“You have two choices. Option A, you give me the ring. Option B, I make you.”
Dwayne Johnson is now a bona fide film star, accredited with saving flagging franchises – put this man in your movie, it instantly becomes better. Back in 2003, however, The Rock was still a fledgling actor. The former wrestler, one of the most popular performers in WWE and self-proclaimed “most electrifying man in sports entertainment,” had appeared in only two films – a brief, CGI-heavy cameo in The Mummy Returns, and a lead role in the spin off that proceeded it, The Scorpion King, for which he received a record-breaking salary. It’s not until Welcome to the Jungle, however, that Johnson gets a chance to let loose, unrestricted by silly clothes and a weak plot. Here, the cool charisma and perfect comic timing are evident. This is a man whose impressive presence is not limited to his considerable bulk.
As soon as Beck (Johnson) is introduced, it’s clear he’s more than just a hired heavy. Awaiting a signal, he sits carefully writing “porcini mushroom” in a small notebook, a potential ingredient in one of his future restaurant dishes. When he finally gets the nod to go and remind his mark of his sizeable debt, he’s reluctant to use force, not because he’s worried about the gaggle of linebackers surrounding the man, but because he feels guilty that he may jeopardise their team’s success due to the injuries he will inevitably inflict. It’s a neat and effective way of establishing this likeable giant, simultaneously confirming his ethics and his abilities.
Beck’s next job – and, he hopes, his last – involves going deep into the Mexican jungle to retrieve his boss’s wayward son. Hoping for a quick grab, it’s not long before things take a turn for the worse, as Beck quickly locates said son, Travis (Sean William Scott), and has a run in with the remote village’s creator, the sinister, literal slave-driver Hatcher (Christopher Walken). Soon, Beck and Travis are fleeing through the jungle, trying to avoid Hatcher’s men, the rebels, and some particularly rampant monkeys.
Welcome to the Jungle is Johnson and Scott’s first onscreen pairing (the next being the controversial Southland Tales, a film that is, in my mind, an underrated classic) and they share a comfortable dynamic. Travis is a typical role for Scott – a slightly older, slightly less crude Stifler – but his irritating, exaggerated persona sparks well off Johnson’s exasperated Beck. The addition of Rosario Dawson to the mix adds little, but it’s a minor quibble. Walken is, as always, sinister and enthralling, managing to be menacing even while wearing a straw hat. It’s a shame that he and Johnson don’t share more screen time, because they both display excellent comic timing and a natural charm.
While the film’s funniest moments are those derived from the careful timing and knowing looks captured effortlessly by its actors, it takes full advantage of Johnson’s athleticism. In a clear nod to his wrestling career – which had just (temporarily) ended before filming – he executes a perfect Rock Bottom in a pub brawl, and punches and flips with aplomb whenever possible. He is a dominant force, and his tough, no nonsense moves are an indication of the action lead he has since become. The fight scenes are dynamic and fast paced; one capoeira-inspired sequence in particular is both ridiculous and undeniably impressive. It’s all filmed with the glossy sheen and brash style of a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s fun and light-hearted as a result.
Of course, it’s all rather silly, and some of the gags are juvenile. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the plot either. Yet it’s constantly enjoyable, and is elevated above the unremarkable due to Johnson, who embraces the daftness with both (gigantic) arms. Since Welcome to the Jungle, the man formerly known as The Rock has tried more serious roles, but it’s the films combining comedy and action that have proved his most successful. In ten short years, and with two films due out in the coming months and another seven in the pipeline, Johnson has proven that, with enough talent and determination, it actually is possible to make the transition from athelete to film star.