A look back at The Rock’s movie career: part one

Daniel takes a look back over The Rock's early movie career, starting with The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King...

Mondays mean two things: one, you miss the weekend like the desert misses rain, and two, the WWE’s beloved franchise show Monday Night Raw. On the 14th of February 2011, a goofy announcer teased the host of Wrestlemania XXVII when the lights of the Anaheim Honda Centre turned out, one by one.

The anticipation ramps up – people jump out of their seats, cheering for whatever is about to come next.

Then The Rock walks out, presidential as hell (if you can be presidential with no sleeves), scruffing up kids’ hair and revelling in the love he receives from the Californian audience. He jumps from one corner of the ring, puts his fist in the air and revels in the noise. After four minutes, he begins to speak, and when he does, he cuts an impressive promo built to unashamedly press our nostalgia buttons. He does so effortlessly, his schtick as grin’n’whoop-inducing as it was in the Attitude glory days.

The “finally!” routine; the bit where the audience yells “Millions!” back at him in a statement of allegiance; the “it doesn’t matter” catchphrase, a catchphrase that once loomed so large in the pop-cultural lexicon that Wyclef Jean made a top ten hit out of it. The man’s catchphrases have their own catchphrases. As 20 minutes of uninterrupted pleasure-centre entertainment, it’s faultless. I cheered at least – at least – four times when I first watched it.

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A couple of moments occur that shake us out of our nostalgia stupor, as to remind us it’s not 1998 anymore. Rock talks smack about WWE champ John Cena – a populist much of the adult audience have grown tired of – and cracks a corny joke about Justin Bieber. An odder moment occurs when he removes his shades and refers to himself by his real birth name: Dwayne.

The ultra-macho carnival voice shifts in pitch, still authoritative but relatable, grounded in a reality where The Great One doesn’t really exist. It’s bewildering as he addresses the fans who helped him “accomplish his goals” – not because it’s corny, but because you’re watching the fourth wall tumble before you. A few months after The Rock’s reintroduction to WWE, CM Punk would infamously usher in the Reality Era, sparking is-it-real/is-it-fake gossip as exciting as it was bewildering. Meta-wrestling.

The Rock referring to himself by his birthright wasn’t just an act that predated the WWE’s obsession with the Reality Era, it was making us realise how he’d stepped into another role for so long. Dwayne Johnson is The Rock, yet isn’t at the same time. It’s another role he played, a construct of an entertainment arsekicker turned Hollywood man. But we grew close to Dwayne Johnson too, and it startled me to see the two different men in the ring. How did we get to this point where movie star Dwayne became as ubiquitous as The Rock?

I have a LoveFilm account, and considered myself foolhardy enough to try and find out.

The Mummy Returns (2001)

It all really started in summer 2001, with The Mummy Returns. Business-wise, there are few things more engineered to make money than franchise sequels, and a few anomalies aside, the audience doesn’t really ask for much more than bigger, louder, familiar.

For those who haven’t seen Stephen Sommers’ first Mummy film, the film posits enough familiar elements from the get-go: romantic back-and-forth between Rick O’Connor (Brendan Fraser) and his now-wife Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), 30s-set action sequences, CGI recreations of Universal horror monsters, and John Hannah. Here are the updates: a kid (Freddie Broath, annoying). More slapstick. The Rock!

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The Rock – not yet Dwayne, still The People’s Champ – shows up within seconds of the first reel to frame the story. It’s 307 BC, and he is Mathayus the Scorpion King, the leader of an infernal army. On the battlefield, he leads thousands to victory after victory and there’s a lot more of His Rockness running people through with swords than I imagined. However, after a seven-year campaign of war, Mathayus and his army are banished to the desert, where they slowly all die of heatstroke.

Moments away from death, the King makes a pact with the Egyptian God of the afterlife, Anubis, offering his soul for the power to defeat all his enemies. After chewing up a live scorpion, Mathayus receives an oasis and a handy army of weird jackal-headed warriors. There’s more of The Rock running people through with swords and then Anubis, on cue, takes his soul.

