Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's Best Performance Is In This Underrated Michael Bay Film

This week, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson shifts into superhero mode with "Black Adam," a film he's been connected to for at least 15 years. I can't comment on the quality of that film as I haven't seen it (you can read our review right here), but based on the marketing alone, it looks like more of the same from the wrestler-turned-actor. And I don't say that in a disparaging way — The Rock has clearly found a niche for himself, acting-wise, and he's been successful. For the last several years, Johnson has more or less played the same character: a big, muscular guy who is charming, funny, and fond of wearing khaki. He's the perpetual leading man, too massive to be a supporting player.

But it wasn't always like this. When Johnson first shifted from wrestling to acting, his roles were more varied. He dared to stretch himself, especially in films like "Southland Tales," where he played against type. And then there was "Pain & Gain." Released in 2013, "Pain & Gain" happens to be the best movie Michael Bay has ever made, so it's only fitting that it also features The Rock's best performance. It's the last real film of his experimental, risk-taking phase; you can see the glimmer of the action-heavy leading man poking through the seams of the deranged, destructive character he plays in Bay's films. After this, Johnson's days of supporting roles were mostly done (save for his supporting turns in the "Fast and Furious" movies, and a supporting role playing himself in "Fighting With My Family."

But "Pain & Gain" shows us what could've been. Specifically, it shows us The Rock: Character Actor. Like another wrestler-turned-actor, Dave Bautista, Johnson could easily slip into more complex, challenging, character actor roles. But it doesn't seem like he wants to do that anymore, and again: that's fine. He's too big, in every sense, to fail, but that's also part of the reasoning behind his current filmography. He has almost no choice but to play the indestructible heroic lead — it's difficult for an actor to project vulnerability if that actor happens to be a giant muscleman with oodles of charisma and overwhelming confidence.

Fall to extreme levels

Based on a grisly true story, "Pain & Gain" is an inherently Micahel Bay movie — hyper-stylized, over-the-top, and almost shockingly cruel. And yet, Bay is firing on all cylinders here, making a "Wolf of Wall Street"-style send-up of abysmal human beings who want to be stinking rich, no matter what. The main character is muscle-bound lunkhead Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg, in the role he was born to play), a personal trainer and gym rat who talks a lot about the American Dream without seeming to know what that means. While Lugo speaks about earning the American Dream, it's clear that he has no real interest in earning anything. He just wants to take it, like his heroes, Scarface and "all the guys in 'The Godfather.'" In his mind, the fact that he's chiseled his body to perfection is all the work he needs. He looks great — so why shouldn't he be rich, too?

Lugo decides to get rich quick by ripping off one of his clients, odious jerk Victor Kershaw, played by Tony Shalhoub. Teaming up with his friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), Lugo aims to kidnap Kershaw and make the wealthy man sign over all his assets. But Lugo reasons they need a third member of the team, and they find one in Paul Doyle, played by Johnson. "Pain & Gain" takes plenty of liberties with the truth, and Johnson's character is based on several different real people. And in Johnson's large hands, Paul becomes the most interesting character in the film. Sure, he's muscular as hell, but he's not quite the massive hulk Johnson is today. He's also decidedly un-Johnson-like (especially since this is a supporting role; Johnson said when he first got the script he assumed Bay wanted him to play Lugo). 

"The characters I play, whether it is an action drama or a family comedy, there [are] inherent qualities of those characters that were a part of me," Johnson said, adding: 

"Even if they weren't heroic in the beginning, by the end they were pretty heroic. By the end, they were in a leadership position. By the end, everybody got better. This guy, Doyle, continued to fall, and continued to make poor decisions, and continued to fall to extreme levels." 

Paul is a recovering addict who has turned to Jesus (Johnson wears several amusing Jesus-themed t-shirts throughout the film). He's the only member of the gang who seems to have a conscience, as well as street-smarts. When the group goes to buy weapons from a store that only serves cops, Paul is able to sweet-talk the clerk into helping them by using charm — something Lugo and Doorbal could never muster.

