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The Rock’s Greatest Cinematic Feuds

The Rock is winning beefs with Andy Garcia (fictional) and Vin Diesel (real) by drawing on a career’s worth of pro wrestling lessons

Ringer illustration/Getty Images
Ringer illustration/Getty Images

Season 1 of Ballers ends with Spencer Strasmore (the Rock), a recently retired NFL linebacker, winning an important feud: against his own post-retirement malaise. Spencer’s life after football starts off with much to overcome: identity issues; creeping nostalgia; even residual brain trauma. And that’s just the first few episodes. But while it isn’t easy … just kidding, it ends up being pretty fucking easy: Spencer quickly pivots* (*remembers he’s THE ROCK), comes to terms with his new life (both as it is and as it can be), and in the end — thanks, Immaculately Timed Rob Corddry Meltdown — claims a big title: a promotion to head of the sports division at Anderson Financial Management.

Ballers makes Spencer work for it … but never actually struggle. So it’s no great shock when its first season — peace to Entourage Season 1, peace to Entourage seasons 2 through 8, peace to the Entourage movie — signs off with Spencer on top, toasting to [trust me: it doesn’t matter what to] and holding the show’s proverbial championship belt around his waist. The good guy wins — and it’s not just fun TV. It’s also Wrestling Economics 101: Send the audience home happy.

But Spencer soon learns what the Rock — and any good wrestling fan — already knows: That winning a feud isn’t only an ending; it’s a beginning. That there will always be the next opponent, the next contender, lurking around the corner. And that in cinema, as in wrestling, one feud simply begets another.

These are the Rock’s five greatest feuds — film and TV edition.

Spencer Strasmore (the Rock) vs. Andre Allen (Andy Garcia) — ‘Ballers’

Watch enough wrestling and you’ll see: There’s a difference between being The Champ … and being The Man. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. And, as Season 2 of Ballers has demonstrated, in Miami’s money management game, Andre Allen (Andy Garcia) is The Man.

HBO
HBO

Ballers’ second season establishes Andre as a cut above every other foe Spencer has faced: He’s richer, he’s cooler, he’s meaner, he’s Andy Garcia-er. He looks like The Most Interesting Man In The World’s hotter younger brother. And — for a show whose first season often fell victim to the monotonous idea of “everything will work out in the end” — it’s a refreshing wake-up call: Every trick that worked so well for Spencer against smaller fish during his Season 1 ascent — his youth, his lifestyle, his common ground as an ex-athlete — comes up empty against Andre. Andre is a new challenge altogether. And most of Ballers’ Season 2 episodes have ended in deference to that challenge: with Spencer certain he’s reached Andre’s level … only, at the last moment, to get swatted back down.

Now replace “swatted” with “stunnered” and you’ll know the Rock has already been down this road. Spencer’s feud with Andre is essentially the Rock’s original, star-making feud in the then-WWF with Stone Cold Steve Austin, writ HBO: the kingslayer, with his small army, coming after the king.

That feud was classic WWE storytelling: The Rock became The Champ at Survivor Series ’98. He was young, brash, handsome, and talented — and firmly established as the company’s next big thing. But he wasn’t The Man. For that, he still had to go through Stone Cold. To be the man, he had to beat the man. And just when he thought he had …

… Stunner.

The Rock was famous for how well he sold the Stone Cold Stunner — and in Ballers he’s selling Andy Garcia’s finishing moves with no less flair: falling for Andre’s bait and chasing a small-time client (Spice Adams) while Andre steals his biggest name (Ndamukong Suh); sheepishly grinning as Andre warns, after Spencer’s ineffective blackmail attempt, “No one gives a fuck if I’m fucking my nanny.” And so on. Every time that Spencer thinks he’s gotten over on Andre, the result is the same: kick to the gut; arm under the throat; and, well — you know the rest.

Will Andre get his comeuppance? Yeah, of course. That’s how it works. Andre will take a (figurative, though let’s rule nothing out) Rock Bottom from Spencer — I’m guessing around Ballers’ season finale — and the crowd will go wild. But for now, and until he does: Andre has this feud’s upper hand. And that’s the bottom line, because Andy Garcia’s majestic beard said so.

