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The Rock Is the Next Great Action Hero. Dwayne Johnson? Not So Much

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It’s always downright infuriating when somebody, for one reason or another, doesn’t realize the full capacity of his or her potential. Whether the cause is hanging with the wrong crowd, drugs, alcohol, or being swept up in Bieber fever, the sports and entertainment worlds seem to offer the glossiest examples of “hero today, just about gone tomorrow.” Yet there’s a man — the self-proclaimed “most electrifying man in sports entertainment” — who continues to thrive in the spotlight but never lived up to his potential. And for action-movie fans who were desperate for a new hero, we can’t help but wonder: dude, what happened to the Rock?

The late nineties saw the meteoric rise of the smack-talking, eyebrow-raising, physically imposing badass wrestler known as the Rock. His bold moves and brash demeanor worked WWE crowds — in need of a hero following the departure of Hulk Hogan — into a downright frenzy. People smelled what the Rock was cooking, and he seemed destined for glory on a bigger stage. Hollywood, itself in need of a burly star owing to the advanced ages of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, came calling.

So in 2001 the Rock took it up a notch, debuting as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, and he, like the movie, was a smash. He smartly followed Arnold’s Conan the Barbarian blueprint for action-hero debuts: go shirtless, swing a mighty sword, and utter as few lines as possible. He was such a hit he scored his own prequel (The Scorpion King), causing studio executives and action fanboys alike to celebrate. By the time the Rock busted out The Rundown, in 2003, we all thought we’d seen the handsome, smirking face of the next great action hero. The baton was practically passed to him by Schwarzenegger himself, who, in a cameo, tells the Rock to “have a good time.” That was it. Torch passed. Blessing bestowed by the godfather himself. America finally had itself a new action star.

But America’s new action hero followed The Rundown with three fresh-baked cinema bombs: Walking Tall, Be Cool, and Doom. None performed well at the box office, and they were (cough) terrible. Perhaps these stinkers led the Rock to take a role in Richard E. Kelly’s unusual Southland Tales. Hey, sometimes a creative chance, like one taken with the Donnie Darko guy, can refresh the palate, right? Still, at this point, three years had passed since the Rock teased us into believing we had the action hero for the 21st century, and no further badass-ery had occurred. Where’s the cop-on-the-edge action-drama? The former-military-man-on-a-mission movie? The gratuitous Commando remake? Fans want bullets, brawn, and blood, and what the Rock gave us was Dwayne Johnson.

What’s in that name? For the Rock, everything. The first sign of trouble occurred around this time, when the Rock started going by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. And while his next movie, Gridiron Gang, was dramatic and uplifting and all, we want explosions, not tears. The artist formerly know as the Rock followed with 2007’s action-movie heresy Game Plan, featuring a kinder, gentler Rock. By the time he co-starred in Get Smart, we knew he wasn’t the one we’d been waiting for. We’d lost the Rock, literally. (He was now billed simply as Dwayne Johnson.)

Dwayne Johnson looks, walks, and talks like the Rock, but he’s not. What followed — Race to Witch Mountain, Planet 51, Tooth Fairy — sealed the deal. Come on, Tooth Fairy? Watching the preview alone was like having teeth pulled, but we should have read the Crayola-colored handwriting on the wall a few years back. The Rock didn’t want to be the action hero we so desperately craved. Maybe after his dude trifecta he pulled a LeBron James and went where he thought it would be easier (though what glory he saw in a cameo in a Tyler Perry movie I’ll never know). But for action fans in need of someone to carry their banner, this hurts. The Rock turned out to be a big tease. He showed us the future of action heroes, then took it away. And while it’s nice to see a flash of old Rock glory in The Other Guys, the fact remains that he had the potential and blew it.

Is there hope for another action hero out there? For a while, I thought it was going to be Gerard Butler. After I saw 300, I thought the same three things all men did: (1) this movie rocks; (2) that Gerard Butler guy is for real; (3) I need to go to the gym. But apparently Butler and his management team decided that making another good movie was a bad idea. So where does that leave us? Like the people of many of our favorite action movies: waiting, in need of a hero to save the day. If the Rock doesn’t snap out of it and return to form, or somebody else doesn’t step up, then before you know it the action movie will be like actresses over 35 without Botox: nonexistent.

Nick Stevens, co-host of AMC’s Action Pack (Wednesdays, at 8pm | 7C), tries to make funny about movies, pop culture, and sports as often as possible. He lists John McClain, Batman, and Tom Brady as the people he’d most like to have beers with. For more of his grown-up nonsense, visit his Tumblr page or follow him on Twitter.

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