Dwayne Johnson is an enigma, in the truest sense of the word. Since his CGI scorpion debut in 2001, the man has risen from the darling of WWE to the darling of cinema audiences globally, recently becoming the highest paid actor in the world. He may also be the most beloved — a carefully near-apolitical blend of gym selfies, a no-nonsense attitude, and a smile that could melt polar ice, as his near 100 million Instagram followers can attest.
Despite his wrestling career, growing TV portfolio and general perfection as a human being, it’s thanks to his extensive filmography that this level of fame exists. Aside from a few interesting forays into character work, the personality of Dwayne Johnson — as much as any of the roles he’s inhabited — has developed and matured into its current iteration of near literal Nietzschean superman. With biceps the size of my body, a heart twice as large again and a $100 million grin, it’s worth understanding the history of The Rock as a phenomenon and what seismic forces made this man the god he is today.
For the purposes of this definitive analysis, I’ve chosen to focus on his leading film roles, not including voice-over work, uncredited appearances or cameos, which leaves us with 26 films (I know Moana is great, but there are just too many films). We’re also going to be focusing on Johnson and his characters themselves, rather than the overall film quality, to try and understand his personal path to fame and the man he is today.
26. Tooth Fairy (2010) – Derek Thompson
We start at Johnson’s lowest point; a film that’s worse than, well… pulling teeth. Derek starts out as an entirely unsympathetic character, but is given no actual redemption arc to allow the winning back of his ex and family (by breaking into their house, mind you) to hit any emotional note. He is a character so utterly irredeemable that, if not for the kid-friendly rating, I have no doubt be’d be using the magic mind-wipe dust for assault.
The Rock Rating: A cinematic root canal.
25. Snitch (2013) – John Matthews
Few stars could carry a concept as ridiculous as this, but at this point Johnson had cemented himself in the oeuvre of outgunning the impossible. When his son gets accidentally caught up in a drug bust, John Matthews decides to harangue the local DA until they let him go undercover. His charismatic magnetism bends not only all human sexuality but now the law to his every whim. The film definitely cashed in on his naturally tough chops for this barely 2D performance.
The Rock Rating: A hard title to swallow.
24. Doom (2005) – Sarge
This is possibly the most bland character Johnson has ever played, which is surprising for a movie based on a game franchise mostly comprised of shooting at things. On cue, Sarge furrows his brow, he shoots things, he salivates over bigger guns. Eventually, he is transformed from stoic white-bread military leader into undead antagonist but… it holds no weight. It’s a twist you can see coming from the first time someone said “alien space zombies”. Despite watching this film on a big screen in a dark room, it held no shock value and even less substance.
The Rock Rating: To boulder go where no man has gone before.
23. Gridiron Gang (2006) – Sean Porter
Based on a true story, Gridiron Gang follows Johnson as Porter — a guy working at a juvenile detention centre who decides that starting a football team is the best way to help the kids around him stop reoffending. There’s tough love aplenty in this film. And, while the whiff of football bro masculinity is occasionally on the nose, the film also shows the heart of a man who wants to see those around him do better for themselves.
The Rock Rating: These kids weren’t prepared to have their world rocked.
22. Southland Tales (2006) – Boxer Santaros
Southland Tales is a film so erratic it left even critic Roger Ebert reduced to a self-professed “fevered rant”, and Johnson’s Boxer Santaros delivers some of the only humour that lands. World War III has erupted, America is in a state of political and environmental disaster, and Santaros is an action film star suffering from amnesia, increasingly at a loss to tell reality from fiction. In a film that no one really asked for, the amnesiac character remains only slightly more confused than its audience.
The Rock Rating: A product of the Donnie Darkest timeline.
21. The Game Plan (2007) – Joe Kingman
The Rock’s first film with Disney was a pretty good summation of his persona today: a man who not only punches things pretty hard, but can also charm the whole family. Finding a daughter he didn’t know existed on his doorstep in the lead-up to the big game, football legend and textbook narcissist Joe Kingman quickly has to learn the basics of fatherhood. Unfortunately, the message that even professional footballers can become Good Dads through the healing power of ballet feels a little like they’ve tried to hit every demographic at once. Also, Kingman remains disappointingly unsympathetic throughout, so it’s clear that his family-friendly pull is still in its early days of development.
The Rock Rating: The two genders are football and ballet.
20. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) – Hank
By 2012, Johnson is firmly in his oeuvre of heroic father figure. Despite being in a film that’s essentially Jupiter Ascending for kids who are into bugs, The Rock sells us on a range of unbelievable events. His character’s landscaping career provides him with crucial geological knowledge to save the day; also, the relationship with his step-son is saved via the deux ex machina of a solid gold volcano.
The Rock Rating: Tickled by The Rock as a geological expert.
