Video game adaptation Spyhunter was stuck in development for years before being cancelled – yet it still got a video game tie-in.
Considering his status as one of Hollywood's most bankable stars, and his power in the industry as both an actor and a producer, it’s hard to imagine a movie project starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson not getting made. If Johnson wants a movie made, it will get made eventually. Just look at Black Adam (although his powers clearly haven’t stretched to Black Adam 2).
The Rock is not immune to having his name attached to films that were ultimately never made, though A biopic about the Hawaiian monarch King Kamehameha. A comedy set in an Amish community, similar to the Harrison Ford movie Witness. Even the Doc Savage adaptation that Johnson has been rumoured to be working on since 2016 can now be added to that list, considering the film idea has now been pitched as a TV series.
However, there is one cancelled movie project starring The Rock that deserves further investigation. That project is Spyhunter.
Spyhunter was set to be a movie adaptation of a 1983 arcade video game of the same name. The game's plot saw the player controlling an armoured sports car (known as the G-6155 Interceptor) that, well, contained a spy. The original arcade game had the player driving down a road destroying enemy vehicles with the car's various weaponry, while trying to avoid hitting civilian cars. At the same time, other enemy vehicles would attempt to destroy or force the Interceptor off the road.
The player would build a score by continuing on the road and killing enemies. The game ended when the Interceptor was destroyed or if the player had not racked up enough points to continue. The original Spy Hunter was a hit in the arcades during the mid-1980s, leading to the game being ported to various home computers and a sequel being released a few years later. The game would even receive a successful reboot in 2001 when Spyhunter was released for more modern gaming machines.
The first rumblings of a Spyhunter movie adaptation were first reported in the summer of 2002, when Universal Pictures bought the movie rights from the game's publisher, Midway. Immediately, Dwayne Johnson (still then simply known as The Rock) was rumoured to be the star of this Spyhunter movie.
Following his memorable cameo in 2001's The Mummy Returns and the subsequent box office success of his first starring role in spin-off The Scorpion King (producing the largest April opening weekend in US box office history at the time, believe it or not), there was a lot of interest from Hollywood producers in the 30-year-old Johnson, who was still primarily known as a professional wrestler. At the same time he was set to star in his second movie, The Rundown, sites like Entertainment Weekly were already reporting that Spyhunter could become The Rock's first movie franchise, with Universal supposedly having bought the rights with him in mind.
The summer of 2003 saw the announcement of Spyhunter as one of Universal Pictures' upcoming big-budget projects, with The Rock confirmed as the film's main star. Neal H. Moritz (producer of The Fast And The Furious) and Marty Adelstein (the man who discovered The Rock's acting talents) were set to produce the movie along with Adam Askarieh and Die Hard producer Charles Gordon.
In keeping with the Fast And Furious connection Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, the men behind the screenplay of 2 Fast 2 Furious, were hired to write the script for Spyhunter. This announced film was currently lacking a director, but Universal was confident enough to announce a $90 million production budget and a big tentpole release in the summer of 2005, with production set to begin in the spring of 2004. By this point, pre-production had already begun, with concept art of the movie's Interceptor car plus motorbikes and other spy-related vehicles having already been shared on sites like Ain't It Cool News.
According to press releases from the time, the plot of the movie would see the Rock play an ex-fighter pilot who becomes a secret agent. Using a fully-armed vehicle called the G-6155 Interceptor (which can morph into a motorcycle and a boat), the Rock's character would pursue a series of enemies, who would attempt to take him on in tricked-out vehicles of their own.
In an interview with IGN, producer Adam Askarieh would proclaim that: “The plan with Spy-Hunter is to create the watershed mark in spy/adventure movies in terms of action, special effects and story. The vehicular battles in this film – showcasing what we feel will soon become the most famous car in movies (the G-6155 Interceptor) – will be unlike any that has been done before. They will be the land and sea-based equivalent of the Star Wars space battles. However, our primary goal is to have the hardware and the battles support a great story with great characters.“
As The Rock's next film with Universal, The Rundown, released as a box office failure in late 2003, the company's co-president of production Scott Stuber and vice-president Dylan Clark wanted Spyhunter to become one of Universal's major franchises in the years to come.
