Judge Clark Douglas can smell what The Rock is cooking. Mmmm, he makes a mean tuna casserole!
Warrior. Legend. King.
"Let me tell you, after a long day of looting and pillaging, there is no greater city than Gomorrah…except maybe Sodom."
Facts of the Case
The evil King Memnon (Steven Brand, Doctor) always seems to emerge victorious from battle. It's almost like he knows he's destined to win. Oh wait…he does. King Memnon has kidnapped a sorceress (Kelly Hu, X2) who has the power to foretell whether or not the King will win a battle. Unfortunately, King Memnon is a rather evil fellow who enjoys oppressing everyone he defeats. An assassin named Mathayus (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, The Rundown) is hired to kill the sorceress, which will damage Memnon's strength greatly. There's only one problem. The sorceress is really hot, and Mathayus lets his infatuation with her get in the way of his mission. Mathayus determines to find a way to have his cake and eat it too. His plan involves rescuing the sorceress, using her power for his own purposes, finding a way to defeat Memnon himself, and then making babies with the sorceress. Sounds like a plan, but it's not going to be easy.
If I had been a studio executive at Universal in the earliest part of the 21st century, there is no way I would have green lit The Scorpion King. The film really shouldn't work. The title character was introduced in the blockbuster action film The Mummy Returns and was played by pro wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The character had one action scene at the beginning and turned into an awful-looking special effect at the end. Considering how uninteresting this character was in The Mummy Returns, and knowing that audiences would know the ultimate fate of the character, why would anyone want to make a prequel all about this character? How on earth would a film lead The Scorpion King back into the opening scene of The Mummy Returns in an interesting way?
The solution was kind of inspired. Someone must have said, "Let's not explain how The Scorpion King gets from this movie to The Mummy Returns. Let's just use all that franchise popularity to get people into the movie and then let the movie exist as its own completely unrelated entity." That was a wise plan, as The Scorpion King is a reasonably satisfactory self-contained film that requires no knowledge or memory of The Mummy Returns. It exists solely as an action-packed vehicle for The Rock, who proved that he was capable of carrying an action movie all by himself.
The Scorpion King is perhaps even less credible than both Mummy movies, and it makes no attempt to hide this. The film makes does not act as if it is supposed to be transporting us into the past, and has characters who speak in a modern and relaxed manner. One really can't criticize the plot too much, because there's simply not enough of it here to criticize. Instead, the movie simply moves from one action scene to another as quickly as possible, always finding new ways for The Rock to pound on something. The sword-and-sandals action movie has more or less worn out its welcome in the past few years, but let it be said that the action here is presented in a reasonably entertaining manner. There's a good sense of choreography to everything, and we always know where all the key players are and what they are doing. That really ought to be something we can take for granted, but that is sadly not the case these days. I've begun to value the simple virtue of coherence in an action movie.
The Mummy movies that preceded this film were directed by Stephen Sommers, who also takes an active role here. He came up with the story (make men fight), co-wrote the screenplay (scene 17: men start fighting), and co-produced the movie (make sure fights don't cost too much). The film was actually directed by Chuck Russell, a gun-for-hire whose mediocre credits include A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, The Mask, Eraser, and Bless the Child. It's not much of a compliment when I say that The Scorpion King is arguably the best of Russell's career.
The Rock is almost solely responsible for any measure of success the film attains. It is not particularly difficult to find a giant human hulk who can convincingly beat people up onscreen. It is very difficult to find an actor like that who can actually act. Dwayne Johnson shares Arnold Schwarzenegger's saving grace as an actor; the gift of self-awareness. He recognizes the silliness and goofiness of what he is doing, and plays it with a sly wink that lets us all know he's having a lot of fun. While Johnson was required to be utterly serious and humorless in The Mummy Returns, his role here permits him to smile, laugh, and playfully toy with his performance. What he does here is hardly award-worthy, but Johnson demonstrates in this film that he meets all the standard requirements of being an action movie star (and he has continued to do so since).
What about the other performances in the movie? These are a little less interesting, but mostly quite functional. The lovely Kelly Hu has quite a few lines of dialogue, but she always seems distracted by the fact that she has to keep her outfit within the confines of the PG-13 rating at all times. This proves to be a bit more difficult that you might suspect. There's a rather amusing role here for George Clooney's frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, who plays The Rock's wimpy sidekick. He gets most of the film's best lines, such as: "The Valley of Death? Nobody goes to the Valley of Death! That's why they call it the Valley of Death!" Michael Clarke Duncan plays The Rock's sometimes foe/sometimes friend, and Bernard Hill has a nice little supporting bit, too.
When a film is set in the desert, how do you tell whether or not it's too grainy? Hardy-har-har. Anyway, the hi-def transfer is okay, but there are a few flecks and specks that turn up on occasion. I wonder if Kelly Hu would have been even more nervous if she knew people who have the ability to freeze-frame a 1080p transfer? Not that I would know anything about that…ahem. The sound is terrific, cranking up John Debney's agreeably silly orchestral rock score. The movie stays pretty busy from a sound standpoint, as frequent battle scenes are perpetually presenting all kinds of clanging, clashing, banging, and squishing. The extras are a bit thin, with a so-so commentary from Chuck Taylor being presented alongside the interesting "U-Control" feature. This permits the viewer to access a wide variety of behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, etc. as the film progresses. I like this sort of thing in general, and it's done reasonably well here. Still, it's too bad that there are no featurettes or documentaries of any sort.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The villains are the weakest point of the film. Aside from dying, they do very little of interest in The Scorpion King. The lead villain is played Steven Brand, whose terrible mullet sports more personality than the actor. It's very difficult to see the supposedly terrifying Memnon as much of a threat. Even worse is that stinky little guy played by Peter Facinelli (The Big Kahuna). Facinelli's performance is just plain bad, spotlighting poorly delivered lines and very unmemorable screen presence. The actor behaves as if he doesn't want anyone to know he's in the movie.
Also, fans of the Mummy may feel a little bit cheated by The Scorpion King. Those who were actually looking for an extension of the super-popular franchise will find precious little here. Additionally, despite the involvement of Sommers, the movie has a somewhat different tone that the Mummy movies. The vibe here is a lot closer to Conan the Barbarian than The Mummy.
I didn't really care for The Scorpion King when I saw it in theatres, but viewing it again after a few years with lower expectations, I found it pleasant viewing. A nice little 90-minute action fix that sounds great and looks good in hi-def.
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• Commentary w/Chuck Russell
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