Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been dethroned from the wrestler-turned-acting-superstar mantle. The worst part? He couldn’t even see it coming.
After showing off his knack for comedic-timing, surprising emotional depth and, of course, his macho man abilities as an action star, John Cena has overtaken The Rock’s place in Hollywood. Now, there is and probably always will be a place for the latter on the silver screen, which rings especially true when looking at his career earnings, but when it comes to acting prowess and substance to the roles they play, Cena has certainly bested him in recent years.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Below is a list of some of Johnson’s most recent films, selected based on popularity and notability, plus our thoughts on them.
Fast and Furious Franchise
The Rock made his franchise debut in Fast Five as Lucas Hobbs, which in my humble opinion, is one of the best action movies in recent history (this is a hill I’m prepared to die on). This movie represents the peak of the F&F franchise, boasting one of the best heist/car chases ever put to film and the historic big bad baldy brawl between notable family man, Dominic Torreto (Vin Diesel) and Hobbs.
Unfortunately, the franchise would never reach the same heights after that. Future releases were tired and, after a reported beef between Vin Diesel and Dwayne, Hobbs’ appearances in the main franchise were limited. Perhaps this was for the best, as the Hobbs and Shaw spinoff - which The Rock had more control over - wasn’t terrible. That being said, fans of the series will have noted that Fast X left the door open for Hobbs’ triumphant return to the main F&F timeline.
As Hobbs, The Rock seems to be doing his best David Goggins impression. It’s an incredibly one-note performance that, while perfect for these movies, doesn’t really impress as far as acting goes.
This movie was a fucking dumpster fire – no other way to say it. And to rub salt in the wound, The Rock’s own meddling with DC may have led to his disastrous tenure as a supe. Black Adam represents the phoniest form of The Rock, with all his terrible one liners and self-aggrandizing heroism bullshit. Ironically, he’s almost turned into something akin to Dom Torreto with this one.
Pain & Gain & Central Intelligence
We lumped 2013’s Pain & Gain and 2016’s Central Intelligence together to represent the more self aware and comedic side of Dwayne’s performances.
Pain & Gain was made with the support and collaboration of the Mark Wahlberg-machine and was actually a pretty solid movie that showed the underbelly of the bodybuilding world. It had a great story and a defined style, plus some solid moments of dark humor as well. Turns out Wahlberg and Johnson play roided-out gym rats pretty well, what a surprise!
Central Intelligence wasn’t anything spectacular by any means but it was the debut of the comedic partnership between The Rock and Kevin Hart. You won’t shit your pants laughing or anything but you also won’t seppuku from boredom (everyone knows it’s crucial to be somewhere in the middle of the shit-your-pants-or-kill-yourself scale). The duo seem to be in the same league when it comes to their Hollywood hustle and enjoy poking fun at each other, but in the end, Central Intelligence or any of their other films together are forgettable.
Ultimately, these two movies don’t really benefit from The Rock’s acting, The Rock more so benefits from the acting of his counterparts or the film’s writing, style and plot. He’s not bad in either of these and definitely shows some comedic sensibilities, but no one is rushing to see these because they are interested in how The Rock is going to play these characters.
Ballers is an interesting one. It was very hot right out of the gate, being dubbed ‘The NFL’s version of Entourage’, packed with tons of athlete and celebrity cameos. Was it must-watch TV? Not quite, but it definitely was fun and entertaining, much like its predecessor, which makes sense considering Mark Wahlberg served as an executive producer for it (their second roided-out collab).
Over its lifetime, viewership significantly faded during its third season and it barely limped its way to a fifth and final outing – three seasons and a movie short of Entourage’s run. While it surely had its moments, it lacked substance overall and people got bored. Dwayne’s performance, however, wasn’t bad. It certainly wasn’t anything award-worthy but it showed off his charm and provided an opportunity for him to actually act without any major set pieces or stunts involved. There is some range here, albeit a small one.
It also made one thing abundantly clear about its star – mans looks damn good in a suit.
At the end of the day, The Rock, as an actor, is mostly only good at one thing: being a big tough guy. And all his movies are just a version of that – sometimes we get a lighthearted tough guy, and sometimes we get a less over-the-top and quieter tough guy. It’s all getting a little old. He might have some comedic chops but it’s really just physical comedy that stems from his stature or the absurdity of putting someone that looks like him in funny wardrobe. It gets old quickly, but children probably love it. Ballers was a good experiment that showed his potential outside of the action genre, so maybe lean more into that? Either way, this isn’t a body of work that is going to wow anyone as far as acting ability goes (but it sure has made him a boatload of money).
Now let’s turn our sights towards the other muscle man at hand and review Cena’s most recent work.
Fast and Furious Franchise
It makes sense that wrestlers-turned-actors have found a family to seamlessly join with the F&F saga, as their penchant for fighting, action and one-liners seems to fit perfectly.
