Dwayne Johnson is the force behind epic ‘Hobbs and Shaw’ verbal smackdowns

Johnson equates success with making Jason Statham blow a scene by cracking up while the cameras are rolling.

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Dwayne Johnson (left) and Jason Statham are pictured in a scene from “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.”

Dwayne Johnson (left) and Jason Statham are pictured in a scene from “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.”

Frank Masi/Universal Pictures via AP

LOS ANGELES — Dwayne Johnson figures it was about 28 seconds into Day One of shooting the “Fast & Furious” spinoff ”Hobbs & Shaw” when he dropped a little surprise on co-star Jason Statham.

The two action stars had already reviewed and agreed on the verbal bombs their respective adversaries — Johnson’s Luke Hobbs and Statham’s Deckard Shaw — would hurl at each other during a heated confrontation. But Johnson had inspiration for increasing the boom.

“So I go, ‘Jason I have an idea,’” Johnson recalls, re-creating the moment in vivid detail with a wide grin. “‘What if I say instead something like: ‘I know why after all this time I don’t like you. It’s your voice. It’s your prepubescent, nasally, Harry Potter voice.’”

His British co-star was intrigued but hesitant. So Johnson continued: “And here’s what you say to me: ‘It’s your face, it’s your big, dumb, stupid-looking face. As if God projectile-vomited.’”

“So,” Johnson throwing his hands up with a satisfied air. “I gave him ammo, too.”

The scene is now an entirely puerile, highly effective example of the verbal fires that burn along with the real explosions and full-on car action in “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (in theaters Thursday). It’s a moment that highlights The Rock’s ability to deliver a 360-degree screen smackdown.

No one brings the verbal pain like the 6-foot-5 former WWE star.

“Dwayne wrote the insults for both sides that morning. This is his superpower,” “Hobbs & Shaw” director David Leitch says. ”It’s just a skill that he has and he loves to unleash on his cast members.”

Johnson, 47, credits his days as a defensive tackle on the brash Miami Hurricanes college football team that ”thrived” on trash talk, and his WWE wrestling pedigree.

“There’s a direct connection with honing the skills of the verbal smackdown,” says Johnson, who has insulted wrestling opponents, entire stadiums, even entire countries from the ring. “There’s nothing like being in front of a live crowd with a live microphone.”

Johnson now sticks with verbally tangling with co-stars who can keep up with the banter, including 5-foot-4 Kevin Hart, his co-star in 2016’s ”Central Intelligence” and 2017’s holiday smash ”Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.”

“Kevin can bite back in a big way,” says Johnson.

The chemistry with the more physically capable Statham is so strong that filmmakers propelled the “Fast & Furious” spinoff ahead of the next installment in the main franchise. (“Fast & Furious 9” is in production for a 2020 release.) This natural leap occurred after Johnson and Statham flat out stole 2017’s ”The Fate of the Furious” every time they bickered and battled onscreen.

Even though Statham prefers sticking to the lines from the script, Johnson says he convinced the star to just “trust me” during an early “Fate of the Furious” scene.

“We did the scene as it was written, fine. Then I went, ‘I’m going to say something and you respond however you want to respond,’” says Johnson, who then hurled a nasty, off-the-cuff, unpublishable cutdown that involved Hobbs punching Shaw so hard he’d need to use his toothbrush in an impossible anatomical situation to brush his teeth.

“I’ve had that in my arsenal for some time,” Johnson says proudly. “Jason broke up laughing, a genuine laugh, and we used that in the movie.”

The two were off and running, even as part of an ensemble cast amid a more somber ”Fast & Furious” vibe led by legacy actor Vin Diesel. With the spinoff, Johnson and Statham “have the handcuffs off” playing rivals who hate each other but are forced to work together to stop a genetically enhanced supervillain (Idris Elba). The formula has the comedy baked in.

“With the great action and characters, my personal goal with ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ is to make the audience laugh hard,” says Johnson.

Johnson equates success with making Statham blow a scene by cracking up while the cameras are rolling. Johnson hit it as the two went head-to-head in a verbal sparring match in a crammed coach section of an airplane.

“Jason, he’s not a big laugher,” says Johnson. “I know I’m hitting a button when he actually laughs. And he was crying in those airplane scenes when I told him I would slap the idiot off his face.”

A sequel, even a franchise — featuring new, to-be-revealed surprise “Hobbs & Shaw” characters — is already a serious discussion, if not a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, the new ”Jumanji: The Next Level” with Hart is out Dec. 13. Johnson will then face off with fellow motormouth champ Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot in “Red Notice” (expected in 2020).

He’ll be leaning into the movie insults for seasons to come. Not to worry, they are a renewable energy source.

“I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but these are ingrained in my DNA,” says Johnson. “I’ve got a million more brutal smackdowns. They are all just waiting to come out.”

Read more at usatoday.com.

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