GI Joe: Retaliation – can Dwayne Johnson rescue it from certain death?

OK so he can't act, but there is no soggy blockbuster in the world he can't save by just Rocking up and being himself

Everything about GI Joe: Retaliation points to a flop. The unceremonious kiboshing of its original June 2012 release date in May 2012. The terrible early reviews. The fact that it's a sequel to GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra; a film that needs a sequel like a giraffe needs rollerskates.

But if GI Joe: Retaliation somehow beats the odds and turns out to be in any way successful, it'll be down to one thing and one thing alone: Dwayne Johnson. It's been proved so many times that it barely needs restating, but there isn't a film franchise on Earth that Dwayne Johnson can't improve just by showing up.

The evidence speaks for itself. When Johnson started making films a decade ago, back when he was still called the Rock, he outshone everyone else in the otherwise soggy The Mummy Returns that his character was quickly given its own spin-off movie. His unexpected lightness of touch was the sole redeeming feature of the diabolical Get Shorty sequel Be Cool. He pitched up on Journey 2: The Mysterious Island – a sequel to 2008's bland, homogenous, best-forgotten Journey to the Centre of the Earth – and single-handedly saved it by ad-libbing a flurry of insults about how Michael Caine looks like an old lady. And then there's the Fast and Furious series, terminally flatlining until Johnson stepped in and reminded everyone what a brilliantly ridiculous spectacle those films could be.

The most incredible thing about all this success is that, as an actor, Dwayne Johnson isn't any good. He can only really play one role, and that's himself. The plots of all his films, almost without exception, tend to be either "look what a badass the Rock is!" or "the Rock is a hilarious fish out of water!" And even as himself he's not always convincing. Leave him out on his own to shoulder a film – such as Doom or Faster or Walking Tall – and you'll invariably see him twisting in the wind, unsure of the tone he should take. Put him in a serious drama and he'll be leaden and forgettable.

But drop him into an ensemble – better yet, an ensemble that has already made one film together – and he inexplicably becomes unbeatable. Johnson's most powerful weapon is his remove from the material. Perhaps it's a leftover from his wrestling days, where he rose to the top by slyly poking fun at the ultra-sincere, gormlessly macho sensibilities of his peers, but Johnson's film work is marked by a twinkle in his eye that reminds the audience that he's in on the joke. He might have Schwarzenegger's physique, but he's really more of a Bruce Willis type – knowing, smirking, inviting us all along on the ride with him. And, like Willis, he has also embarked on a hopelessly wrongheaded music career in the past.

On top of that, he's incredibly easy to like. Hands down, Dwayne Johnson is my favourite person in the world to interview. Some actors can be sullen and resentful on interview days, worn down by hours of repeating the same thing over and over again, but Johnson is always aware of his role as a salesman and a performer. Again, this is probably a throwback to wrestling, where he picked up a reputation as a world-class promoter, but there aren't many better people who you'd want on your side if you found yourself marketing a movie.

So if GI Joe: Retaliation ends up making money, don't be surprised. The only question left is which franchise Johnson will be airdropped into next. He's already worked with Michael Bay and Mark Wahlberg on Pain & Gain, so we probably shouldn't rule out an appearance in Transformers 5. But why stop at action films? There's a whole world of potential out there. If David Cronenberg ever decides to make a sequel to A Dangerous Method, for instance, I couldn't think of a better man to play Ludwig Binswanger.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Let’s rock! Why Dwayne Johnson is the new Schwarzenegger
The action hero dominates the box office, with his new film Skyscraper set to soar. From his apolitical attitude to his everyman heritage, we explore the magic behind the muscle

Steve Rose

14, Jul, 2018 @5:59 AM

Article image
The Expendables recap: the past-it poets society

Stuart Heritage recaps The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone's ensemble action film about veteran mercenaries

Stuart Heritage

09, Feb, 2014 @7:53 PM

Article image
Harrison Ford, expendable? Think again, Sylvester Stallone

Ben Child: Ford signing up for The Expendables III is a coup for Stallone's action series, but not for an actor once voted the best in history

Ben Child

07, Aug, 2013 @1:21 PM

Article image
Bruce Willis wins the battle of the box office beefcakes
Jeremy Kay: Of the three Hollywood heavyweights staging their comebacks in recent action films – The Last Stand, Bullet to the Head and Die Hard 5 – it seems only Willis has bankable brawn

Jeremy Kay

19, Feb, 2013 @4:11 PM

Article image
The Expendables: Old-timers wheel out the one-liners

Ben Child: Sylvester Stallone and his faded action co-stars have produced the movie equivalent of a momentarily diverting puff of smoke

Ben Child

16, Aug, 2010 @3:36 PM

The Expendables 2: we've all got it coming

Stuart Heritage: As if Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren weren't enough. Now Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude van Damme join the all-action madness

Stuart Heritage

09, May, 2012 @9:06 AM

Article image
Action sequels hit more targets beyond US shores
Phil Hoad: Movies that seem cheesy in the States – where audiences hate arthouse films but demand novelty in the mainstream arena – often haven't passed their sell-by date abroad

Phil Hoad

05, Mar, 2013 @1:13 PM

Article image
Dwayne Johnson: fast, furious and fun
He’s had his fair share of flops but Dwayne Johnson’s career is more diverse than most hardmen’s, taking in oddball comedies and head-scratching sci-fis. All hail The Rock…

John Patterson

28, May, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
Rampage review – Dwayne Johnson tackles giant animals run amok
When shady gene experiments in space go wrong, there’s only one man standing who can sign language in great ape

Peter Bradshaw

11, Apr, 2018 @8:00 PM

Article image
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson named highest grossing actor of 2013

Success of Fast & Furious 6 and GI Joe: Retaliation places Johnson at top of annual worldwide box office earnings list

Ben Child

18, Dec, 2013 @12:12 PM