After that, The Rock disappears for a good chunk of the movie, only to resurface one hundred minutes later as (spoiler alert for an eleven-year-old film) a half-man, half-scorpion beast that looks like it escaped from a Dreamcast game. The CGI scorpion-man raises The Rockiest of eyebrows. Brendan Fraser stabs him with a spear, he turns to dust, so it goes.

As a director, Stephen Sommers likes American pop-cultural ephemera: slapstick sound effects, derring-do matinee heroes, plucky kids with slingshots, scanning the world for treasure. His moon-eyed enthusiasm essentially underlines every scene with a “yippee!” or an “ewwww!” In the case of Returns, it’s great fun for 30 minutes, wearying for over two hours.

I can easily imagine WWE fanbros becoming more and more restless as the film sputtered from setpiece to setpiece, The Rock sitting it out. And while it makes narrative sense, it’s frustrating as a fan. It made sense for the big man, though – in his ten minutes he gets to eat a scorpion, kill everyone that crosses his path (his footage speed-ramped long before Zack Synder’s 300 fetishised it), bellow in stilted Ancient Egyptian only to get drowned out by Alan Cumming’s narration. Not much is demanded of him, and while he doesn’t really get to show off his larger-than-life charisma, he fits into the artificial 30s that Sommers builds.

The Scorpion King (2002)

The Scorpion King appears to exist so disappointed WWE fans could get all The Rock-related action Sommers’ film denied them. And within five minutes, The Rock – shirtless, as if you had to ask – has punched, arrowed and crushed almost every other man on screen. It’s a great opening, promising much – not only for the remaining 85 minutes of kicky/punchy but The Rock’s leading man-dom as well. It doesn’t last.

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Mathayus, a good five centuries before the events of The Mummy Returns, is working as an assassin. He’s hired by the Sherriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees, not actually reprising said role from Men In Tights) to kill a sorceress who helps Very Evil Emperor Memnon (Steven Brand). As Admiral Ackbar once intoned, “It’s a trap!”

The Sherriff’s son (Peter Facinelli, also known as Carlisle from Twilight) double-crosses Mathayus and his fellow assassins. Shortly after, he’s buried neck-deep in the desert, left for dead alongside the guy who directed The Men Who Stare At Goats (so you know: I really, really hated that film). Anyway, he finds the sorceress (Kelly Hu, X2’s Deathstrike) and action-y hijinks persue. Also: Michael Clarke Duncan in a really terrible wig.

I’ve noticed how mediocre genre efforts use “that guy from that thing” casting as a crutch, even more so in their second lifespan on DVD and TV. A film like the Paul Bettany vehicle Legion probably doesn’t sound like a thrilling night at the cinema, but with the lowered expectations of watching from your couch, there’s a good chance it’ll buzz by on its gonzo cast. Tyrese Gibson, Dennis Quaid and Keamy the insane mercenary from Lost? That’s an invitation to get intoxicated and fall asleep on the sofa halfway through if ever I’ve heard one.

A middling action vehicle like The Scorpion King coasts on its unusual collection of slumming Screen Actors Guild card holders to get you through the dated camera zooms and testosteronal bro-rock score. Good casting works as much to perk us up in the future as it does in the present.

Even though it was practically his franchise to have, The Rock was at a similar stage to his supporting cast – that guy from that thing, pop-cultural cache be damned. And here he is a little stilted, approaching each scene like it’s a promo for Raw. It’s fun to look back on this inessential item to trace where it fits into The Rockography (please don’t close the tab), but better and odder vehicles would follow.

Next: The Rock leaves Egypt-set hokum behind and turns to buddy-cop hokum in Welcome To The Jungle and vigilante hokum with the underrated dumb-as-nails Walking Tall.

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