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Fall Sneaks

The Rock keeps it real

Dwayne Johnson, pro wrestler and action hero, sets his sights on drama.

September 07, 2003|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Producer Marc Abraham is accustomed to A-list attitude. After all, he's made movies with Kevin Costner and Harrison Ford. So when Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson approached Abraham on the very first day of filming "The Rundown," the producer was ready for the usual laundry list of diva demands.

"I want you to know that if there's anything you ever want to tell me about my acting ... " Johnson began, as Abraham waited for the punch line, " ... be sure to let me know."

Abraham scanned the film's crew, certain one of them had orchestrated a joke. "I thought someone put the Rock up to it," the producer says. But Johnson wasn't kidding. The former professional wrestler wants to grow as an actor. And he's finally getting his chance.

Opening Sept. 26, "The Rundown" tells the story of a reluctant bounty hunter named Beck (Johnson) sent to the Amazonian jungles to bring home his boss' wild son, Travis (Seann William Scott). Once in Brazil, Beck and Travis clash not only with each other but also battle the ruthless gold mining mogul (Christopher Walken) who has enslaved the local workers.

The hulking Johnson certainly has his share of smack-down brawls in the film, and naturally gets to pull his shirt off. Yet the movie still represents a big leap for one of Hollywood's fastest-rising action heroes. Like some musclemen turned superstars before him, Johnson wants to become much more than an imposing physical spectacle. He wants to be a leading man. And he knows that transition is perilous.

For every Arnold Schwarzenegger who takes off, there are three popular brutes who crash and burn: What was the last movie you saw starring Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper or Brian Bosworth? The 6-foot-5 Johnson is also not helped by Hollywood's new definition of what an action star should look like: Vin Diesel ("XXX") is one of the very few actors following in the he-man footsteps laid by Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. The current rage in casting action films tips toward wisps like Tobey Maguire and Orlando Bloom, whom Johnson could bench press in his sleep.

Johnson already has come far.

In his first film, "The Mummy Returns," Johnson barely spoke, and it wasn't in English. In "The Scorpion King," his dialogue was as insubstantial -- "I've come for the woman ... and your head!" -- as his loincloth. With "The Rundown," Johnson finally speaks in complete sentences, and his character Beck even wears a suit. What's more, Johnson gets to capitalize on his own self-deprecating persona, as the film matches every action scene with an equal dose of comedy.

"I haven't been in the industry very long. But I still want to be really good," Johnson says. "I'm not delusional by any means. Dustin Hoffman I am not."

Universal takes a chance

Movie studios used to create new stars the way the Dodgers would groom minor leaguers, patiently guiding raw talent to the top of the professional ranks. But just as free agency changed baseball forever, the collapse of long-term studio contracts in the 1950s curtailed one studio's ability to single-handedly build a movie career. These days, as soon as one studio breaks an actor, every other studio joins the chase.

Within three years after Fox released Colin Farrell's "Tigerland," the Irish flavor-of-the-month was in movies for Warner Bros., MGM, Fox and DreamWorks, Disney, Fox, Disney and DreamWorks, and Sony.

Universal was the first to take a flier and cast Johnson in a film. Before that cameo in "The Mummy Returns" was first seen by paying moviegoers, Universal paid him $5.5 million to star in its spinoff, "The Scorpion King." Both films were solid hits. Universal then wrote Johnson a $12.5-million check to star in "The Rundown," and the studio is developing no fewer than three movies for Johnson to make as soon as he finishes MGM's "Walking Tall" remake. (Universal tried to find a movie for Johnson before he made "Walking Tall," for which he's earning $15 million, but didn't have anything ready in time.)

Universal's idea is simple, albeit unusual in an era where stars relocate so frequently. In shaping projects specifically for Johnson, the studio hopes to keep the budding star in the fold for as long as possible.

"Loyalty is very important to me. And with 'The Mummy Returns,' Universal took a chance," Johnson says. "And, especially on 'The Scorpion King,' a really big chance. And I will never forget that."

The benefits are reciprocal. Both Johnson and the studio can make a lot of money, and Universal can work to ensure a sequence of roles that theoretically keeps Johnson out of a career-ending clunker like Steven Seagal's "Half Past Dead."

"We don't want to spoof him too fast or switch out of the action genre too quickly," says Stacey Snider, Universal's chairman. "We were able to articulate a strategy for him from the very beginning."

That strategy requires extreme care.

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