WINNER: Andre Allen (Andy Garcia), for now

The Scorpion King (the Rock) vs. Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) — ‘The Mummy Returns’

Down goes Fraser.

This is barely a feud — but it belongs on our list because it represents an essential (if overlooked) feud-family subgenre: The squash. Pro Wrestling Wiki defines a squash as “an extremely one-sided match; one performer dominates the other and quickly defeats him with virtually no resistance.” The squash plays an important role within the wrestling ecosystem: The winner is there to win; and the loser is there, not only to lose, but to make the winner look like A Winner. Such a loser has a name: a “jobber” — the etymology of which is as literal as it sounds. He’s there to do a job: get destroyed.

Brendan Fraser is the early-period jobber of the Rock’s movie career, and The Mummy Returns is the Rock’s most significant squash to date. Fraser enters the movie as its nominal star — but the Rock (for better and, yeah, OK, worse) is the only part of it that anyone cares about. Before long, the matchup unravels into a total demolition: one that leaves the winner looking like someone we’ll be seeing again soon, and the loser looking like … Brendan Fraser.

WINNER: The Scorpion King (the Rock)

Beck (the Rock) vs. Travis (Seann William Scott) — ‘The Rundown’

The Rundown is easily — shots at Fraser, shots at (holy shit, CGI, seriously, if you need help just ask) CGI — the Rock’s first good movie. It’s also the first time that a movie feud pitted him against a non-jobber: where his adversary was another actor of his generation with real star potential.

Hollywood will do this sometimes: pair two actors on the verge of superstardom together — then see who comes out on top. And so on one level, The Rundown tells the story of Beck, a bounty hunter, trying to track down Travis, his boss’s son. But on another level, there is something much more meta at work in the film: the story of the Rock, pro wrestling refugee-curio, battling Seann William Scott, Movie About A Kid Sticking His Dick In A Pastry refugee, for a seat at the taken-seriously table. It’s a pretty great movie; it’s cutthroat shit.

The wrestling analogue to The Rundown is probably the Rock’s early-career rivalry with fellow blue-chipper Triple H: when the two went toe to toe, both in the ring and behind the scenes, to see who could climb the ladder and cement themselves as the then-WWF’s no. 2 commodity behind Stone Cold. The feud reached a crescendo at SummerSlam ’98, when the Rock and Triple H faced off for the (secondary) intercontinental title, in — what else — a ladder match. The Rock lost the match … but won the war. Dropping the title, it turned out, was simply a prelude: He’d win the world title later that fall. One step back, two steps forward.

And whether he’s feuding with Triple H or with The Artist Formerly Known As Stifler, the Rock has always seen the long game. Seann William Scott gets most of the funny lines in The Rundown, and almost all of the dynamic moments. The Rock, on the other hand, is forced to play it straight. Beck is stoic and competent, and he isn’t given much to do beyond, well, “stoic competence.”

Smartly, the Rock doesn’t force the issue. Seann William Scott would go on to star in a handful of (variably successful) comedies; he’d be crawling back for American Pie money in less than a decade. The Rock would establish his comedy bona fides in due time. But by sticking to his guns in The Rundown, he established himself as something even more bankable: an action star.

WINNER: Beck (the Rock)

Mitch Buchanan (the Rock) vs. Matt Brody (Zac Efron) — ‘Baywatch’ Set Photos

Feuds are a circle of life … and 2016’s Baywatch set photos have presented the Rock an opportunity to come full feud-circle.

Zac Efron plays Matt Brody in Baywatch Set Photos, and his mission is clear: establish himself as an A-list set-photo action star — and as the set-photo alpha of the Baywatch project. But you know what they say: To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.

And I’ll be blunt: He’s done it. Efron in Baywatch Set Photos has been a tour de force — taking set photos to a place that many never dreamed they could go: a place where pull-up contests happen, out of nowhere, just because; a place where, if you see a tractor tire lying on the ground, then listen — you do the right thing, you pick it up; a place where community elders tell ancient stories about “shirts” — torso-cloths that people used to wear — but no one believes them. Meanwhile, the Rock has … made some headway into David Hasselhoff Instagram?

