I'm the type who likes to look back on my life," Johnson says. "I'll never forget being a 14-year-old freshman in high school in Hawaii. I'd cut classes in the morning, sneak away and see Rocky III (1982) over and over again. My buddies and I would leave and not go back to school for a good month and a half, which wasn't the smartest thing in the world."
And there's that tear, glistening in his eye at the memory of a movie not on most people's lists of immortal classics.
"I did learn about life in the movie theatre," Johnson continues. "I was enamored with Rocky because he was a guy like me, who started with nothing, but he was a fighter, which meant that you could have it all. He just kept taking life's punches, but he wouldn't stay down. That was my life story. "Cut to today," he says. "I never thought that the kid who cut school would be in the movie industry. It really is a dream come true." At 40 Johnson isn't merely "in the industry." He's one of the busiest stars in the business, with three action movies ready for release, including Snitch, which will open in the US on February 22, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Pain & Gain, in which he co-stars with Mark Wahlberg.
Snitch casts him as a father who goes undercover for the Drug Enforcement Administration to help free his son, who has landed in jail after being set up in a drug deal that went wrong.
"It's a story about family," Johnson says. "As a father, I identified with that feeling that you would do anything to help your child. I can't imagine having a child who was in trouble. I know I would go to the end of the earth to help my daughter. "The idea of someone trying to hurt your child. I can't even go there," says the actor, who has an 11-year-old daughter named Simone.
Part of the film's appeal, he adds, was its combination of action and drama, with the dramatic scenes providing motivation for the fights. "I want to show audiences that I can grow in films," says Johnson, who launched his movie career with The Mummy Returns (2001). "It's great to do action scenes, but I also love the dramatic moments. I want to tell complete stories."
There's less dramatic meat on the bones of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which co-stars Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis. A sequel to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), it's set to open nationwide on March 29. Fans will find it a step up from the original, Johnson promises.
"The first movie was very successful, but we all knew that there was room for improvement," he admits. "We wanted to grab that opportunity by the throat." He calls the new film, for which he went through a rigorous training program, "grittier in many ways." "It pays homage to our military in a real way," Johnson says. "I trained my butt off for this film, . It's a big title and fans are passionate about it, so I had to take it up a notch with the training. I put that pressure on myself because I grew up playing with G.I. Joes.
"This was another opportunity to represent the military, so it mattered even more to me." The notable newcomer to this installment is Willis, an action icon also in theatres with A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth installment in his most memorable series.
"Bruce was nice to me 12 years ago, when I was breaking in," Johnson says. "Everyone was nice to me, even the (jerks) in our business. (Cindy Pearlman/The New York Times News Service)