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The Star Market: Is Hollywood Still Smelling What Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson Is Cooking?

When you first saw the trailer for Fast Five, the latest installment in the deathless franchise that hits theaters today, did you think to yourself (in between having your mind blown by awesome stuff, of course), "Wait, why is The Rock in this? Doesn’t he usually get to star in the big dumb action movies he makes?" Dwayne Johnson has enjoyed a surprisingly productive film career since breaking out of the WWE in the early part of the 2000s, but recent developments — the box office disappointment of last year’s Faster, the aforementioned supporting role in Fast Five, and even a part time return to wrestling — suggested his moment may have passed. But is that really the case? We spoke with industry insiders to answer that question, along with the weekly Star Market query: If Dwayne Johnson were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: Towards the end of his historically illustrious career in the WWE (nine-time world champion title holder!), The People’s Champ successfully transitioned into movies with a role in 2001’s The Mummy Returns, a big fat hit at $433 million worldwide. That earned him his own spin-off, 2002’s The Scorpion King, which netted a respectable $165 million around the world. Stepping out of the franchise comfort zone as the head of an ensemble cast in 2003’s The Rundown ($80 million), and then again in 2004’s Walking Tall ($57 million), wasn’t as commercially lucrative, but did work to expand his range somewhat: there were now at least three different kinds of badasses The Rock could play! The next few years were spotty, with the underperforming Doom adaptation ($55 million) and the mostly overlooked inspirational football flick Gridiron Gang ($41 million).

But the Rock always seemed hungry to widen his audience by tweaking his tough-guy image. His first attempt at branching out failed, signing onto Richard Kelly’s insanely incomprehensible Donnie Darko followup Southland Tales (which grossed a painful-just-to-type $374,743 box-office pull). But he had much more success following Arnold Schwarzenegger's Kindergarten Cop model: family action comedies in which an intense badass is made to look like a boob (usually by children) and eventually becomes a sweeter person. His three movies in that mold scored: The Game Plan ($147 million), Race to Witch Mountain ($106 million), and The Tooth Fairy ($112 million). He wasn’t on the poster for 2008’s Get Smart, but it did make bank ($230 million) and he got to show off some legit comedy chops. He must have started feeling invincible, because he stepped back into stone-faced action star mode with last year's Faster, but it failed ($33 million). One couldn’t be faulted for at least imagining that The Rock’s recent return to WWE — totally awesome, by the way — was Johnson cultivating a contingency plan if this whole Hollywood thing fizzled out.

Peers: For the most part, other dudes down to take their shirts: Paul Walker (37), Sam Worthington (34), Vin Diesel (43) Jason Statham (43) and, on the lower end, Gerard Butler (41) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (45). Also, the ever-crazier Nicolas Cage (47).

Market Value: The breakdown is clear: put him in franchised or family fare, and he soars; branch him out on his own into generic bullets-and-brawn flicks and audiences are more tepid. The established Fast Five seems like a safe move: The series is still hot (the fifth entry is currently Fandango.com's top advance ticket-seller of the year, accounting for three-quarters of today’s sales). Rocky won’t be able to claim too much of the credit, but the reflected glory could give him a rebirth as an action star. And according to one agent, if Fast Five does indeed do well, there’s chatter about Universal breaking the Rock’s character off on his own spin-off.

What Hollywood Thinks: Says the agent, “Considering the guy was a professional wrestler, he’s doing great. The Rundown, Scorpion King, Walking Tall? Those were all good movies for him. And he looks the coolest of the Fast Five [cast]. You can make some money with him. He’s bankable. I don’t see him as a serious actor, but whatever. I’d sign him and put him to work. Bruce Willis made a career of it. There just aren’t that many action stars. There’s almost none, in fact.”

Most importantly, Hollywood is rooting for him. One top publicist says that "he has an audience of committed, passionate fans that is both sizable and active." But to broaden his audience, his people could try to expose him to more "sophisticated" audiences. "I'd put him in the top ten markets and do a regional tour," says the flack. "And if there's a perception problem with the media elite — he's not highbrow, he's not interesting enough — that's fixable: Getting a ‘no’ from Vanity Fair or The New Yorker only means that they don't understand yet. I'd put him in a room with them. You give access, but it doesn't happen overnight. Maybe you work on it over four months, or over several movies even, and then have a massive piece come out. It might seem risky, but it's really not — at least, if he's actually behaving way he appears to be most of the time.”

The Analysis: Just announced for Johnson: a starring role in a biopic about country music star Charley Pride. Also on the docket: replacing Brendan Fraser in the Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D sequel, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. The first sounds interesting, the other, well, doesn’t — but the two choices average each other out. One seems waaaaay out of his comfort zone (and his physique), the other is an action sequel squarely in his safe zone. As long as he keeps one foot in a franchise, he’ll stay relevant. Studios might be hesitant right now to put him in a standard action flick without a built-in audience, but enough home runs in movies with twos and threes at the end could finally buy him the chance to invent his own series. And judging by the Charley Pride doc, he still has the same itch to branch out into unexpected directions (seriously, Southland Tales was insane). With enough hits under his belt, he just might be able to take more of a Willis route than a Schwarzenegger.

The Bottom Line: He’s neither up or down, really, and he knows the path he needs to follow. Meaning: he may never claim the vacant Big Brawny Action Star title, but most likely he’ll be just fine.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Hold

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images