that things are not alright. The constant danger to his unprotected feet is still nerve-wracking. That’s why strength of concept is so important for the success of a film.
Perhaps The Rock Should Have Played Some Villains
One of the reasons The Rock is so much fun to watch is that he doesn’t exude that kind of vulnerability. He looks like a human tank. Yet his body language, facial expressions, and soulful eyes always communicate genuine humanity. He always looks genuinely powerful. In other words, it’s very difficult to find a threat for him to face that ever feels like a genuine threat. In fact, his career would probably have been generally better-served if he had primarily played villains.
That’s probably one of the reasons they gave him a physical disability in this film. He has a prosthetic limb. His right leg is missing below the knee. But it didn’t help. He still seemed invincible, partially because they barely recalled to it. This could have been more of a man against his own foibles film, but the script is remarkably shallow and never goes anywhere remotely interesting.
When he’s given fun material to work with, like “The Rundown” or the “Fast and Furious” films, The Rock is the most electrifying man in entertainment. But when he’s cast in something like “Skyscraper,” his power and charisma can crush a film into oblivion.
Better projects need to be created around him. He has the ability to generate great entertainments but the filmic scaffolding has to be equal to the task.