A look back at The Rock’s career: Southland Tales and Raw

Our ongoing project to chat the film work of The Rock hits a weird patch with Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, and a return to Raw

In my last column, I was reflecting on how Gridiron Gang director Phil Joanou was unable to tie Dwayne Johnson’s physical size to something resembling reality. After years as a muscled-up travelling attraction within the WWE, watching Johnson act out a desk job seemed to be a journey into the uncanny valley: something unreal desperately trying to convince you of its realness. Then I watched a film that makes him the realest thing on screen by placing him at the centre of the grandest unreality.

Up to this point, Johnson’s film career had been a series of well-cultivated steps towards becoming a movie star: starring role in a franchise spinoff, some low-impact action vehicles, a remake, a comedy and a number of supporting roles to show he plays well in ensembles. At some point, every movie star worth their salt pulls the wild card and dips their toes into the auteur pool, showcasing their adventurous spirit and will to grow as a performer. If it works, the auteur move legitimises the star, particularly to those that previously doubted the star’s talents – think Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Matthew McConoughay in Magic Mike, etc. If it doesn’t, the star gains respect for taking the time out from building their brand. And sometimes, something very different happens.

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“Different” is a word some use for Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Given your mileage, you may also choose “wretched”, “inspired”, “unhinged”, “confusing”, “admirable” – I would argue that all terms apply. Rest assured, Southland Tales is the wild card in the Rockography so far. (It would be safe to say it’s the wild card of his career, full stop.) The follow-up to Kelly’s sleeper hit Donnie Darko, Tales infamously screened in the Cannes Film Festival’s competition lineup, only to have its Palme d’Or chances heartily booed by the assembled press. One critic memorably wondered if Kelly had ever talked to a human being before. Audacity had toppled into catastrophe.

I’m going to attempt a synopsis now. In the near future (of an alternate timeline), the United States has just been through World War III, allowing the country’s civil liberties to fall by the wayside. The PATRIOT Act gives way to an agency called USIdent, whose head honcho (Miranda Richardson) revels in the surveillance of millions of Americans, and is the target of Los Angeles’ (the Southlands of the title) growing neo-Marxist cells. Los Angeles is on the precipice of destruction, as well as a presidential election, as well as dealing with the fallout of alternative fuels called Fluid Karma, as well as teen horniness, and speaking of teen hormones, Sarah Michelle Geller is a psychic porn star who believes in the future, and there’s a Biblically-inclined narrator-sniper on the beach with PTSD (Justin Timberlake) and an ice cream van that sells weapons and two best buddies bringing on the revolution and Seann William Scott and his twin brother and in the middle of it all The Rock is an amnesiac action movie star called Boxer Santaros who has written a screenplay that may change the world and and and and and and…

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If that description gave you whiplash, imagining watching it. 15 minutes in, William Scott confessed he hadn’t felt a bowel movement in six days while Justin Timberlake drawled about the bible, and I began to abandon the idea of maintaining clear logic, so decided to try simply feeling. I wanted to give in to the freewheeling ultra-American dumb passions of Kelly’s pop-cultural mashup, where a wrestler has an affair with Buffy, the war effort is sponsored by Hustler, and side roles are filled out by Leslie Knope, the Highlander and Silent Bob. But Southland Tales runs solely on ideas – meaning that while you balk and howl at the insanity on screen, there’s little reason to care. Donnie Darko‘s air of melancholy kept you invested past creepy rabbits and cellar doors, but you can’t invest in how this mania feels.

You would expect Johnson to be the audience surrogate, but not on your nelly. Rather than making sense of the chaos, he throws himself into it. It’s not technically sound acting, but it’s fascinating. Santaros suffers a meltdown and believes he is the protagonist of his own screenplay (don’t ask), leading Johnson into a mix of PROnounCING-WORDS soap-opera dialect, childish fidgetiness and angular motions. In the third act he enters a party dressed in a swish suit, immediately underplaying his cool by over-emphasising every motion, turning corners as if he’s on rails. It looks like bad acting sometimes (and actually is sometimes) but even when filtered through Kelly’s vision-binge aesthetic and his character’s minds toggling between various fictions, Johnson accepts the challenge. His performance doesn’t anchor the film but his zeal is something to hold onto. It makes him feel real to us, the first time he would in his film career.

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More recently, Johnson returned to Monday Night Raw. Without a film or Wrestlemania match to immediately promote, it was a surprise. That’s not to say it was good.

For those unfamiliar with Raw, it’s the WWE’s flagship weekly show, bringing pro wrestling soap opera to the masses for the past 21 years. It’s also hitting a remarkable period of unwatchability as the WWE falls back on familiar storytelling and business plans in an era of heavy budget cuts, ergo slicing away at the show’s momentum. However, times are hard, in-story good guys (‘faces’) are in short supply due to a spate of injuries and attention must be paid to the flagship show. If The Rock was in your town that evening, you’d call The Rock too.

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However, after experiencing Johnson going balls-out in Southland Tales, I can’t think of a more violent 180° turn than watching him hit catchphrases for 20 minutes. His role on Raw consisted of interrupting newbie Russian baddies Rusev and Lana as they celebrated Vladimir Putin’s birthday (don’t ask), namedropping to the joy of the Brooklyn crowd, and eventually beating up Rusev because he’s famous.

A year ago, I started this series reflecting on Johnson’s 2011 return to Raw and admiring how skillfully he pushed our nostalgia buttons. After his time as the WWE Champion – where fame and potential GI Joe cross-promotion appeared to be the driving factor behind winning the title – the act has grown stale for me. Who knows what this means for Johnson in the WWE? Perhaps he will stick around and bring a TV audience back to Raw. At the same time, I can’t bring myself to care. He’s back in the ring, putting himself over the young guns, rehashing a nearly 21-old routine word-for-word… and I can’t help but miss the botched glory of Boxer Santaro. Bring back the confusion; take back the nostalgia act.

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