It wasn't quite Jesus on the mount, but for the people of Samoa, it was a very big day all the same. Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, who is half-Samoan by birth, had accepted an invitation to come to the Pacific-island nation last summer and be made a seiuli, or chief, by His Highness Malietoa Tanamafili II. Johnson figured he'd draw a modest crowd, especially since only 40,000 people live on the island. As it turned out, 50,000 showed up.

"Island love," says Johnson, sitting in the back of a chauffeur-driven SUV, cruising around Manhattan. He smiles at the memory. "There's nothing like it."

Fifty thousand Samoans can't be wrong: There is something about the Rock that makes people want to project their dreams onto his billboard-size pecs. Once the "People's Champion" in the wrestling ring, the 32-year-old actor is now the People's Action Hero. Or at least he should be. Sly and Arnold and Jean-Claude have creaked offstage, and Vin Diesel can't seem to find the box-office cojones to seize the crown outright. The title is the Rock's for the taking.

So how to explain Johnson's role in Be Cool, the upcoming sequel to the 1995 Elmore Leonard adaptation Get Shorty? In the film, he plays a gay bodyguard who recites monologues from the modern pom-pom classic Bring It On and spanks himself in front of a full-length mirror while wearing a satin bodysuit and hitting a high note Mariah Carey would envy. America—ever unnerved by the perpetual threat of an Al Qaeda encore and depressed over the shambles in Iraq—is primed to embrace a new Glock-toting one-liner machine. And Johnson picks this moment to turn girlie-man? Is the Rock trying to tell us something?

"The gayest thing about me?" he ponders. "Probably all the gay porn I did. Everyone was nicknamed Stretch after me. Oh, that's terrible."

As it happens, Johnson's turn opposite John Travolta's reprise as the mob-grown Hollywood player Chili Palmer is greater than the sum of its camp flourishes. It's not exactly Kiss of the Spider Woman, but it is more thoughtfully motivated than the Wigstock capering on his two highly rated Saturday Night Live appearances (he donned a dress both times). The Rock is trying to act. In these red-state days of torpedoed gay-marriage amendments, such a role could prove to be a misstep. Or perhaps, as a football player turned eyebrow-arching ring villain turned popular hero-of-color, the Rock can smell exactly what he's cooking.

Johnson once went to the stadium, but now the stadium comes to him. On a brief hiatus from filming the marines-in-space epic Doom (based on the best-selling video game) in Prague, he is in New York, looking for CDs. "Can't remember the last time I browsed," he says wryly. He wants to make a "quick stop" but picks Tower Records, where an uninterrupted shopping experience seems like a pipe dream. Wearing a simple uniform of jeans, a black T-shirt, and a silver chain, he points out that a baseball cap doesn't really help to disguise you when you're six foot four and there are action figures in your likeness.