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Sit down, Schwarzenegger, The Rock is the greatest action star of all time

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Blank Check hosts Griffin Newman and David Sims join Galaxy Brains for a master class in The Rock’s on-screen history 

Graphic featuring the film poster for ‘Jungle Cruise’ and a cartoon of podcasters Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

It goes without saying that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is our largest action movie star. But is he the best? That’s a question more loaded than the cast of Johnson’s latest film, the Disney adventure Jungle Cruise.

How does one decide what makes a great action star? Is it charisma? Box office receipts? Sense of humor? Range? Pectoral muscles?

In a new episode of Galaxy Brains, Jonah Ray and I are joined by the hosts of the Blank Check podcast, Griffin Newman and David Sims, to discuss the history of Dwayne Johnson’s career and whether or not he really is the greatest action star of all time. Griffin, sadly, disagrees with me because of the long-standing rift between Dwayne and Griffin’s favorite guy, Vin Diesel.

Griffin: I’m Fast Fam. My allegiances lie with the Toretto family and the chosen family around the Torettos. So part of my shifting of allegiance is against Dwayne obviously has to do with my loyalty to Vin. But yes, I was all the way in for a very long period of time.

David: Right. He’s underrated, this guy. He’s making Walking Tall or whatever. But, you know, he’s got real movie star energy. But he was underestimated because he had the wrestler, the actor label, I guess.

Dave: His career started off really well. Scorpion King was a big hit. He did The Rundown, which is another jungle movie. For some reason, he’s doing a lot of jungle movies.

Griffin: He loves the jungle.

Dave: Rundown, Jumanji, now this. But then there was this fallow period of his career where he was doing stuff that people didn’t really see. Like you guys were saying, he developed this reputation for being underrated.

Griffin: This was the period of time where I felt like I was boosting him the hardest, because the speed of his success, as you said. He’s like a huge WWE superstar then, right? The Mummy Returns and Scorpion King is about as big a launching platform as someone could have to sort of have an entire industry get behind you and go, “We really think this guy is a movie star.” The stuff after that I think, you know, like Walking Tall...

Jonah: Race to Witch Mountain, The Game Plan.

Griffin: See, for me, that’s the first transition point, right? At first, he’s trying to be a sort of stripped-down ’70s action dude. Rundown famously has that moment where he walks into a bar.

David: Schwarzenegger, right. Yeah.

Griffin: He walks out, taps him on the shoulder and goes, “You take it from here.” Everyone was sort of saying, “He has to be the guy. He has to be Schwarzenegger.” Then he does those moves for a couple of years, and they don’t connect on the level that people think. Then he does his hard pivot into family movies. Right? He does Witch Mountain and The Game Plan, Tooth Fairy. And this thing that I distinctly remember that I sort of like rerun in my head all the time as his career has grown to absurd heights and evolved, is he did this cover story for Entertainment Weekly when Get Smart was coming out. And it was all about like, “The Rock has changed and he’s got a new look.” He had lost like a hundred pounds of muscle. He had trimmed down, and he was like, “I’m doing comedies, I’m doing family movies. I used to be obsessed with being the biggest and the toughest. And I realized, like, I can stretch and I can try different things. I just want to be a movie star, you know?”

Jonah: But that’s right in the middle of Walking Tall and Doom and Southland Tales. Yeah, he started doing some arty stuff right around there — early 2000s.

Dave: Apparently this was his agents telling him, “You have to lose weight, and you have to grow your hair out, and you have to be a normal person.”

David: “You’re too imposing.” Right? “You can’t play a regular person.”

Griffin: Right, right. So it’s like, he’s got his action movies that don’t really connect. He tries going a little artier. That doesn’t connect. I think Southland Tales is like, he took a big — you know?

Jonah: I thought he was great in Be Cool. I remember seeing that because I didn’t watch him in wrestling, but I saw him because I was like, “This guy is super funny.”

Griffin: That’s one of his better performances, if you ask me. But I think he takes the failure of Southland Tales hard. Right? So then there’s this pivot. He’s sort of in his head. His agents go, “Trim down, grow the hair out, be an everyman.” He does these family movies; they’re a hit. And then he’s trying to step back into action at that point. The movie Faster, I think, is totally solid. The next year after that, he does Fast Five and he rules. And it’s like — it feels like this guy has figured out how he works in action movies, you know, and he’s gone the opposite direction. He’s gone as hard as he possibly can in Fast Five. He’s got like the Scott Ian Goatee. He’s bigger than anyone’s ever been. He’s like covered in baby oil, and it’s all like tough guy jokes and all this sort of stuff. And he’s trying different things. He’s doing like G.I. Joe 2 and all that. Snitch, which I think is underrated. This is a period where I’m really into what he’s doing — and then Pain and Gain.

David: His best performance.

Griffin: I argue that Pain and Gain is not only the best performance he’s ever given, but I would have given him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year.