One of the biggest movie stars in the world is a former professional wrestler. This may seem like a small matter now that the actual president of the United States was an actual reality show star, but consider, too, how good so many people feel about the ascension of Dwayne Johnson. Not only do we put the man once known as The Rock in the highest echelon of movie stars, but we celebrate him as a American treasure.
But can his success be replicated? Can another wrestler make the leap from the ring to the pantheon of stardom? It's a question that seems to consume John Cena, the wrestler who looks most likely to match Johnson's career and whose new movie The Wall opens this week.
Cena, of course, isn't the first wrestler to try following Johnson's footsteps, and he won't be the last. Dave Bautista can also be seen on multiplex screens right now, reprising his role of Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and stealing plenty of scenes. But Bautista may not ultimately escape the general wrestler-on-film fate of novelty; however wonderful he is as Drax, his highest-profile role in between Guardians movies was playing a hired goon in a James Bond movie.
By contrast, Cena began his film career doing exactly the type of low-rent action movies you'd expect a wrestler to grapple with, the only surprise being that both The Marine and 12 Rounds were wide theatrical releases at all. But he signaled a desire to branch out, just like Johnson did, by expanding from meat-headed action flicks to comedy: In 2015, he had funny supporting roles in the lady-centric comedies Trainwreck and Sisters, and last year he hosted Saturday Night Live (Johnson hosts the season finale later this month, his fifth hosting gig at a show that, in retrospect, looks like a major proving ground for him). Cena's SNL shot wasn't a revelation, but it served as a reminder that he's willing to goof around.
The Wall is not goofing around, but it's another form of stretching for Cena, at least on paper. It's trying to be a dramatic thriller, a bit removed from the poor-man's-Arnold-Schwarzenegger realm of The Marine. Cena plays a soldier partnered up with Aaron Taylor-Johnson to check out reports of sniper fire at a construction site in Iraq; for most of the running time, he and Taylor-Johnson are the only two faces onscreen. It sounds like a major showcase, but when the movie separates its stars, its point of view sticks with Taylor-Johnson, which removes Cena from the action for long stretches and turns him into something of a prop. This isn't Cena's fault, and even makes sense for the type of movie The Wall turns out to be. This isn't a serious recent-history thriller, but a '90s-style talking-killer picture, where a calm and erudite mastermind menaces the heroes and taunts one of them with that old chestnut: "We aren't so different, you and I." Despite some gripping moments, it's a dead end.
So where does Cena go from here?
Cena's biggest problem is that borderline cartoonish brawniness isn't something movies need anymore. If movies need to depict brawn, it's just as easy to cast a "normal" (extremely good-looking, usually English) actor, make him hit the gym, and CG the rest. This isn't something to mourn; it may be difficult for some people to suss out the differences between Chris Pine, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Chris Pratt (as Pine himself joked on his own SNL episode last weekend), but every one of them is more charismatic than the typical late-'80s action star. That's why as many Dwayne Johnson movies wink at his impossible physique as take it seriously; as discussed on this podcast, he and his Fast and Furious costar Vin Diesel both jumped into the image-spoofing phase of their careers (placing them with unruly kids or assigning them zany hijinks) earlier than Arnold.
Cena isn't really famous enough for that yet, so it made sense for him to take on supporting roles in more adult-oriented comedies. But he has yet to demonstrate a physicality as delicate as The Rock's — he cuts an imposing figure, but not necessarily a fascinating one. He might be better off attempting to claim the character-actor career that Vin Diesel has mostly abdicated. In other words, he could try stealing scenes in movies that aren't exclusively comedies. A background as a wrestler makes sense for developing a movie star "brand," but not everyone is as talented or as brandable as Dwayne Johnson.
So if Cena is serious about the movies, he may just have to set aside the notion of starring in them.