19. Pain & Gain (2013) – Paul Doyle
Johnson’s Paul Doyle is a born again Christian ex-con with a few screws loose — it’s a role he’s given little room to work with. During the course of the film he loses a toe while swimming away from cops, forcibly converts a half-jewish prisoner in an abandoned sex toy factory, and gay bashes a priest for hitting on him. An almost interesting character, in a movie that was hardly worth the watch.
The Rock Rating: All pain no gain here.
18. Walking Tall (2004) – Chris Vaughn
The ultimate wet dream of the USA, Chris Vaughn (Johnson) returns from a generic war backstory to his small hometown only to find it riddled with drugs being distributed from a newly-built casino. Taking the only path he deems righteous, he convinces the town to make him mayor and almost single-handedly cleans up the damage. At this point in Johnson’s career, we don’t quite believe that he has the personal chutzpah to pull off a storyline like this, but this film cements his feet in the shoes of an all-American hero.
The Rock Rating: Cleaning up the town Vaughn day at a time.
17. Faster (2010) – James Cullen / Driver
Despite the wet napkin scrawl of a plot he was given, Johnson gives us a lot of moral complexity on the part of a character whose motivation consists entirely of a bunch of guys having killed his brother, and wanting to kill them back (less convincing than it sounds). Credit where it’s due: he maintains a strong sense of personality and even manages to sell his eventual violence as genuine personal redemption. It’s clear that by the time Faster hit cinemas, Johnson’s cinematic chops were genuine.
The Rock Rating: Worth it for the line “God can’t save you from me”.
16. Get Smart (2008) – Agent 23
It’s your regular old spy movie: there’s a bakery-turned-nuclear-weapon-bunker, super-villains with ridiculous names, and — in a twist only convincing due to Johnson’s delivery — a beloved spy who turns out to be a traitor. Highlights include him stopping a fight due to the shock of being kissed by Steve Carell, and seeing the hamming of his wrestling days come to the fore in the ridiculous concluding sequence.
The Rock Rating: The better 2008 film revolving around a bomb exploding at the end of a piece of classical music.
15. Empire State (2013) – James Ransome
Johnson’s character is fine, if not without any nuance. Your standard fare of good, tough guy cop with the right hunches who manages to save the day and solve crime. This is as close to bland as Johnson gets.
The Rock Rating: The entire film feels like empire is stating the obvious.
14. Be Cool (2005) – Elliot Wilhelm
Be Cool is a mess of a movie — a film with a plot so convoluted I struggle to even remember what happened. The Rock as Wilhelm, a gay Samoan narcissist hit-man doesn’t land, especially as he’s being played as a punchline. It’s clear that Johnson is doing what he can with a weak role.
The Rock Rating: One eyebrow raised.
13. San Andreas (2015) – Raymond Gaines
This film is totally ridiculous. Johnson plays a rescue helicopter pilot (because of course) who saves his family from the vast destruction caused by a continental tectonic shift with just a chopper, a speedboat and his charisma. I was half expecting the film to finish with him on a boat simply commanding the landforms to return to their original state.
The Rock Rating: The Rock remains the most significant geological event in a film about tectonic plates.
12. The Fate of the Furious (2017) – Luke Hobbs
After the national treasure of US masculinity that is Dominic Toretto goes rogue, only Luke Hobbs has the gall to battle it out for the good of mankind. Though a little stilted, banter is at an all-time high, and the action doesn’t ever slow for a pit stop. High octane thrills ensue and the day is inevitably saved.
The Rock Rating: This franchise is always worth a Luke.
11. The Other Guys (2010) – Christopher Danson
In the ultimate self-parody, Johnson plays a beloved cop causing millions in property damage while arresting petty criminals, ultimately always forgiven because he’s just so awesome. The character’s two-dimensionality reaches its ultimate form when he jumps off a five-storey building mid-chase and dies face first on the pavement.
The Rock Rating: He’s really Danson with the stars here.
10. The Rundown (2003) – Beck
A bounty hunter with a moral compass and a knack for punching things, Johnson holds his own with a star-studded ensemble cast that plays fast and loose with the idea of a buddy-film. He plays a good foil for the wise-cracking Travis (Seann William Scott), while providing his own moments of Rock-flavoured humour. He also just looks very beautiful in a remarkably well-shot film. There are worse ways to spend your time.
The Rock Rating: The Beckoning.
9. Furious 7 (2015) – Luke Hobbs
In hospital after a fight with this week’s big bad, Johnson’s Hobbs sees an explosion in the distance and literally flexes off his cast, saying “Daddy’s gotta go to work”. This is all you need to know to go and watch this film.
The Rock Rating: It’s now canon that The Rock is daddy.
8. Hercules (2014) – Hercules
Like a full plate at the fine-smelling Rock buffet, Hercules has it all. Impenetrable mythic hero: check. Good with children: check. Defeating an army of one million green men: check. Hitting a dude’s head so hard it explodes into a blood cloud: check. A serious conversation about his past and motivations while topless and oiled up: check. The beard isn’t bad either.
