Dwayne Johnson’s Best And Weirdest Performance Is Streaming For Free

Dwayne Johnson's Southland Tales is now streaming for free on Pluto TV.

By Nathan Kamal | Published

Dwayne Johnson is currently the highest-paid entertainer in the world, but it was not easy for him to get there. Even after his aborted football career, astronomically successful rise as an Attitude-Era professional wrestler, and the occasional guest spot in Star Trek, his film career took time to take off. Before it exploded with schlock like The Tooth Fairy and better movies like Fast Five, Dwayne Johnson gave the best and weirdest performance of his career to date in the 2006 apocalyptic science fiction film Southland Tales, which is currently streaming for free on Pluto TV.

dwayne johnson

Before starring in Southland Tales, Dwayne Johnson had made an auspicious film debut as The Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, but it had failed to jumpstart him as a leading actor. For several years, he toiled in mediocre action movies like Doom and The Rundown (which teamed him up for the first time with his Southland Tales co-star Seann William Scott). All these movies required of him was that he was huge, muscular, and basically be The Rock. 

Southland Tales asks something more of him. The movie was director Richard Kelly’s follow-up to the cult classic Donnie Darko, but where that movie wanted to combine 1980s suburbia, time travel, and a kickass soundtrack, Southland Tales wanted nothing less than to examine show business, the War on Terror, perpetual energy, Philip K. Dick, and the Biblical Apocalypse itself. Into that mess, Dwayne Johnson bravely went.

Dwayne Johnson stars in Southland Tales as Boxer Santaros, an action star with some suspicious similarities to Johnson himself. In the then-future of 2008, a nuclear attack had destroyed two towns in Texas, triggering an endless yet background World War III driven as much by companies like Hustler and Panasonic as the US Government. An authoritarian citizen surveillance program has created a violent terrorist counter movement, and if this does not sound weird enough, the whole thing is narrated by a Bible-obsessed Iraq War veteran played by Justin Timberlake.

In the midst of this, Dwayne Johnson has gone missing and appears to be somewhat amnesiac, manipulated by both his porn star-turned-media entrepreneur girlfriend Sarah Michelle Gellar and an incompetent anti-government group filled with SNL veterans. Dwayne Johnson has a new screenplay in which he is to play a cop named Jericho Cane, and goes on a ride-along with an LAPD officer played by Seann William Scott as research. Or is it the LAPD officer’s terrorist twin brother?

dwayne johnson

A large part of the joke of Southland Tales is that the main characters Dwayne Johnson and Seann William Scott are very confused about who they are and what they are doing, while the supporting characters are certain of their plans but not sure what the protagonists are doing. The movie is as much comedic as it is a science fiction film, though not always successful at either. The dialogue is consistently over the top and arch, but is that because they are somehow in the terrible screenplay Dwayne Johnson is reading or because Richard Kelly was too excited about his premise?

Like much of the movie, it is impossible to say. But what is certain is that Dwayne Johnson is delivering on a role that sometimes requires him to play the part of the confident action hero, sometimes as a quivering, nervous ball of confusion, and sometimes as a self-absorbed Hollywood star. It is the kind of layered performance he has never really achieved since, particularly in his current rut of extremely bland, extremely profitable movies like Jungle Cruise and Red Notice.

dwayne johnson

Richard Kelly began writing Southland Tales as a show business satire before the 9/11 attacks and completed it after, and it very much shows. As a movie, it has so much to say that it can say none of it coherently, which is self-defeating even if partially intentional. The first, nearly three-hour cut of the film was in competition for the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and was roundly booed and dismissed. 

Several different versions of the film are now floating around, as is a prequel series of comic books, none of which make this Dwayne Johnson movie all that much more explicable. Richard Kelly has announced further developments of Southland Tales as a franchise, which most likely will complicate the narrative more than they explain it. But if they get Dwayne Johnson back to the place he was at to perform in Southland Tales, it might be worth it.