In acting, as in life, commitment counts for a lot and few actors understand this as well as Dwayne Johnson. Just by virtue of being Dwayne Johnson — a hulking, comically handsome mountain of muscle — he’s never going to be able to play roles open to a lot of other actors. Dress him up as a nebbish and he’ll still look like The Rock underneath it all. But as anyone who’s followed Johnson’s career as he’s transitioned from wrestling to acting knows, Johnson not only has the charisma to match his size but a willingness to give each character his all. He could get by just showing up, but Johnson’s not one for just showing up.
Take Central Intelligence, Johnson’s latest, an action comedy co-starring Kevin Hart. The film opens in a flashback to 1996 and finds Johnson, his face CGI’d on to someone else’s body, dancing naked in the shower to En Vogue as he plays the obese teenager Robbie Weirdicht. (Say it out loud.) He’s then humiliated by a bunch of bullies who throw him in the middle of the gym in front of the entire school, who’ve assembled to heap praise on Calvin Joyner (Kevin Hart), a homecoming king, star athlete, master actor, and all-around BMOC. The effects make the scene play a bit like a nightmare descent into the uncanny valley, but the agony on Johnson’s face is real. He conveys the humiliation of a kid who’s never had it easy experiencing a moment that suggests his life is set to get harder still. And he conveys the gratitude he feels when Joyner, a kid from the opposite end of the popularity spectrum, loans him his letterman’s jacket so he can cover himself.
Flash forward 20 years: Joyner’s now an accountant grinding away in a small office in an anonymous building. He’s happily married to his high-school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), but happiness eludes him elsewhere, and with his 20th high-school reunion looming, he’s started to wonder what’s become of the life he imagined for himself. Enter, or re-enter, Robbie Weirdicht, now calling himself Bob Stone. He’s traded fat for muscles and he’s extremely happy to see Calvin. (True, we’ll soon find he’s working a hidden agenda, but the enthusiasm isn’t faked.) Meeting for drinks at a bar in their Maryland hometown, Bob shows up wearing a unicorn shirt and rocking a fanny pack. A lovely waitress can’t keep her hands off him and he wows the bar by beating up some tough guys looking for a fight, but he’d rather explain his shirt to Calvin — he’s really “into ‘corns” — and catch up while geeking out to ’90s songs.