For that to happen, the first film needed to be a hit. Therefore in 2004 new writers Mark Swift and Damien Shannon (Freddy Vs Jason) were hired to re-write the Spyhunter script that had been previously worked on by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas. With re-writes required, Universal delayed the film’s production to the summer of 2004. Nevertheless, The Rock showed excitement about the upcoming project in interviews.
During the tour to promote 2004's Walking Tall, Johnson compared Spyhunter to being “what Mission: Impossible was for Tom Cruise.“ He also spoke about General Motors working on plans to produce the Interceptor, and the film paying homage to the original video game by using the famous Peter Gunn theme as part of its soundtrack.
In May 2004, things were looking up for Spyhunter as Face/Off and Mission Impossible 2 director John Woo was attached to direct the movie. Woo would also produce the film with partner Terrence Chang through their Lion Rock production company. The further good news would come when Midway, the publishers of the Spyhunter games, would announce that there were plans to make a video game set to tie in with the movie's release the following year.
The idea of releasing a video game tie-in to a film based on a video game would give some Spyhunter fans flashbacks to 1995's Street Fighter: The Movie, the video game tie-in to the 1994 Street Fighter film. The Spyhunter video game tie-in would feature the Rock reprising his role from the movie, and even lending his voice and likeness to the project.
At the same time the video game plans were released, Variety would announce in May 2004 (two months before its initially scheduled release) that the Spyhunter script was again getting re-written. Now it was the turn of Zak Penn, known for his work on adapting properties to the big screen with X-Men 2 and Elektra, to produce the right script.
By this point the movie's plot was about 'the story of a former F-15 pilot recruited to become a member of Spy Hunters, an elite government agency that must defeat a cartel seeking world domination.' However, Penn's re–writes would delay the movie's production once more, with Universal now moving Spyhunter to a summer 2006 release window.
Seemingly Zak Penn's script wasn't good enough, as Universal would ask Stuart Beattie to again re-write the film's script in the spring of 2005. Beattie had recent experience writing action movies, having penned the screenplay for Michael Mann's Collateral and the Clive Owen-headlined Derailed. Most importantly to the studio, Beattie had worked on the story for the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, showing that he had experience writing for a franchise-level property.
At this time, the website Box Office Prophets would forecast Spyhunter as a crucial project for The Rock's burgeoning film career. The site's preview would say, “Spy Hunter will be The Rock's fourth film with Universal, and if ever his movie career hinged on one project, this would be the one. Of all his films so far, this is his first action film that can seriously be considered an A-film. The question is, can The Rock open a film this big on his own after graciously sharing the spotlight with others in his past films?“
However, just as there finally seemed to be traction on Spyhunter, John Woo would detach himself from the project in May 2005, citing scheduling conflicts. The search for a new director would put the film's main production schedule on hold until further notice while pre-production was continuing.
By the summer of 2005, people were starting to wonder if the movie had been cancelled. However, The Rock would confirm in an IGN interview in August 2005 that the film was still on. “We’ve got Stuart Beattie, who’s writing it right now, who wrote Collateral as well as Pirates Of The Caribbean, so he’s a great writer; he’s got a great take on it,“ Johnson would say. “Spy-Hunter is one of those movies that we announced almost two years ago, and everybody who I run into is like, ‘Where’s Spy-Hunter?’ It is one of those movies that you cannot get wrong. That’s why it’s so important that the writing is right, the feel, the tone is right.”
For a movie that was “going great“ in the words of its main star, and was supposed to release in the summer of 2006, Spyhunter had no director and had only one actor cast (Dwayne Johnson, if you couldn’t tell) by the autumn of 2005. In fact, at the same time Spyhunter was struggling to get started, another Universal Pictures movie adaptation of a popular video game featuring The Rock was about to be released. In October 2005, Doom, based on the popular 1990s shoot-em-up, would release in cinemas. Made on a $70 million budget, it would wind up a critical and commercial failure.
During the Doom press junket, The Rock would remain positive about the future of Spyhunter, which was still set for a summer 2006 release, despite no filming having taken place.
