Debate Club

Debate Club: The Rock's Top 5 movie performances

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Mar 28, 2018, 11:00 AM EDT

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this week's installment, we’re looking at… The Rock!

The Rock (or Dwayne Johnson, if you're one of those weird people who insist on referring to people by their SAG-mandated names) has become one of the more reliable movie stars in Hollywood over the past few years, but he has done so in an unconventional way: Often, he comes in to salvage wounded franchises, ultimately making them his own. He's funny, he's light, he's (obviously) muscular, and he has proven savvy (and certainly prolific) in his career choices. Everybody loves the Rock!

But as you'll see in our rankings, he still doesn't have that career-defining role you'll always identify him with. He's a movie star for everyone, but there's a sameness to his role that is comforting… and a little safe. But he's got plenty of career left.

Thus: Here are the top five movies starring The Rock.

The Rock, Pain & Gain

Pain & Gain (2013)

This Michael Bay crime caper is far better than his Transformers abominations, and part of the credit goes to Johnson, who's dynamite as Paul, a former hood who's found Jesus and is trying to go straight. That conflict within the character is one of Pain & Gain’s major strengths: The actor makes you feel for Paul’s plight — he really, really wants to be a good guy — while also making you laugh at his underlying foolishness.

The Rock doesn’t play a lot of nuanced roles, but in Pain & Gain, he gets to show off his whole repertoire, acing the comedic moments while also eliciting a little sympathy. It's not easy to play a well-meaning dumb guy. Johnson shows how it's done.

Snitch, The Rock

Snitch (2013)

One thing The Rock doesn't get to do very often is play normal guys. This totally stands to reason: What's normal about The Rock? Who else in the world looks like The Rock? So we absolutely appreciated when he gave it a shot in the underrated Snitch, in which Johnson plays the owner of a trucking company whose son is arrested with narcotics and attempts to get him out of it by going undercover as an informant himself.

One of the charms of Snitch is that Johnson isn't really a hero — he's just trying to help his kid — and he isn't really all that good at being an informant, as he keeps getting himself in more and more danger. But the Rock plays the Everyman well; you instinctively root for him and find him fundamentally decent. It's a little weird at times seeing The Rock play Regular Guy — at one point, some guys beat him up, and no one remarks that he's huge and the freaking Rock and he could take them down in ten seconds — but it speaks to his talent that he just about pulls it off.

Central Intelligence, The Rock, Kevin Hart

Central Intelligence (2016)

Johnson’s best pure comedy, Central Intelligence is where the action star shows off his light touch as Bob, a formerly overweight high school dork who's grown up to be a buff, ass-kicking CIA agent… even though he's still a pretty massive dork. The actor's easy-going confidence works perfectly off Kevin Hart, who plays a frustrated, motor-mouthed accountant Bob enlists for a top-secret mission. The same "What, me, worry?" attitude Johnson brandishes in his cheesy blockbusters is, here, turned into comic gold. (Nobody has loved unicorns as much as Bob does, which he'll happily tell you about.)

But the secret to the performance is how Johnson taps into Bob's still-lingering childhood insecurities; Bob may look like the Rock but, underneath, he's still that bullied kid. Johnson has never been funnier (or sweeter) than he was here. (And before you ask: our rankings don't include The Other Guys — which he's great in — because it's basically only a cameo.)

Moana, Maui, The Rock

Moana (2016)

Early in his film career, Johnson tried catering to the family market with forgettable Disney fare like The Game Plan and Race to Witch Mountain. Almost a decade later, he had far greater success with the Mouse House's Moana, in which he plays a wisecracking, ultra-cocky demigod who helps the titular character (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) save her dying island.

Because we’ve become so accustomed to The Rock's affable, muscular presence, it can be easy to forget: The guy’s got such a charming, personable voice. He uses it to excellent effect in Moana as this young woman's partner-in-crime and verbal sparring partner on her ocean adventure. Plus, he’s a pretty good singer, nailing his Lin-Manuel Miranda song "You're Welcome" with panache. The secret to his vocal prowess? Tequila.

The Rock, Fast Five

Fast Five (2011)

Justin Lin — who took over the franchise at film three and ushered it into the stratosphere — is the main reason the Fast and the Furious franchise recovered to become the monster it is now, but the ultimate propulsion was adding Johnson for Fast Five. Vin Diesel was starting to look a bit long in the tooth in the lead role, and he needed another alpha male to both complement and challenge him.

Nobody's better at both of those than The Rock, and he sort of serves as the franchise's Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive; he's the guy chasing our heroes who you still respect and cheer for. (It was inevitable they'd all end up working together.) The jolt The Rock gave the franchise is still reaping benefits; at the scale these movies have now expanded to, you need a star as big as The Rock.


Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.