The 8 Best Movie Performances by Athletes: The Rock, Michael Jordan, and More

Every once in a while, an athlete shows up on the big screen and actually pulls off a great performance. Here are our favorites.

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Moving from physical exertion to emotional resonance can be difficult and rarely is pulled off well by athletes when they decide they want a movie career.

From wrestlers to basketball players, baseball’s elites to football’s all-stars, several professional sports men and women have tried—and failed—to break into the movie industry in a meaningful way.

However, there are a few who have done it—a gallant few who have thrown themselves into the acting ring and come up gold. Here are the best movie performances given by athletes!

8. Michael Jordan (Space Jam)

Space Jam became more than a movie after its release in 1997; it has developed a devoted following that many better movies could only dream of. Though this isn’t to say that Space Jam is a bad film. It’s unquestionably funny and features some fun performances.

When the producers were looking around for a sportsman to take up the leading role alongside Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, there was only one name they could go to first: Michael Jordan.

Michael Jordan is one of the most iconic athletes in history, and his role in the film served to endear him to a young audience, many of whom didn’t follow basketball.

His acting isn’t bad (considering all the effects he had to work with), and the movie is considered a comedy classic decades later.

7. John Cena (The Suicide Squad)

The career trajectory of John Cena in the film industry has been steadily rising for years; so, when he starred alongside Margot Robbie and Idris Elba in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, it felt like Cena reached a new milestone on his journey. 

The movie is a vast improvement over its predecessor, and the improved cast brings some added fun to the picture, but John Cena’s Peacemaker is a stand-out.

He brings a hilarious blend of Cena-esque charm on top of Peacemaker’s brutal killer personality all wrapped up in one. In fact, Warner Brothers enjoyed his performance so much, they gave his character a spin-off series.

6. LeBron James (Trainwreck)

LeBron James’ performance in Trainwreck wasn’t supposed to steal every scene in the movie, but it did. The basketball superstar was cast as himself in the picture, who was close friends with Bill Hader’s helpless-in-love sports surgeon. 

James’ deadpan delivery and his penny-pinching as he pays a cafe bill all added up to a wonderfully entertaining supporting performance, as he continually looks out for his buddy’s well-being in a new relationship.

Though James has understandably put his basketball career first, it’s easy to see him having a decent movie career when he retires.

5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Airplane!)

A movie famously made with the intention of cramming every joke possible into one script so that whatever didn’t work would be immediately followed up with another gag, Airplane! is one of the best-loved comedy films in cinema history.

The cast was phenomenal, and all involved committed to the wackiness of the premise, including LA Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who memorably played Roger Murdock (the co-pilot of the aircraft) as well as himself.

Abdul-Jabbar’s comedic performance was fun to witness, as he tries to avoid being spotted by the little boy visiting the cockpit (since the boy knows that Murdock is really Abdul-Jabbar himself).

4. Carl Weathers (Rocky)

American football star Carl Weathers is better remembered for his acting roles now than for his sporting career.

After playing various roles in many movies and shows over the years—including himself in Arrested Development—Weathers is currently to be found starring in The Mandalorian alongside Pedro Pascal.

However, his best role remains Apollo Creed, the character he first played in Rocky and reprised in three sequels. Weathers’ performance as the Heavyweight Champion gives the first film a villain to bounce off while turning him into a beloved character in later Rocky movies.

Michael B. Jordan’s franchise Creed is based on the original character’s son becoming a boxer, which shows the legacy that Weathers’ original role has had.

3. Babe Ruth (The Pride of the Yankees)

The 1942 classic sports drama The Pride of the Yankees focused on Lou Gehrig’s career as one of the greatest baseball players of all time, as well as him dealing with his retirement following his heart-breaking medical diagnosis.

In the film, many actors play themselves but none are more prominent than the Yankee legend himself, Babe Ruth. Ruth gives a faithful performance as himself, not shying away from some of his less-desirable characteristics and never allowing himself to get taken by his legendary sporting status on-screen.

Ruth had suffered from considerable health issues before the film began shooting, and he was hospitalized following production; however, his commitment to the film is easy to see.

2. The Rock (Pain & Gain)

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a former WWE wrestler and current actor who mostly plays characters that are in some way himself. If they aren’t himself, then they’re usually generic action hero types who have witty lines and big muscles. Nothing wrong with that.

But he also made a movie called Pain & Gain alongside Mark Wahlberg. While the movie itself is a mixed bag (with several issues between the film and the actual events it’s based on), the performance of Johnson throughout the film is deeply engrossing. 

His portrayal of an ex-convict who’s now a committed Christian is gentle and restrained, showing that Johnson is capable of vastly different performances than usual.

1. Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator 2)

The former-bodybuilder-turned-actor is one of the most recognizable faces in cinema history. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action-packed movies have stood the test of time, and he still enjoys the status of pop culture icon because of it.

While Arnie isn’t the best actor on this list, he has made the best movies on average by choosing projects that suited him. And, as he has grown older, Schwarzenegger has given one or two performances of real quality, notably in the zombie-drama picture Maggie.

But Arnie’s performance as the T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day still breaks hearts with its final scene and legacy.

Schwarzenegger’s role as killing machine was molded by James Cameron into an endearing one. As the cyborg came to understand human emotion, there were no dry eyes in the house as the T-800 comforts a crying John Connor moments before saying goodbye.

30 Days of Modern Geeky Movies

Are you bored and in need of movies to watch? Here at whatNerd, we’ve seen a lot of geeky movies—sci-fi movies, fantasy movies, thriller movies, you name it!

And while a lot of them were pretty forgettable, a few of them stand out as classic geeky movies that everyone should definitely watch. Check out our 30 favorite modern geeky movies.

All of these movies are from 2000 or later, and there are NO superhero movies on our list! Download the printable PDF below and see how many you can watch in the next 30 days:

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