Cena is introduced in F9: The Fast Saga as Jakob Torreto, Dom’s long lost brother who he never mentions once across any of the eight previous films. You’d think a franchise obsessed with family would have at least said his name once, right? But don’t worry, that is all explained away quickly so that the movie can get back to focusing on fast cars and blowing stuff up – yenno, the important stuff.
In the end, F9 stands as the worst entry in the franchise (it’s certainly no Fast Five) and no one really shines in it, including Cena. While his performance is somewhat emotional at times, overall it’s not really any different than what The Rock posits to these films. Perhaps Cena was overshadowed by the most ridiculous attempt at space-travel ever put to screen.
Let’s not get it twisted, both are in this franchise because their muscles are big…and to boost box office performance. Period.
On the comedic side, Cena definitely surpasses anything The Rock has done within the genre. With 2018’s Blockers, he went completely against his tough-guy stereotype, turning in a hilarious performance as an overly sensitive parent trying to stop his daughter from losing her virginity. There’s no hulking out and smashing things, or classic strong hero moments – he simply just plays a good ol’ butt chugging Dad. It’s an all-around solid comedy that critics widely loved.
Most importantly, though, it confirms Cena as more than just a pair of biceps. It may not sound like it, but this is a key difference between The Rock’s movie record and Cena’s. The latter can and does take on roles that aren’t dependent on his stature or appearance. Think of it like this, Cena’s role in Blockers would have been just as good even if he wasn’t a real-life hulk.
Trainwreck & Tour de Pharmacy
Next is 2015’s Trainwreck, starring Bill FUCKING Hader, one of the best comedic actors working right now, and Amy fucking Schumer. It was another widely appreciated comedy that featured Cena in a small role, but his scenes are some of the funniest in the movie and show his self-awareness and willingness to play off it for comedic effect.
Similarly, 2017’s Tour de Pharmacy, brought to you by Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island folks, also shows that Cena is more than willing to make fun of himself, as he plays a comically juiced up cyclist named Gustav. It’s a hilarious, over-the-top performance that perfectly suits the absurd humor of the film. He goes all the way with this character.
Suicide Squad & Peacemaker
Now this is where the paths traveled by the two former wrestlers really diverge.
James Gunn’s attempt at Suicide Squad was infinitely better than David Ayer’s version. The former intimately understands the ridiculousness of superheroes as a concept, which allows his movies a level of unseriousness that opens the door for humor and, most importantly, the ability for audiences to accept the absurd. His version had better characters, better dialogue, better plot, and better everything.
Casting John Cena as Peacemaker, an American-loving son’bitch with really, really good aim, is proving to be one of the best casting decisions he made. Cena’s performance in the movie was solid, showing whit, humor and a surprisingly pleasant portrayal of a conflicted hero (or villain, depending on how you look at him). He brought some depth and realness to the character that was sorely missed with The Rock’s portrayal of Black Adam.
What really cements Cena’s superiority in this genre, though, is the accompanying James Gunn-produced Peacemaker TV show, which is fantastic. Across the eight episodes, we come to understand why he is the way he is, getting to meet his white-trash genius Nazi father, learning of the tragic loss of his older brother, and his love for his pet bald eagle. Over the course of the show, you’re able to forget about the John Cena-brand and immerse yourself in the character and story arc. Episode-by-episode, he proves himself as a legitimate actor and displays a great range of emotions (and dance moves). His performance is grounded and nuanced, and gives the anti-hero more depth than you are expecting.
Sure, Cena plays an action hero well. Not to say that doesn’t have merit, but it’s not overly impressive when talking about acting ability. Where he really proves himself is in his comedic and dramatic roles, many of which are critically praised. He’s able to be funny because of his acting and not just because of his physicality, and he’s able to bring some real emotion to his characters when needed. Cena will probably never win an Oscar, but I’ll continue to be interested in his projects because he isn’t as predictable as you might think.
The truth is, both have done their time playing shitty action heroes and they earn no points for that. But when it comes to roles that require more substance, or at least would be enhanced by it, Cena vastly outdoes Johnson. Cena’s way funnier in the comedies he’s in, his attempt at playing a superhero was better (as far as those roles go), and he can actually bring some depth to his characters when needed.
I think what it comes down to is that we know what Johnson is — he’s a known entity within any project he’s attached to. But with Cena, I think there is a lot more to offer as an actor, which is really to say we don’t know how high his ceiling is. We don’t necessarily know what we’re getting when we start one of his movies as it’s not always just a spin on his wrestling persona or real-life presence. And this ability to be dynamic is exactly what The Rock lacks and a huge part of what makes good actors so good.
Now, at the end of the day, this is all just one person’s opinion. You should make up your own mind. Actually, I think you should watch every single one of their movies (which I definitely did) and make your own judgment.
I’m just happy that we can all agree on the fact that Fast 5 is the best action movie ever released.