On Monday, the announcement went out that Netflix would be picking up the tab for a new blockbuster thriller from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, called Red Notice. Co-starring Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds, the film looks like surefire crowd-pleasing entertainment, an action-comedy heist flick that will doubtless play to the strengths of its three appealing leads. But amid the press release details was the reveal that this movie would be helmed by one of Johnson’s go-to collaborators: Director Rawson Marshall Thurber, making it the duo’s third film together, after Central Intelligence and Skyscraper. Why is nobody pairing up one of the most charismatic and globally successful movie stars of our time with a better class of directors?
Johnson churns out one would-be blockbuster after another. He’s a tireless worker and relentless promoter of his output who is liked by seemingly everyone on the planet not named Tyrese (or a certain other unnamed candy-ass). His movies should be massively popular—and they sort of are. But what they’re not, in general, is particularly good. Go down the list: Skyscraper? Central Intelligence? Both the work of Thurber, who has made funny comedies in the past (We’re The Millers, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), but appears lost when it comes to the kinetic requirements of great action-movie staging. Rampage? San Andreas? Journey 2: The Mysterious Island? All directed by Johnson compatriot Brad Peyton. In general, movies starring Johnson share two traits: a likable lead performance, and a mostly forgettable film surrounding it.
There seems to be an obvious culprit here, in Johnson’s sense of loyalty to those he’s worked with before. “Love ya” is a recurring mantra on his many Instagram posts featuring hugs and/or smiles with directors, producers, and more. Thurber is no exception—Johnson is “very close” with him, and they’re apparently “building a very solid foundation together” with their ongoing collaborations. The question is, why? By now, it should be clear that Thurber’s strengths lie elsewhere, away from over-the-top action machismo, and Johnson would be far better served in his career by seeking out directors who can match the needs of his projects, not ones he gets along with really well. Friends are great, but not always the best coworkers.
But loyalty is a deeply prized trait for Dwayne Johnson. This much was apparent after he publicly defended his affiliation with Under Armour (where he currently has a shoe line he’s selling), following the company’s CEO publicly praising President Donald Trump as an “asset” to America. While many athletes immediately distanced themselves, or even called for a boycott of a company whose leadership endorsed Trump and his policies, Johnson wrote a carefully worded post on social media chastising the CEO’s words but reaffirming his commitment to his corporate sponsor. “Debate is healthy...but in a time of widespread disagreement, so is loyalty,” the actor said, arguing his responsibility was to “the thousands of workers who pour blood, sweat and tears into making Under Armour strong.”
Standing by your compatriots through thick and thin is a laudable goal in life, but less so in art, where sticking with someone who delivered subpar results the first (and second, and sometimes even third) time around starts to look less like loyalty and more like foolishness. The actor, unfortunately, has a tendency to treat his films like any other product he’s hawking: “Our industry is a global business and our domestic market is now just one of many worldwide territories,” he writes in response to Skyscraper’s lackluster U.S. reception, as though the issue was marketing, not a subpar film. “The movie will profit— bottom line. This is the reality. Global economy.” Meaning, if it makes money, everything is going according to plan and there’s no need to change things up, let alone work with someone new. San Andreas, for example, has a dyspeptic 51 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (and an equally dispiriting 52 percent audience rating, usually the much-improved barometer Hollywood likes to point to when arguing critical assessment doesn’t matter). It’s a much-maligned wannabe Roland Emmerich disaster flick that disappointed just about everybody who saw it. But in Johnson’s eyes, it turned a profit, so mark that 51 percent a success, and bring on the next team-up.
You’d think someone who speaks so openly and often about wanting to make a memorable impact (and who routinely does so with his laudable charity work) would have a more vested interest in making movies for which his audience will retain some real affection. If I’m going to re-watch anything from Johnson’s filmography, it’s likely going to have the words “fast” or “furious” in the title, and I’m probably not alone. Johnson should take a page from that franchise’s playbook behind the camera—creatively successful directors get asked back, and when somebody bricks an entry, they don’t return, gargantuan box office haul or no. The former wrestler was a late addition to the franchise, but he came in at the series’ artistic high point (Fast Five) and jumped ship to a spin-off after it flagged four movies later. (Admittedly those on-set beefs probably hastened the departure.) Those movies aren’t beloved because they just keep saying the word “family” until audiences are Stockholm syndrome’d into believing they’re part of the family, too. They’re genuinely thrilling popcorn entertainment, crafted with talent and an eye for engaging Hollywood spectacle. They had directors behind the camera who knew what they were doing, and did it better than many.
There’s historical precedent to guide Johnson, should he care to look. Past action superstars have sought out the best in the business to shepherd their films, or returned to artistically inspired early collaborations later on in an effort to stay at the top of their game. Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron are maybe the most obvious example of a repeat-collaborator moviemaking tactic that runs from John Wayne and John Ford on through to modern pairings like Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass or Denzel Washington and Tony Scott. But seeking out greats should be a no-brainer: Tom Cruise recruiting Brian De Palma and John Woo for Mission: Impossible installments; Robert Downey Jr. bringing in Shane Black for Iron Man 3; the list goes on and on.
Several upcoming projects suggest Johnson may finally be moving in the right direction. For Hobbs & Shaw, his upcoming Fast & Furious spin-off with Jason Statham, Johnson landed David Leitch, whose John Wick and Atomic Blonde (not to mention Deadpool 2’s surprisingly good fight scenes) contain some of the decade’s high-water marks for mainstream action. And despite the family-friendly nature of his upcoming Disney venture Jungle Cruise, Johnson tapped Jaume Collet-Serra, one of the more dependable deliverers of lowbrow genre thrills in Hollywood (usually with his go-to star, Liam Neeson). But for every promising announcement (a film with Robert Zemeckis), there’s a lackluster rejoinder (San Andreas 2, again with Peyton helming) which suggests he’s loyal to a fault.
Like most everyone on the planet, I consider myself a fan of Johnson. He’s very good at being likable and charming while still coming across like someone who could rip you in half with his toes. Which is why I want to see him work with people who will do justice to his movie-star quality, not package him up for another generically uninspired round of CGI-aided mayhem. He’s one of the biggest stars on the planet; shouldn’t he at least be trying his best to make movies with the greatest directors? His oft-delightful Instagram feed routinely exhorts others to follow in his footsteps by giving 100 percent effort in everything they do, be it working out or creating a personal brand of tequila (stars: they’re just like us!)—but in his choice of directors, he seems to be settling for 51 percent.