Dwayne Johnson is rock-solid as a franchise star

| Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

With “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” showing serious box-office firepower, one might imagine that bigger-than-life star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is basking in the Hollywood love.

After all, he led the once seemingly troubled “Retaliation” — which was moved from a summer 2012 release — to a $41 million opening last weekend, the second-highest Easter weekend debut ever.

But the star has his eyes set on longer-term goals.

“I'm feeling the mojo,” says Johnson, 40. “But the key is creating the platform that allows this Hollywood mojo to have longevity. Therefore, it's called the Hollywood ‘mo-levity.' I just made up that word. My world, my rules.”

Right now, it feels as if everyone's living in Johnson's universe: The WWE star takes to the ring in the pay-per-view event “WrestleMania 29” on April 7; he still has February's “Snitch” in theaters and at least two more films due this year; and he's producing and hosting a reality competition series that launches this summer on TNT.

Most importantly, the “G.I. Joe” coup has cemented his reputation as the guy who can boost or sustain movie franchises. Johnson's debut in 2011's “Fast Five” helped spark the “Fast & Furious” franchise to its highest-ever opening weekend, $86 million. As a result, he returns in “Fast & Furious 6” (May 24). He found similar success with the “Journey to the Center of the Earth” franchise, which premiered in 2008 and opened to $21 million. When Johnson took over the lead role for last year's “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” it opened to $27 million. A third film is in development at New Line.

“Pretty soon we're going to see The Rock in every movie,” jokes Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. “People keep asking, ‘Where's the next new action star coming from?' Well, he's already here. You plug in Dwayne Johnson, and he seems to automatically bring in a big audience.”

Paramount Pictures was counting on that when it recruited Johnson after 2009's sci-fi-heavy “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” The franchise based on the Hasbro toy was reset to a more “real-world” version for “Retaliation,” with Johnson at the center, Paramount Pictures president Adam Goodman says.

“Dwayne ticked the box on every level. He's bigger than life,” Goodman says. “It was sort of a no-brainer for us. He's got the biggest shoulders. I never thought he would do anything but carry this movie.”

A key reason: The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Johnson looks like a screen hero.

“Dwayne is the guy that every kid wants to be like,” says “Retaliation” director Jon M. Chu. “We were lucky to get him.”

He's also likable enough to keep the non-action fans coming to the theater.

“He doesn't push away somebody who says, ‘Eh, testosterone, I'm not really into it,' “ says “G.I. Joe” producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. “(He) doesn't come across as overly aggressive.”

Johnson is seeking to bring the magic to more dramatic roles with movies such as “Snitch,” in which he portrays a father forced to infiltrate a drug cartel. On April 26, he'll take a big step out as a muscle-bound kidnapper alongside Mark Wahlberg in “Pain & Gain.” Director Michael Bay's grimly humorous project is based on a true story of extortion and murder.

“I'm exploring much darker areas here,” Johnson says. “It's a nice departure. I want to surprise a lot of people.” (He will, however, return to an action role in Brett Ratner's film version of “Hercules,” due next summer.)

“This has been a wonderful whirlwind,” he says. “We've labeled this as a ‘Rock buffet.' Whatever your taste, stop on by, I am pretty sure I can provide (something) for you.”

Bryan Alexander is a writer for USA Today.

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