Pro Wrestling Champ Gets Ready for His Close-Up

Mr. DeMille, professional wrestler-turned-actor John Cena is ready for his first close-up.

Cena is making his film debut in "The Marine," which opens nationwide on Friday.

It remains to be seen whether the film will have the same kind of memorable lines that made 1950's "Sunset Boulevard" a cinema classic.

But the World Wrestling Entertainment champion admits that his stomach is tied up in knots.

"It's exciting, but I won't sugarcoat it. I'm nervous about it," Cena told "My own acting aspirations aside, there is a lot riding on this film. It's a chance for WWE as a brand to redirect, reinvent itself. If it is a success, I'm ready for it. At the same point in time, if it is not, I'm ready to adjust accordingly."

Movie Franchise Hopes

World Wrestling Entertainment -- formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation -- hopes Cena will be one of the marquee stars of WWE Films, its Los Angeles-based film and television company formed in 2002.

"The Marine" is the second movie produced by WWE Films to come to the big screen.

Its first, "See No Evil," starring WWE wrestler Kane -- a 7-foot, 326-pound version of Uncle Fester -- opened last May and earned slightly more than $15 million domestically.

In "The Marine," Cena plays John Triton, a soldier who is discharged involuntarily and becomes embroiled in a personal battle against a band of thugs led by Robert Patrick (of "X-Files," "Terminator 2" and "Walk the Line" fame) when they kidnap his wife during a random encounter at a gas station.

The action flick is full of testosterone, with fight scenes, explosions, and car-chase scenes galore.

No Oscar buzz is expected to greet "The Marine," but Cena said fans would be surprised to see that the film offered more than an adrenaline rush.

"I really encourage fans to see the movie," he said. "Each character has their own story, and you really get to know each and every one of these characters. There's also a lot of humor in there."

Cinematic Naturals

Cena is only the latest professional wrestler to invade the big screen.

Tinseltown has long recognized their star potential.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson -- who first rose to fame as a third-generation WWE wrestler -- drew some critical acclaim in his latest movie, "Gridiron Gang," which opened at No. 1 last month.

According to domestic box-office estimates, it had earned $36.6 million as of last weekend.

He has been the only wrestler to parlay his in-ring success into a full-time Hollywood career.

Since turning some heads for his small role in 2002's "The Mummy Returns," Johnson has nabbed starring roles in such movies as "The Scorpion King," "The Rundown," and the remake of "Walking Tall," among others.

The 2005 remake of "The Longest Yard" was full of pro wrestlers.

"Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Bill Goldberg, Dalip Singh (who wrestled in WWE as "The Great Khali") and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling's Kevin Nash starred opposite Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Burt Reynolds.

Some say wrestlers, who blend athleticism with charisma and theatrics, are cinematic naturals.

Wrestling -- or what some have referred to as "sports entertainment" in recent years -- calls on its performers to adopt an in-ring persona when they entertain the audience.

"It is a form of theater. Most of the wrestlers' characters -- in-ring personas -- are exaggerated, blown-up versions of themselves," said Gerald W. Morton, a language and literature professor at Alabama's Auburn University and author of "Wrestling to Rasslin': Ancient Sport to American Spectacle."

"This is the best stage for suspending our belief that we can experience in a drama," Morton said.

Wrestlers and Hollywood: A Longtime Tag Team

The Mexican film industry recognized the star appeal of wrestlers back in the 1950s.

Late legendary masked wrestler El Santo starred in 59 Mexican films during an in-ring career that lasted 48 years.

The late Andre the Giant made several guest appearances in the 1970s as the bionic Bigfoot opposite Lee Majors in television's "The Six Million Dollar Man" and had a role in the 1987 movie "The Princess Bride."

"Rowdy" Roddy Piper surprised critics with a commanding, not-so-campy performance in his starring role in the 1988 cult favorite sci-fi flick "They Live."

Former National Wrestling Alliance Champion Terry Funk showed Sylvester Stallone and Patrick Swayze his brawling skills in "Over the Top" and "Road House," respectively.

And former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura -- who has had several small roles on the big and small screen -- most memorably fought alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Predator."

Most Popular Wrestler, Least Popular Leading Man

Still, wrestling charisma and fame have not always translated into box-office success.

Though Hulk Hogan is arguably the world's most famous wrestler, he could not pin Hollywood to the mat.

Movies in the early 1990s such as "Suburban Commando" and "Mr. Nanny" were critically scorned and commercial flops.

He has enjoyed a moderate resurgence in recent years as a retro-celebrity star in the VH1 reality series on his family, "Hogan Knows Best."

Films are the WWE's latest outside-the-ring venture, and it fumbled in its earlier attempts at nonwrestling fare, such as bodybuilding with the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF) and football with the XFL.

"The Marine" will face tough opposition Friday, with "The Grudge 2" also opening and Martin Scorsese's critically-acclaimed "The Departed" likely to continue to draw moviegoers.

"It ['The Marine'] sort of looks like a cheap remake of 'Rambo' and other movies made in the late '80s," said Adam "The Phantom" Nudelman, co-author of "Mysteries of Wrestling."

"It looks like one of those straight-to-video movies, like anything starring [former NFL star] Brian Bosworth," Nudelman said.

But Cena says he is ready for the critics and wants to prove that wrestlers can perform roles other than the ones they play in the ring.

"One of the things I've learned in the sports entertainment business is that there are plenty of critics, and critics are there to criticize," he said.

"Sometimes they say complimentary things, but most of what they say is critical. For me, it'll be about the bottom line, whether we made a profit -- if we packed people in the seats and sent people home happy."

So, it looks like Cena is ready to put a headlock on Hollywood, even if it means getting body-slammed.