The Rock Rating: A convincing argument that Johnson is best served stone cold.
7. Fast Five (2011) – Luke Hobbs
After the franchise’s fourth instalment that, despite kindling the love of a wider audience, didn’t quite live up to the mark, Fast Five proves that the missing ingredient is usually Dwayne Johnson. A hardened international cop/military guy (the specifics remain unclear and unimportant) tracks down the Fast team after yet another one last crime, only to realise their relative moral good and help them in committing one laster crime. Despite arms the size of several of the minor characters, we trust him, and the kindness he shows the crew at the end of the film pays off.
The Rock Rating: “Fast five” is the secret name for The Rock’s right hook.
6. Central Intelligence (2016) – Bob Stone
With potentially his most interesting character work yet, The Rock stars as a nerdy, sensitive and stacked CIA agent who defected to go undercover and team up with his high school hero Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart). Johnson sells the unabashed emotional journey with a deft hand. While ending weakly, the rest of the third act makes unexpected turns that we buy into, with Johnson and Hart making an exceptionally screen-worthy duo.
The Rock Rating: Pulls at the Hart strings.
5. Baywatch (2017) – Mitch Buchanon
In his most recent film, it’s clear that Johnson has become a one-man cinematic tour de force. Few actors could sell the moral value of beating up an evil henchman in a random child’s nursery, only to chastise said goon for threatening to hit him with a framed baby photo. Overall, Baywatch seems to have a tone problem; unable to decide whether it’s a film about teamwork and learning to trust one another (a sentiment Johnson sells well), or about erections stuck in deckchairs and spew humour. But in a film full of single-colour swimsuits and off-colour jokes, he still pulls off a performance we care about and invest in.
The Rock Rating: Something something Rock hard buns.
4. G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) – Marvin F. Hinton/Roadblock
Honestly this film has no right to be this good. When a routine mission turns out to be a setup, Hinton takes his team underground to stop a Cobra plan to launch every nuke on the planet, save the president and clear their names of treason. Johnson is clever, tough and trusts his team to save the day. What more could we want from him?
The Rock Rating: They’re a goddamn team, dammit. No you’re crying.
3. The Scorpion King (2002) – The Scorpion King
Few people would be given a leading role based on their previous appearance as a short-lived CGI man/arachnid hybrid, but in a move that would change the course of summer blockbusters forever, it’s here that we find The Scorpion King. The Rock arrives on screen for the first time to hair metal-esque guitar shredding — 50 percent muscle, 50 percent lion skin robe, and 50 percent grinning wit — and it just gets better from there. This is how this man should be heralded into every room. The true genius here, however, is the hybrid of indomitable toughness and tender sensitivity — a set of traits that would go on to define the peak performances of his career.
The Rock Rating: A night to re-Memnon.
2. Fast & Furious 6 (2013) – Luke Hobbs
Fast Five brought Johnson to this increasingly epic franchise, a man so built he’s contractually required to be shot in widescreen, but Fast & Furious 6 combined his established heat packing with a high-stakes mission that spelled friendship with the letters F A M I L and Y.
Hobbs makes a good antagonist, but an even better reluctant ally — a move that earns him the same car-based super powers as the rest of the team. The film concludes with a car chase sequence that went down in cinematic history for its ridiculous 30km runway, and Hobbs granting the crew their freedom. He’s a hero, and we rightly adore him as such.
The Rock Rating: A film with serious six appeal.
1. Race to Witch Mountain (2009) – Jack Bruno
With The Rock’s best performance to date, Race to Witch Mountain definitively culminates every aspect of his legend into two hours of family-friendly, action-packed fun. Jack Bruno is a bad guy (he used to chauffeur for the Las Vegas mob) but he’s not a bad guy (he got out of that line of work to be a better person), and when two alien children appear in his cab and ask him to drive into the middle of the Nevada desert, he plays the perfect balance of incredulousness and willingness to believe.
After a few fun-for-kids action sequences, they team up with a disgraced astrophysicist and break into a top secret US military base, steal back the kids’ UFO, blow up the alien robot sent to kill them all and show those Area 51 buffoons what’s cooking.
The true beauty at the centre of this film is that these four disparate and solitary characters genuinely find a sense of family, Johnson perfectly pulls off “unexpected father figure pulling one over the entire military”, delivering a perfect spread of one liners throughout.
It’s not a good film, not by a large margin, but it’s a perfect performance. It brought every aspect of his career to date together, proving in the process that his best work allows him room to emote. At any rate, this film cemented that more than anything else, Johnson himself was soon to be a stratospheric phenomenon.
The Rock Rating: Johnson is 10/10, would steal a UFO with.
Liz is a writer, guitarist and photographer. They can be found on @lizduckchong, reading at @loveletterpod, or stealing flowers from her neighbours’ gardens.