He would also talk up the film’s tie-in video game, which was set to release alongside the movie and on which development had already started. On the film version of Spyhunter, Johnson would say that production would start as soon as a script was ready.
He would tell Coming soon.net that “it's one of those things where you really don't want to rush it. You just don't want to make just any type of movie. It's such a special movie conceptually. It's so cool with the car. And you're the hunter of spies. Stuart Beattie, we all believe, will come through. He wrote Pirates Of The Caribbean and Collateral, so we're waiting–fingers crossed. It should be in in about a week.”
By the spring of 2006, news had gone quiet on the Spyhunter front. There had been no news on the commencement of filming or details about casting, which put the film's summer 2006 release date into doubt. However, a copy of the script had supposedly fallen into the hands of the website Latino Review, which would soon reveal details to the world. Latino Review had previously leaked accurate early drafts of scripts for Man On Fire, Fantastic Four and Batman Begins, so film websites took this Spyhunter news as 'believable'.
According to Latino Review, the plot of Spyhunter went as follows: 'the Spy Hunter organisation is a secret global organisation whose work consists of hunting down rogue spies. Decker (Dwayne Johnson) is an agent of the organisation, and his latest mission calls for him to track down a spy who has stolen US military encryption codes. NOSTRA, a terrorist group led by a man in a sinister-looking breathing mask, is looking to get its hands on those codes and will, of course, go to any extremes to do so. The matter is complicated when one of the founding members of the Spy Hunter organization goes rogue and steals the codes himself'.
Latino Review would talk up the script as “a good old-fashioned popcorn-adventure movie“ and would compare it favourably to another upcoming Universal car movie, The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift. The site would write,“there hasn’t been that much escapist fantasy lately, and Hollywood needs to start making movies fun and cool again, and Spy Hunter definitely fits that mould.“
With movie websites and Spyhunter fans having to grasp at the straws of a leaked script, work on the video game tie-in, now titled Spyhunter: Nowhere To Run, was going well. Despite the film still being stuck on the start line, the game was in development and was still on course for a release later in 2006.
Dwayne Johnson had even worked on the game, having lent his voice and likeness, and had even performed motion-capture work for his character Alex Decker. The game's developers, Midway, even stated that due to the film's many script changes, they had now started to veer away from the wishes of the film's producers. As one Midway staffer would say, “we tried, for as long as possible, to adjust to the changes in the movie. However, we eventually had to break off from that since their schedule and needs are different than ours.“
By this point, the video game tie-in was set to release before the movie, whose release it was originally intended to tie in with, as Spyhunter (the motion picture) was now pencilled in for a July 2007 release.
In interviews to promote Spyhunter: Nowhere To Run in the summer of 2006, The Rock would still ask for patience regarding the film's development, saying that “between hiring new writers and it being such a huge project, it just requires time and patience and creative writing, so we don't [sic] want to rush anything.“
However, he would again talk up the film's finished script written by Stuart Beattie. He would tell Yahoo Games that “Spy Hunter will have great action” and “some of the set pieces that were written are absolutely mind-blowing. Stuart Beattie has done a fantastic job with the script. It's a great, well-written story that’s not overly complicated and funny.“ However, just a couple of months later, Johnson would acknowledge in another interview that the film's script was again being re-written.
In a film project that websites and publications were now calling 'long-awaited', Dwayne Johnson would refer to the development of Spyhunter as an “ongoing saga“. He would tell Comingsoon.net, “It's just one of those scripts that you can't screw up because the elements are so good. You have the Interceptor, you have a guy who chases spies, so conceptually, it's great, and you kind of want to get it right. If it's not right, you can't spend a hundred million dollars and get it wrong. So who knows?“ However, he would say that there were “too many cooks in the kitchen,“ leading to the film's repeated stalling.
On 5th September 2006, SpyHunter: Nowhere To Run, the original video game tie-in to the proposed movie, would be released for the Playstation 2, Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo GameCube consoles.
