As he’s gained legitimacy as an actor—and what greater stepping stone to legitimacy than Southland Tales?—Dwayne Johnson has phased out his well-known wrestling moniker “The Rock,” but “The Rock” isn’t so easily phased out. Johnson’s instincts are foremost as an entertainer and a crowd-pleaser, given to broad smiles, raised eyebrows, and a hard glare that says “just kidding” right under the surface. The new Disney live-action film Race To Witch Mountain, a by-the-numbers reboot of a 30-year-old science-fiction/adventure franchise, seems like an ideal vehicle for Johnson, who plays a wisecracking cabbie reluctantly chauffeuring two children from another planet. But it uses him more like John Cena than The Rock, heavily favoring his wrestler’s muscle for action and stunt sequences while shelving the goofball amiability that might have made the movie fun.
Looking comfortable as the unwilling hero, Johnson stars as an ex-con trying to keep his head down while shuttling tourists around Las Vegas and dodging local mobsters who want to bring him on as a driver and heavy. When a pair of odd-behaving young siblings, played by AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig, offer him a wad of cash to take them out of the city, Johnson plugs his nose and obliges. But their destination gets him into a world of trouble: Turns out they’re space aliens searching for their missing ship, which happens to be kept in Witch Mountain, a top-secret, heavily guarded government compound in the Nevada Desert. With nefarious agents (led by a glowering Ciarán Hinds) on their tail, Johnson decides to protect the aliens and bring a gung-ho astrophysicist (Carla Gugino) along for the ride.
The few lighthearted scenes in Race To Witch Mountain seize on the Starman-esque fish-out-of-water possibilities and seem more properly suited to the youngsters in the audience. But mostly, director Andy Fickman, who previously blanded Johnson up in The Game Plan, has fashioned the film into a one-size-fits-all, action-packed special-effects extravaganza for the whole family. The cost of hitting every demographic sweet spot is a movie that’s suitable for all ages and recommendable to none; with Johnson in enforcer mode, it’s a little like a generic R-rated science-fiction thriller pre-edited for television.