Unfortunately, in the films since, Johnson has not yet found his groove. He stripped down from 270 pounds to a less scene-hogging 245 for the 2003 action-comedy The Rundown, which was followed directly by Walking Tall, but neither played beyond his base. Those who have worked with him and have experienced his blitzkrieg of charisma aren't worried about his future. "He makes you feel better about yourself. It's like the quality of a great quarterback," says Vince Vaughn, who plays the oily music manager protected by the Rock's mincing bodyguard in Be Cool. "He's got that quality that when you're talking to him, you're the only person on the planet," says Johnny Knoxville, his co-star in Walking Tall. "It's darn near Clintonesque."

"I have a joke I always do," Johnson announces. "Wanna hear it?" He has just ordered what could be called the brute-force special at Del Frisco's steak house in midtown Manhattan—a shrimp cocktail, the rib eye, grilled onions, a baked potato, skillet potatoes, and steamed broccoli. He is slightly more fragrant than earlier, having spritzed on a little Jil Sander, and the scent is actually the trigger for the running gag he now wants to confess.

"People ask me what I'm wearing and I say, 'It's called Come to Me.' And they say, 'Come to Me? That's a weird name. Can I smell it?' " Beat. " 'Sure—smell like come to you?' "

Bad ribald jokes are the privilege of any whoppingly muscled $15 million–per–movie star—and in any case they're offset by the fact that the Rock is genuinely, goofily funny. It's the somewhat un-A-list questions he intermixes with his jokes that give pause: What's Nicole Kidman like? Does Jennifer Garner really work out at 4:30 A.M.? The Paris Hilton sex tape—is it good? What's Be Cool like? (He hasn't seen it yet.) Johnson is not even tabloid-shy enough to deflect subjects like cosmetic surgery. He'll gladly tell you, for instance, that he once had liposuction. "Oh, yeah, I had some fat sucked out," he says, pointing to his ribs. "I was walking around with my shirt off all the time, and it's such a big thing in the wrestling business." Not only that, he'd do it again. "Botox your balls, excuse my language, if you want," he says. "As long as you're not hurting anybody."

Johnson would know a little about that: He has a temper. It's not what it was in the old days, but it flared briefly last year when he was Punk'd by Kutcher and Company. An explosion due to "faulty electronics" was set off in what the Rock thought was his trailer, and he was blamed. He had to be physically restrained from de-spleening one of the conspirators before the prank was revealed. "Back in the day I used to get into fights a lot," he admits, stabbing what's left of his steak. "But I'm a little bit more in control than I once was. I'm really not in a position anymore where people are that bad. When I was younger, it was different, but now it's so rare that people are ignorant or belligerent. They're so kind and happy to say hello. I mean," he starts to laugh, "why would I want to punch the shit out of them?"