Race to Witch Mountain is a family adventure about a cab driver played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson who gives a ride to two normal looking teenagers without realizing that they are both aliens on the run from a shadowy government agency that wants to kidnap them and a merciless extraterrestrial bounty hunter who wants to kill them. At first he is hesitant to help the two kids, but eventually he realizes that he has to help them get back to their spaceship or else the whole Earth is doomed.
In theory this movie has it all - from fist fights to flirting, and from aliens to explosions. In practice, however, Race to Witch Mountain is rather uninteresting, in large part because it's built on the backs of very one dimensional characters. The alien teenagers have a few nonhuman powers like telepathy, but that's about it - they have fewer personality quirks than your average teenager, much less your average extraterrestrial teenager. The villains aren't any better: the government agents are your classic uptight white dudes in suits and the bounty hunter is a faceless figure that barely makes an impression.
Race To Witch Mountain's biggest disappointment, however, is that it finds a way to make The Rock seem generic. Johnson has always had charisma to spare, and I have seen him shine in comedies, dramas, and even in other family movies, but he has consistently struggled to find parts that would provide a proper showcase for his talents. That's certainly true in Race to Witch Mountain, where he plays a part that could have been played by any middle aged dude who could pass as a father figure to a few plucky kids. Sure, Johnson does what he can to enliven the proceedings - he sneaks in a few goofy faces that add a little bit of levity to the movie, and he tackles his few fight scenes like a pro. Unfortunately, that's not enough to save the day, since the script doesn't give him any good character beats and the fight scenes are so perfunctory that they don't make good use of his overwhelming size and dexterity.
It's a shame: Johnson is a singular talent but he keeps getting trapped in parts that are anything but unique. I'm not even talking about just his sub-par films like Race to Witch Mountain; I'm talking about his whole career. Yes, the most recent Fast and the Furious has grossed a billion dollars but he's just another cog in that machine, and his specific talents don't really stand out when he's standing next to another musclehead like Vin Dieasel. And yes, he's top lining this weekend's biggest new release but whether or not San Andreas makes any money it looks terrible; it's ads have made it look like a generic retread of a 70's disaster movie and those weren't very good to begin with. So while it is definitely condescending for me, a random dude on the internet, to give career advice to a man who is obviously doing pretty well on his own, I do want to throw my two cents out there, because I want there to be a lot of good Dwayne Johnson movies and there are hardly any. So without further ado, here are a few suggestions for what he could do to make better use of his talents:
Problem number one: most action heroes actually aren't actually that charming. Oh, sure, there are a few that get a few good one liners in, but that's a long way away from actually being funny. For the most part they tend to be humorless types and they tend to be involved in stories that don't make room for offbeat digressions. And since The Rock is still making a lot of action movies we're still not getting to see much of the charm that he deploys at will whenever he hosts Saturday Night Live or when he's in a pro wrestling ring.
That's why I think it might be a good idea for him to try his hand at a romantic comedy. I know that he's not the first name that comes to mind when you think "hunky leading man" - he's so big and muscular that he's kind of intimidating - but if he picked the right script he could use his bulk to his advantage. He seems to have an instinctive knowledge of when to lean into his more macho attributes and when to walk away from them, because he emphasizes kindness in his dad-roles and toughness in his tough-guy roles. As such I think that he could really kill a Bodyguard type role that called for a bad-ass to fall in love. I could really see him portraying a character that was enough of a man's-man that his size wouldn't be a problem and enough of a ladies-man that you would still root for him to get the girl, and if he did that we would finally get a glimpse of his full range of talent.
Just look at those two stills above and ask yourself which is more appealing: The Rock thinking about punching an anonymous government stooge in the face in Race to Witch Mountain or the Rock flirting with an inexperienced ingenue in Fifty Shades of Grey? (And yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is definitely a comedy, and yes, I would kill someone to see a Funny or Die parody of that starring The Rock.)
Problem number two: the movies Johnson keeps making don't need to be made. Race to Witch Mountain was a remake; Fast 7 was a sequel to a sequel; San Andreas is a generic retread of an outdated trend; etc. Some of those movies are good, and some of them are bad, but none of them are telling stories you haven't heard before, and if they didn't exist you wouldn't miss them.
It's time for him to branch out and get weird. He did this a little bit in the early part of his career - in particular with Southland Tales, which was a big swing and a big miss... but at least it was a big swing, unlike the films that he's starred in since then. I'm not going to fault him for starring in a G.I. Joe movie, but he needs to be doing what his Pain and Gain co-star Mark Wahlberg is doing, which is to alternate between big dumb franchises with little weird movies and auteur driven dramas. Wahlberg might be semi-limited as an actor, but he's had an amazing career because he obviously seeks out projects that are being helmed by interesting directors with specific visions. If the Rock - who has a lot more range as a perfomer - followed a similar path he'd be killing it in no time.
Just look at those two stills above and ask yourself: which would you rather see, a bland action movie that takes place in a trailer park, or an animated comedy about a space chicken in the land of death? You might end up enjoying the action movie more, but it would inevitably be more forgettable than the space chicken comedy.
Of course, I don't want to put all the blame on The Rock. I don't think he's half-assing his performances - after all, he does more to bring Race to Witch Mountain across the finish line than anyone else in the movie. So let's cut him some slack and rephrase the question a little bit. Instead of asking "what movies could The Rock be doing that would make better use of his talent" let's instead ask "how could a movie that's cast the Rock best utilize his specific talents?"
Well, to start off with they need to be tailored to his specific personality more. Harrison Ford should never have been an action star - he isn't anyone's first pick for tough guy. But he kills it as Han Solo and Indiana Jones because those movies know how to make the most of his roguish qualities. The same should be happening with The Rock. He started off as a pro-wrestler, and that makes sense - he's at his best when he's doing something that's slightly over-the-top. Lean into his big body and his oversize reactions; give him something big to play against. I think that the reason why he works well in the Fast and Furious movies is that they are intentionally ridiculous and I think the reason why he feels so wasted in Race to Witch Mountain is that it is a lot more subdued. I mean, what fun are aliens that don't even look like aliens?
Just look at those two stills above and ask yourself: which would you rather see, a movie where the Rock has to play dad to two generic kids or a film where he has to chaperone a purple weirdo through the desert? If he is going to commit himself to big projects then they need to actually, you know, go big. At this point adventure films don't feel adventurous if they aren't full of spectacular sights, and yet the movies The Rock keeps churning out are would-be adventure movies with no imagination or vision.
I really don't feel like the Rock has tapped his full talent. Fortunately, it's not too late. After all, The Rock has in large part modeled his career on Arnold Schwarzenegger and he's starting to turn into an interesting character actor in his twilight years. I believe in you, Rocky: you can do this. But first you're going to have to stop starring in formulaic messes like Race to Witch Mountain and start starring in truly interesting projects. They don't have to star space chickens... but that would be a good start.
Winner: The Cat