The audience's conscience

Despite his objections — "You can't just kidnap a guy and take all his stuff! That is so illegal!" he says when he first hears the plan — Paul goes along with the kidnapping. And while he's nice to Kershaw, the other two members of the gang torture the man until he gives them everything they need. That's not to say Paul is innocent — he freely keeps Kershaw prisoner, and even forcibly baptizes the hostage when he learns he's Jewish. Paul also goes along with the final stage of the plan: killing Kershaw. After failing several attempts to murder the man, Lugo finally instructs Paul to run him over — which Paul does. When they think Kershaw is finally dead, Lugo and Doorbal immediately point out that the murder was all Paul's doing, even though it was their idea.

But Kershaw lives, and the gang's days are numbered, although they don't know it yet. During this period, Paul spirals out of control. His sobriety goes out the window, and he begins drinking and snorting massive amounts of coke. Again: this is quite out of character for The Rock! Imagine him snorting coke in any of his new movies. Imagine if Black Adam swooped down from the sky and suddenly bumped a rail of white powder. 

A series of unfortunate events befall Paul over the rest of the movie. His big toe gets shot off (he feeds it to a dog); he attempts to rob a bank only to get a face full of green dye; he steals the jewelry off corpses; he literally puts a pair of severed hands on top of a charcoal grill and cooks them to burn the fingerprints off (can you smell what The Rock is cooking? It's human hands). Through it all, Johnson goes big — but not too big. He plays Paul as a morally conflicted bag of energy; a guy who wants to do good, and come back to Jesus, but also a guy who is unable to control himself. As Johnson put it:

"One of the lengthy discussions I had with Michael is that this character will become the audience's conscience. When they want to see kindness, they'll see it through Paul Doyle. They want to see someone who is extreme, especially using external substances [like cocaine], they are going to see it through Paul Doyle."

Of course, it's worth pointing out that while Paul may be "the audience's conscience," he's still pretty awful (remember the "grilling some severed hands" thing I just mentioned?). He's just not as awful as his sociopathic conspirators. 

'I'm going to jump off this cliff'

Bay's extremely bleak sense of humor comes through "Pain & Gain," and while Wahlberg's tough-guy scumbag gets the biggest laughs, Johnson's Paul is hilarious in how out-of-touch he is with everything going on. One of the funniest scenes in the film involves Lugo having to "get a pump in" in the midst of a new murder scheme. As Lugo pumps dumbells, Paul has a conversation with him, only to pause in the middle of that conversation to tell Lugo to "get it" with the weights. Even during this insane, bloody time, Paul still cares about being swole. 

As Paul grows increasingly unhinged, Johnson perfectly makes the character morally gray and morally complex. He's the only human-seeming member of the gang, but his actions grow increasingly worse (again: remember that "grilling some severed hands" thing?). You can see Johnson wrestling with his own personality here, working hard to make Paul one of the most conflicting characters he's ever played. In other words, you can see Johnson putting in the work.

I'm not implying Johnson is lazy now — no one who can bench-press a tank is lazy. But the actor has settled comfortably into the type of roles that better reflect his personality, or at least the personality he wants the public to see. He's a hero — sure, Black Adam is supposed to be a villain, but we all know he'll become heroic by the end of the movie; that's how this works. But when I watch the man work in "Pain & Gain," I can't help but feel a little sad that we missed out on years of The Rock in character actor mode, playing complex individuals drowning themselves in booze and coke and struggling with their own inner turmoil. 

When Bay was courting Johnson for the role, he sent Johnson a letter that stated "I brought you this role because of the complexities of it. I know there is no one in Hollywood but you who can do this." According to Johnson, the letter did the trick: "The fear went away. The insecurity went away. Okay, I'm going to jump off this cliff. It was one of the best decisions I ever made."

I'm sure The Rock is perfectly content making his current string of big blockbuster films, but I'll always be hoping he dares to jump off that metaphorical acting cliff again. Bring back Dwayne "The Character Actor" Johnson.