Midway, the game's publisher, could no longer delay the game's development as the company needed to recoup the game's production costs to help its own fragile bank balance. The plot of SpyHunter: Nowhere To Run revolved around Alex Decker, played by Dwayne Johnson through motion capture, visual likeness and voice. Decker, an agent of the International Espionage Service (IES), is transporting unknown cargo when he is pursued by agents of the evil spy agency NOSTRA. After a gunfight with the NOSTRA agents, Decker's shipment is confiscated by the NOSTRA leader named Gomez, and Alex loses his Interceptor car.
One year later, Decker recovers his car and steals the cargo from a NOSTRA ship. This leads to a conflict between the IES and NOSTRA, including the capture of the IES director, with Decker caught in the middle of it all.
SpyHunter: Nowhere To Run would receive mixed reviews from video game critics (51% on Metacritic). However, the game's main positives came in the form of its script, story and acting performances, including from Dwayne Johnson. Even though the game's developers had admitted to straying from the film's script, surely this kind of praise would provide hope for the eventual Spyhunter movie when it was released in 2007?
By the summer of 2007 it had still not begun production and its future was up in the air. Even Dwayne Johnson had stopped talking about it in interviews. However in June 2007, one month before the film's most recent release date, Universal would practically reboot the entire process by announcing that Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson would be helming the Spyhunter movie.
It was also announced that another screenwriter would be added to write a brand–new script, making it probably the fifth or sixth version of the film's screenplay by this point. However, whether Dwayne Johnson was still starring in this Spyhunter movie or whether his role would be recast would remain to be seen.
Considering the film had now been in development for five years and missed three different scheduled release dates, you could understand The Rock now wanting to move on. In the time that Spyhunter had been in the works he had made six movies, one of which was an adaptation of a video game produced by Universal Pictures, and had also made the video game tie-in to the Spyhunter movie that was still yet to begin production.
However, one year after Paul W.S. Anderson was confirmed as Spyhunter's director, he would leave the project in the summer of 2008, with no news having developed in the interim. Then in 2009 Universal Pictures would sell the movie rights for Spyhunter to Warner Bros. as part of the company’s buyout of the assets of the now-bankrupt Midway video game studio.
Warner Bros. would announce the following year that it had begun production on a Spyhunter movie. However, the most recent news on that production came back in 2015, when the studio announced a change in writers and a re-writing of the script. Some things never change.
In 2018, a Twitter user would ask Dwayne Johnson why the Spyhunter movie never got made. He would respond, “We were pumped to make the movie, but it fell apart at Universal. Can't force em, movies will get made when it's meant to be.“
Here’s the Tweet…
Yeah bud John Woo was going to direct Spy Hunter. We were pumped to make the movie, but it fell apart at Universal. Can’t force em, movies will get made when it’s meant to be.
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) July 4, 2018
In the years that passed following the disillusion of the Spyhunter movie idea, Hollywood would end up satisfying all of the requirements that made the original film idea appealing to Dwayne Johnson. He would get to play a spy in the 2008 comedy Get Smart. Johnson would appear in a car-based movie when he joined the Fast And Furious franchise in 2011 – a franchise produced by Neal H. Moritz, one of the proposed producers of Spyhunter.
Fast And Furious and Jumanji would end up giving Johnson the major movie franchises that he could base his movie career around. Then in 2018, The Rock would finally get to star in another video game movie adaptation when he led the action movie Rampage, a film based on another video game series produced by Midway.
Around the time that the Warner Bros./Spyhunter deal went down, Stuart Beattie was asked about the Spyhunter movie. Beattie had been the movie's most prominent writer from 2004 to 2006, until Universal decided to reboot the production. On Spyhunter, he would say that he “Loved that script. That was a lot of fun. I worked very closely with Dwayne Johnson on that, and I think the movie is all there, and they would make filmmakers a $100 million movie.“
Beattie would also say that he would consider returning to the project if Dwayne Johnson showed an interest, but that any Spyhunter movie would need a director that “a studio will trust with that kind of budget.“
It took 15 years from Dwayne Johnson being cast as Black Adam to finally getting to play him on screen in 2022. Who knows, maybe The Rock will eventually return to Spyhunter as an actor and/or producer. Only time will tell – but don’t hold your breath…
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