Warrior. Legend. King.
In 1999, writer/director Stephen Sommers churned out the surprise hit The Mummy, a sorta remake of the original 1932 Boris Karloff film. In Sommers' version, the scares were downplayed while CGI action was cranked up about sixteen notches. In 2001, The Mummy Returns hit theaters and, while lambasted by critics for its wildly implausible action scenes, was still a hit with moviegoing audiences. This may have been due in part to The Rock's performance, a superstar wrestler (the film was co-produced by WWF owner Vince McMahon) who made his big-screen debut as the nasty, eight-legged baddie the Scorpion King. Apparently, Hollywood execs decreed that The Rock was strong enough to hold his own at the box office and was given his first starring role in the feature-length spin off The Scorpion King, now available on DVD care of Universal Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
The Scorpion King traces the events leading up to The Mummy Returns as we see the rise of the warrior Mathayus (The Rock), a hulking brute who will soon be known as The Scorpion King. Mathayus is one of the last of a dying breed: Akkadians, savage assassins who will do your dirty work for the right price. Mathayus, his brother, and a partner are hired by King Pheron (Roger Rees, Star 80) to kill a sorceress (Kelly Hu, a few notches up from her role in Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan) who is the mystical power behind the murdering invader Memnon (Steven Brand). Memnon has laid waste to much of the land and seems to be darn near impossible to stop. After the assassination is botched because of a double cross by King Pheron's son, only Mathayus survives—and he ends up captured and buried to his neck around a horde of fire ants. After escaping (see: clever plot point), Mathayus vows revenge against Memnon…or something like that. It's really all just an excuse to blow things up real good. Along the way Mathayus will pick up a few allies (the imposing Michael Clarke Duncan, an obnoxious child actor, a wacky ethnic sidekick, et cetera), a final fight will ensue (and since Mathayus pops up years later in the previous film, take a strong guess who wins), love will triumph, and a legend will be born.
Okay, so get this: I didn't like The Mummy. I really didn't like The Mummy Returns. Yet, I liked The Scorpion King. Apparently, the old cliché is true: third time's the charm. And my how The Scorpion King is oh-so-charming. The movie is so utterly goofy that it practically begs to be labeled as a B-movie. This is in no small part to The Rock's performance. The guy's big, brawny, and fall down funny. He's got what it takes to become an international action star if he'll make sure to pick the right scripts (note to The Rock's agent: no more second rate sequels. Once was enough). I've never been much of a wrestling fan—once "Rowdy" Roddy Piper took off, so did I—but I've gotta say that after watching The Scorpion King, I'm apt to sit down and watch a few grudge matches just to see this guy's charismatic approach to life. For instance, take the scene where Mathayus is surrounded by giant red fire ants. As they diligently aim for their target, Mathayus begins squishing the ants one by one with his chin. When one finally crawls onto his cheek, he snaps it up like a gator, chomps it, and spits the poor dead bug back to the ground. Why do I bring this scene up? Because it was the turning point in the film for me—this was where I could "smell what The Rock was cooking." And let me tell you it smelled tasty.
The movie, as directed by Chuck Russell (the 1988 remake of The Blob, Eraser), is one big showpiece for The Rock to do one of three things: 1.) stampede towards his enemy with a sword, 2.) make witty remarks to the rest of the cast, and 3.) look really beefy in his skimpy, gladiator-like costume. The screenplay (co-written by Sommers, who decided to bow out as director) can't be described as anything remarkable; the structure is pretty much "The Rock shows up, The Rock kicks butt, The Rock prevails." There isn't a single scene in The Scorpion King where anything surprising happens. There are a lot of action sequences where people are shot with arrows, sets are blown up, and people run for cover as The Rock makes his entrance. Then again, sometimes familiar can be a blessing—if you're going into The Scorpion King looking for mindless, unabashed action, then you're going to get exactly what you bargained for.
Like the two Mummy movies, The Scorpion King is filled with a supporting cast of either nutty sidekicks or really mean villains. Kelly Hu as The Rock's love interest is little more than window dressing. The producers did a very nice job of covering up Hu's breasts during bathing scenes to assure the film a PG-13 rating (how it got that rating with all the violence is another story…). Grant Heslov (True Lies) as Mathayus' humorous tagalong Arpid does a good job with what is essentially a thankless role: by funny and look good next to The Rock (and, really, how can anyone look good next to a guy with a name like "The Rock"?). The movie makes a giant misstep by adding a little kid into the mix, which was also (but certainly not limited to) one of The Mummy Returns' big blunders. I realize that the kid was inserted to pander to the elementary school demographic, yet I still feel that an action movie starring The Rock—I think I just like saying his name a lot—is no place for anyone under the age of 15.
