The fact that the ads for San Andreas are comforting really says it all. It's not just the vaguely serene expression on Dwayne Johnson's face—it's the fact that he's even in this movie in the first place, and that he's upgraded from fighting Jason Statham to fighting entire continental fault lines.
Sure, part of it just stems from the genre. Disaster movies carry with them the cathartic aroma of voyeuristic blood sport. You can strap into an Independence Day or a Day After Tomorrow and gawk at the ways our national monuments can be toppled without the safety of your own sofa. These films are a (somewhat) grown-up answer to the childhood thrill of building a big tower out of Legos only to smash it to bits. Sometimes it's enough just to watch things go boom.
But San Andreas is not just being sold on the promise of simulated devastation. Rather, its fundamental appeal comes in the promise of protection from that apocalypse—a safety net that arrives with an infectious grin, an impossibly ripped physique, and a charismatic, decidedly paternal nature. Of course, we're talking about Dwayne "the artist formerly known as the Rock" Johnson. He's such a surefire box-office draw that he's joked about being "franchise Viagra," but it's no longer enough for him to merely save the occasional sagging sequels—Johnson has moved on to saving entire genres, directorial careers, and with any luck, our summer movie climate.
As strange as it sounds, there was a time when people did not know how to use Johnson on screen. After all, his first real cinematic endeavor was 2002's The Scorpion King—a film that then seemed like the nadir of the Mummy franchise, little did audiences know. For all of that movie's dated effects and crappy one-liners, most of its failings lie in the fundamental miscasting of Johnson, who, prior to that, had been hamming it up in wrestling arenas, enticing audiences with the scent of what he's got cooking. His natural charm as a suave, Wahlberg-esque goofball was left stranded in a role that should have been reserved for our most stoic of Schwarzeneggers. If we may compare Johnson to Channing Tatum, another charming meathead with a history of being miscast, this was his G. I. Joe period.
Official trailer to 'San Andreas' (2015)
While Tatum was saved by a lasting creative collaboration with the great Steven Soderbergh, Johnson's salvation came in the form of a partnership with the always intriguing Peter Berg, whose 2003 action comedy The Rundown, gave him the chance to let loose. He used a turntable as a weapon, he was harassed by a monkey, he talked in a funny voice. On top of that, he got to share the screen with Christopher Walken as the latter delivered a monologue referring the enslaved denizens of his mining town as "oompa-loompas." If you have not seen The Rundown, and haven't gotten the hint, it is a delightful riff on Midnight Run, and absolutely worth your two hours and $4 for a Sunday afternoon iTunes rental. (His next team-up with Berg is coming to HBO this summer, in the form of a series that will take a debauched dive into the world of sports management.
Berg's film paved the way for the SNL-hosting, Fast and Furious lynchpin Johnson that everybody loves today. More interestingly, though, The Rundown also planted the seeds for a slightly more elusive, intriguing sidebar to Johnson's film career—his predilection to lapse into unabashed, bug-fuck weirdness as a character actor. This side of Johnson—or Weird Rock, as we'll refer to it—pops up again in 2007's wildly underrated apocalyptic comedy-cum-musical-cum-political satire Southland Tales. That Johnson—playing a childlike, twitchy action star with a case of amnesia—manages to stand out as an oddball highlight in a movie where Justin Timberlake lip-synchs to the Killers in an arcade full of women dressed as Marilyn Monroe is an accomplishment of its own.
It would be another six years before Weird Rock resurfaced in full, glorious form, in Michael Bay's 2013 opus Pain & Gain—a warped, neon-shaded American flag reflection of a movie, where the stripes are etched in blood and tanning oil. Bay, a filmmaker lost at sea following his initial trilogy of Transformers movies, saw this as a chance to return to his roots. As he told Grantland prior to the start of principal photography, "I'm gonna do a small character piece next. I love this script. It's well-written. It's just great to work with actors." Yes, for Michael Bay, a small character piece means a cracked-out action comedy about homicidal bodybuilders.
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For all of the reasons that Pain & Gain is messily fascinating and compulsively watchable, Johnson's performance remains the crown jewel, the frosting on the cake made of Muscle Milk. If Pain & Gain can be viewed as Bay's attempt at making a Coen brothers film, then Johnson acquits himself admirably as Bay's John Goodman: a fiercely committed true believer of a performer in the face of cinematic anarchy. In his role as a born-again ex-con coke fiend, Johnson brings a sense of sincerity and sweetness to the film that's not just comical, it's revelatory. Even when he's barbecuing a pile of severed hands in a moronic attempt to remove the fingerprints from them, you still want to give the guy a hug. Johnson's so good that he doesn't just give you faith in Pain & Gain—he gives you faith in the career of Michael Bay again.
In San Andreas, though, Johnson is back doing what he does best: cracking wise, doing stunts, and playing up his normalcy. Johnson's playing an everyman in the body of a superhero. His character, Ray, is a blue-collar search and rescue worker who is bummed about his divorce—but who also tears the door off of a car that's hanging off the side of a cliff with his bare hands . But he's still there to have fun. After helping his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) perform a parachute landing in the middle of San Francisco's AT&T Field, he remarks, smirking, "It's been a while since I got you to second base."
Throughout the movie, he looks genuinely happy to be there. With Johnson, there's nothing glib at work, no ironic remove to distance himself from the silliness of the spectacle around him as opposed to, say, the palpable disdain of a John Cusack. He's as eager to deliver an earnest, potentially embarrassing monologue about the daughter he couldn't save as is he to motor a boat up the crest of a CGI tsunami.
Maybe that's why the disaster film has suffered as a genre in recent years. It's a fundamentally goofy type of movie, one that requires a lead who will be in on the joke without ruining it for everyone else. You can't be too cool if you're going to star in a Roland Emmerich movie. Or you can, but it doesn't tend to work out well.
And that's why Johnson's had the career that he's had. He's got a sense of humor, but he'll always crack the first joke at his own expense. He'll do the weirdo sci-fi movie from the Donnie Darko guy that goes to Cannes, and he'll fully commit to it. But that doesn't mean he'll thumb his nose at headlining the sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth . And despite looking like the Rock, he remains a fully accessible performer.
If any other celebrity broke the record for most selfies taken at a time at the premiere of their new movie, it'd look like a shameless, out-of-touch grab at social-media relevance. For Dwayne Johnson, hey, of course he did. After all, what are a couple of selfies compared to a California-splintering earthquake that you can feel on the East Coast?
San Andreas is in theaters now.
Chris McEwen is on Twitter.