From Thunderlips to Blockers: John Cena and the Legacy of the Wrestler Turned Actor

John Cena has a busy weekend ahead of him. On Sunday he will face The Undertaker at Wrestlemania. I know you’re saying, “But Undertaker hasn’t answered his challenge… And I thought he retired last year… And Cena really doesn’t need Undertaker to put him over at this point in his career.” Those are all great points and wrestling can be a funny business, so sometimes it’s best to just enjoy the story as it plays out without too much critical thought. When these two legends do lock up on Sunday though it will hopefully be one of the shining moments from the twilight of John Cena’s in-ring career. Before this happens though, the other half of John Cena’s big weekend will take place when his new movie ‘Blockers’ opens nationwide.

Blockers’ is a film that has a lot going for it. It’s a funny and sweet teen sex comedy that feels about as progressive as a movie like it can in 2018. John Cena plays a father who will stop at nothing in preventing his daughter from losing her virginity on prom night. He is completely game in his role as buffoonish but well-meaning dad. He gets laughs and continues show in his burgeoning acting career that he does have solid comedic timing. The film, and Cena himself, are receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews. However, there is still al lingering question in the ether. A question that has existed since Lenny Montana spoke to Marlon Brando as Luca Brasi. Is it possible for wrestlers to make the transition to a successful actor?

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First off Dwayne Johnson, nee The Rock, has obviously shown that it’s possible for someone to break through. He has a successful television show on HBO and is one of highest paid actors in Hollywood. He can do action, comedy and action-comedies, a classic triple threat. One example does not prove a trend though, and a glance at more world champions and main eventers makes it clear that what the Brahma Bull has done is more the exception then the rule.

If we look at Hulk Hogan, we see someone who was arguably the biggest draw in professional wrestling history. If you ask him, he will tell you there is no argument. He burst onto films a full three years before the first Wrestlemania playing Thunderlips in Rocky III. After Vince McMahon got ahold of him and Hulkamania ran wild for half a decade, he decided to attempt a move away from wrestling and into acting. His first starring role? As WWF champion Rip Thomas in the film ‘No Holds Barred’. Like I said, wrestling can be a funny business. He would follow this up with Suburban Commando, Mr. Nanny and Thunder in Paradise. By that point it the writing was on the wall and Hogan returned to the squared circle. Hulk Hogan was one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, but his “let me tell you something Mean Gene” intensity couldn’t translate to film.

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Hogan was the biggest name from the 80’s to try acting, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. Andre the Giant was large on charm as Fezzik in ‘The Princess Bride’, Roddy Piper came to chew bubblegum and kick ass in ‘They Live and Jesse Ventura didn’t have time to bleed in ‘Preditor’. All three of those films are beloved pieces of pop culture and all of those performances and good and notable in different ways. However, none of those wrestlers ever turned in another performance that came even remotely close to resonating with the culture again.

If we move the Attitude Era there’s still no crossover to be found. Stone Cold Steve Austin, One of the main reasons for the wrestling boom of the 1990’s, couldn’t make the transition. Though not for lack of trying. He started out decent enough with bit parts in big Hollywood films. However it wasn’t long before he became Direct-to-Video action star and eventually stopped appearing in films all together. It’s not been all bad for Austin though, he has found his niche as a personality and host. His Podcast is incredibly successful and he’s had two reality shows on CMT. Also, the season of ‘Tough enough’ he hosted was some of the finest television that’s existed in this new millennium.

I think the Direct-to-Video of it all has been the major problem for all wrestlers trying to break into action lately. WWE launched their own studio in 2002 and began making movies featuring their superstars. Early releases were theatrical but eventually they became smaller and smaller. Finally the studio went mainly straight to video. It’s hard to convince the world you’re a real actor when you’re making a prison movie with Dean Cain that no one has seen.

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Earlier when I mention Dwayne Johnson, I said that his success in acting is not the norm, but it might be a blueprint for all wrestlers going forward. Whereas wrestlers had seemingly all been stuck in an 80’s mindset when it comes to choosing their film roles, Johnson had the brilliant idea of choosing roles that show off his overwhelming charisma. You might not like every movie Johnson has made, but you can’t help but love him. Dave Bautista has learned from this and carved out his own successful piece of the Hollywood pie. Bautista has said that he sees himself as a character actor and you can see that in his choices. Both of these men have shown an understanding of what made them successful in wrestling and an astute knowledge of how to properly transfer that to the silver screen.

This all brings up back to Cena, He may have got his start in generic WWE action films but he’s also been very smart the past few years about how he wants to handle his acting career. His choosing to do outright comedic roles over ones that you would more normally associate with someone who’s built like him (a tank) is wise. His small role in ‘Trainwreck’ was a highlight of that film for me. He’s been in family comedies like ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ and even provided the voice for Ferdinand the Bull. He still has an action future ahead of him. He was in ‘The Wall’ last year and has ‘Bumblebee’ and ‘Duke Nukem’ ahead of him. But even those roles suggest they will take advantage of Cena’s gift for getting laughs. Has the 16 time champ found his lane as the silly muscle giant who doesn’t take himself too seriously? Possibly, after all wrestling can be a funny business.