For a major movie star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson does remarkably little falling in love onscreen. He’s a creature of action, and he’s adept at comedy, but he’s been called upon to play the lover so rarely that a role like the one he has in Jungle Cruise, in which he’s a riverboat captain who develops a bickering flirtation with an aristocratic explorer played by Emily Blunt, feels like an anomaly in his filmography. He doesn’t make much of a case for himself as a romantic lead in Jungle Cruise, though it doesn’t really feel fair to lay the blame at his feet for that. Both he and Blunt are cast as characters who are to Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen as Funko Pops are to people. They share an easy but spark-free rapport as they adventure through the Amazon by way of a Disney ride, and the film approaches their inevitable coming together with more trepidation than they themselves show while navigating rapids in a rickety steamer boat. When they do finally, inevitably kiss, it’s filmed as though they’re dolls whose heads are being smashed together by a child enacting a rudimentary idea of passion, the camera angle obscuring the meeting of their lips.
If Jungle Cruise feels like the product of people who have forgotten how to do romance, it’s because romance is not something studio movies bother with much anymore — let alone anything libidinous. Johnson doesn’t need to be good at it, because he’s a 21st-century movie star, exuding a near-cartoonish virility while also tending to remain chaste onscreen. He isn’t the only Hollywood actor to play characters who give no sign of having sensation below the waist, though he is the only one to have had his lower half digitally replaced by the legs and torso of a giant scorpion. But his ascendance to the Hollywood A-list feels particularly like a product and symptom of the industry as it stands today. There’s a striking divide between the body that Johnson is so famous for and the characters who are supposed to inhabit it. He may be built like a comic-book hero come to life, but his characters rarely if ever seem to take pleasure in this physicality beyond its capacity to intimidate and serve as a spectacle. He’s positioned as an aspirational figure far more than he ever is an object of desire — a leader of men, not a wooer of women.
Johnson’s physique is not about fleshliness, but about dedication and industriousness and abstention, with Johnson, a third-generation professional wrestler who first rose to fame in the WWE, chronicling with his trademark relentless positivity a grueling regimen of 4 a.m. workouts and a diet of enough cod to endanger the species. Two weeks after the release of the 2017 Baywatch adaptation, a truly miserable motion picture, Johnson (or his social-media manager) retweeted a GIF of him and his co-star Zac Efron running in slow motion, with a joke about how people should stop sexualizing them. The truth is that there is very rarely a whiff of sex to his characters, and they certainly aren’t having much — Baywatch itself casts Ilfenesh Hadera as a supporting character who gazes longingly at Johnson while he remains oblivious. When he is cast alongside a love interest, it’s usually because he’s playing an action-movie answer to a family man, as in the 2018 Skyscraper, in which he has to rescue his wife (Neve Campbell) and their kids from terrorists who’ve taken over the tallest building in Hong Kong. Or in the 2015 San Andreas, in which a massive earthquake forces him and Carla Gugino to reunite to save their daughter and their failing marriage.
In 2014’s Hercules, his wife (played in flashbacks by Irina Shayk) and kids have been conveniently murdered, giving him a chance to avenge them without having them get in the way of the sword-and-sandals setpieces. The ideal Johnson role is one in which he can be the dad figure while skipping over the actual fathering process, excising any consideration of procreative acts from the narrative entirely. As Luke Hobbs in the Fast & Furious franchise, he’s a practically superhuman agent and the doting father to a little girl whose mother is left unmentioned, and when Vanessa Kirby plants a kiss on his lips ahead of the big showdown in Hobbs & Shaw, his reaction is only surprise, as though he’d just discovered that they were not remotely on the same page. The strangest aspect of this deranged sense of family friendliness that has come to define Johnson’s onscreen persona is that it has everything to do with the movies. It was only two years ago that he wrapped up a five-season run of Ballers on HBO, a cable series rife with R-rated NFL-adjacent high jinks that feels like it aired in an alternative universe. Johnson’s big-screen brand has coincided with the growth of his ability to pick and shape his own projects, suggesting that it’s his attempt to respond to what the industry, and audiences, want.
The resulting movies haven’t all been the stuff of great cinema, but they have racked up billions of dollars and made him one of the biggest stars in the world, suggesting that he’s onto something, even if that something is more than a little depressing. It’s not a clean-cutness so much as a flattening, an eliminating of a whole dimension of what used to make movie stars so appealing. After all, the romance between Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen was just as chaste as any Disney movie, at least as far as what was shown onscreen, but it was alive with attraction and affection, and involved characters that felt like they had blood running through their veins. That was 70 years ago, and while, in theory, we’re permitted to show so much more onscreen now, the reality is that we get even less. The model Johnson has come to epitomize — charismatic, impossibly fit, and unobjectionable as a Ken doll — is proving to also be best for business on a global scale. Studio movies may be constantly getting bigger and more expensive, but on some fronts, they feel smaller than ever.