It’s a stunning victory for Efron — and proof that not all feuds are won in the ring. Whatever happens in Baywatch The Movie, now — it doesn’t matter. This feud was fought in the set photos, and it’s over. The Rock’s Baywatch battle has been lost. Zac Efron has already won.

Of course, the Rock has taken such an L before — and famously so. It was August 9, 1999. A Monday night like any other. The Rock stood in the ring, and started to speak. And then … this happened:

Chris Jericho beat the Rock in under 10 minutes — not with his fists, but with a mic in his hand.

It’s the feud circle of life: The kingslayer becomes the king … and then he’s slain. Sometimes before he even knows there’s a fight.

WINNER: Matt Brody (Zac Efron)

Hobbs (the Rock) vs. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) — ‘Fast Five,’ ‘Fast & Furious 6,’ ‘Furious 7,’ ‘Fast 8’

Hobbs vs. Dom — miss you — is the most compelling ongoing relationship in the Fast/Furious franchise: carpetbagger vs. franchise-starter; cop vs. robber; tall vs. fake tall; and, as alliances have shifted, distrust vs. trust. It’s already a classic feud — and featured several classic feud elements: There’s been an outsider invasion angle. There’s been a five-star match. There’s been a “we gained each other’s respect on the field of battle, and now it’s time to bring it in for a hug.” There’s even been a shocking swerve. Hobbs vs. Dom has had it all.

But it hasn’t had it all.

The Rock knows this — and the Rock knows wrestling. And surely he’s realized that, in order to take the “Hobbs vs. Dom” feud to its true next level, there is only one thing left to do: a worked shoot.

The worked shoot is a sort of holy grail of wrestling storytelling — paradoxically taking you further out of the story in order to take you deeper into it. It’s the part of the show that exists at the blurriest (and most intentionally blurred) edge of, Is this fake or not? — where the difference between “show” and [scare-quotes off] [Caps Lock on] REAL collapses. Of the countless narrative tools that wrestlers have in their toolbox, the worked shoot is the hammer.

And with Fast 8’s production in the books — and promotion underway — the Rock knew exactly what to do. He dropped the hammer. Roll the Instagram:

This is a classic worked shoot. Whether or not the Rock and Vin Diesel have actual, legitimate, real-life beef with each other doesn’t even matter. All that matters is that the Rock has planted the seed that they do. The rest, like magic, just takes care of itself.

In many ways, Hobbs vs. Dom recalls the most recent feud the Rock has been a part of in WWE: The Rock vs. John Cena. The Rock–Cena feud started “in real life,” when John Cena’s criticisms of the Rock’s WWE hiatus — “[wrestling] doesn’t do much for his acting career … so I get why he doesn’t come back” — were published in The Sun. And while the degree to which those comments were “part of the show” remains up for debate to this day, what isn’t up for debate is their result: The Rock and Cena engaged in one of the most lucrative feuds in wrestling history, culminating in “once in a lifetime” (and then twice in a lifetime) matches at WrestleManias 28 and 29. Rock-Cena would have been a success regardless — but it was the feud’s worked-shoot elements that pushed it over the top. With every “punch” that may have landed a little too stiffly, with every insult that may have landed a little too close to home, you wondered: Do these guys actually hate each other? How much of this is real?

And when Fast 8 opens next April, and Hobbs and Dom show up on-screen together, I think we’ll be asking those same questions: Do these guys actually hate each other? How much of this is real? Suddenly every scene shared between them will feel imbued with twice the stakes: Hobbs vs. Dom … and Rock vs. Diesel. Any chapter of the Hobbs/Dom feud was already going to do huge business. But now that it’s added a second layer, it has a chance to be special. We’re not just going to be invested in seeing who wins in the movie. We’re also going to be invested in seeing who Wins The Movie. Which is to say: It will be a worked shoot, executed to perfection.

And as in every good worked shoot, the levels of “work” and “shoot” are constantly changing. Rumors are flying now that the Rock and Diesel might wrestle “for real” — in a sanctioned WWE match — at WrestleMania 33. For the two actors, it would be pure promo: WrestleMania will take place (how convenient …) a mere 12 days before the release of Fast 8. For WWE? It would be pure star power — and the kind it might need. After all: WWE’s biggest star, John Cena, will take a hiatus this year.

He’s leaving to film a TV show.

WINNER: TBD