Otherwise, The Scorpion King is an entertaining piece of disposable celluloid. It has its problems, but as a Friday night blow-'em-up cheesefest, you could do a lot worse. You want a solid equation of what this film is? TV's Hercules: The Legendary Journeys + Gladiator x WWF Smackdown = The Scorpion King. (Note: there's no arguing the outcome: I've got pie charts and bar graphs to back up my data.)
The Scorpion King is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Not surprisingly, Universal has done an excellent job at making sure this transfer is clear of any blemishes or imperfections. The colors and black levels are all spot-on and in perfect condition—in short, this is a near pristine picture. Aside from a small amount of edge enhancement in one key scene, this is a sharp looking image that will look great on any size TV (well, maybe not an 8" screen, but most anything else…).
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in both English and French. Much like the video portions, the audio mix is great. The surround sounds are booming and very aggressive with directional effects (including arrows, swords, and fire ants) rocketing around the viewer almost the entire length of the movie. All aspects of the mix are free and clear of any hiss or distortion, making this a fun ride for those in possession of a home theater system. Also included on this disc are English and Spanish subtitles.
Good old Universal, always touting their newer, big-budget action flicks as "Collector's Editions" on DVD. The Scorpion King is no different, sporting a vast array of extra materials fit for…well, a king. Here is a run down of what's on the disc:
Two Commentary Tracks: The first commentary is by director Chuck Russell, and the second is by The Rock. The commentary with Russell tends to be far more technical than The Rock's track. I enjoyed hearing about the use of John Debney's music score, as well as how some of the action scenes were achieved. The Rock's track is far lighter and vastly more entertaining. There is an option that allows the viewer to watch The Rock's track in an "enhanced mode"—this means that the screen goes annoyingly from anamorphic to non-anamorphic and a small picture-in-picture of the The Rock with headphones on pops up in the corner of the screen, allowing us to both hear and watch him record his commentary. This is accessed by clicking on a sword icon that appears on-screen every once in a while.
Alternative Version in Enhanced Viewing Mode: A red sword icon (much like during The Rock's commentary) can be selected while watching the film, which will take you to an alternate sequence of the same scene. Like the commentary, the video bounces back and fourth from anamorphic to non-anamorphic, making it a frustrating watch. These scenes can also be watched on their own, so my suggestion is just skip this feature.
Outtakes: A humorous three-minute reel of flubs by the cast and crew.
Alternative Versions of Key Scenes: The same scenes that you can watch in the Alternate Version, except this time you don't need to sit through the whole film to view the scenes.
Spotlight On Location: "The Making of The Scorpion King": A fluffy promotional piece that feels like a love letter to The Rock and his newly acquired action star status. The interviews with the cast and crew (including The Rock, Kelly Hu, Chuck Russell, et cetera) are all fairly insubstantial and quick.
Music Video: Godsmack's "I Stand Alone": A non-anamorphic music video for a song by the heavy metal group Godsmack. My personal tastes run towards Billy Joel and Jackson Browne, so let's move on…
Five Featurettes ("Ancient World Production Design," "Preparing the Fight," "The Rock and Michael Clarke Duncan," "Working with Animals," "The Special Effects"): Each of these five featurettes look at different aspects of the production: costumes, the effects, the choreographed stunts and fights, et cetera. "The Rock and Michael Clarke Duncan" is a very entertaining look at the two stars' friendship and the time The Rock knocked out Duncan with his elbow (well, at least that's The Rock's side of the story…Duncan's is a bit different). "Working with Animals" takes a humorous look at what it's like to work with oxen, camels, and other desert animals in a Hollywood film. All of these featurettes are fairly short (a couple of minutes to five minutes at the most) and taken as a whole should please fans looking for a little more insight into the movie.
King Scorpion: Text pages featuring history of the Scorpion King character.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer for the film, some pithy production notes, cast and filmmakers information, DVD-ROM content, a trailer for the upcoming Ang Lee film Hulk, a trailer for a Steven Spielberg produced TV show, a pointless list of Scorpion King Movie Club people, and some other promotions for the film and other DVD/wrestling/Universal offers.
If you liked the first two Mummy movies, you may just enjoy The Scorpion King, though be advised that it's not as effects heavy as its predecessors (and that's a good thing). I'm looking forward to seeing what The Rock's next move is in Hollywood. As for the DVD, Universal has done a fine job on both the video and audio presentations, as well as the bonus materials.
The Scorpion King is acquitted on all charges, except for being associated with those cruddy Mummy flicks! Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Director Chuck Russell
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