The Scorpion King

Further proof that the ’80s are back: The Scorpion King is almost beat for beat identical to the many sword-and-sorcery movies we got circa 1982 or so — I’m not even talking Excalibur or Conan the Barbarian, I’m talking The Beastmaster and The Sword and the Sorcerer. The difference is that those movies were fun; this one isn’t. And now the conundrum: Do I look back fondly on those movies because I was twelve at the time, and am I judging The Scorpion King unduly harshly because I’m almost 32 now? Will today’s twelve-year-olds look back fondly on The Scorpion King in 2022? I have to wonder: By then they’ll probably stumble across it on cable and be like, “Hey, remember this? Remember The Rock? Where’s he now?”

Where The Rock is now is at a crossroads between WWF wrestler (and, let’s shudder to recall, bestselling author) and movie star. Clearly he wants to follow a career track similar to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger (though he probably wants to skip the equivalents of Last Action Hero and Batman and Robin). The Rock has presence and even some range, or at least a cheerful willingness to play against his ring persona; I caught a couple of his skits on the Saturday Night Live he hosted, and he showed more energy than he ever does in The Scorpion King. The movie tries way too hard to package him as the next stoic head-cruncher.

Here he’s Mathayus, mercenary warrior, one of the last of the Akkadians. One look at Mathayus and his bow in action, and you wonder why there are only a handful of his people left; plop him into the middle of a Lord of the Rings battle scene and he could probably take care of most of the Orcs simply by flexing in their direction. In short, he’s a hero who’s impossible to worry about and difficult to care about. Mathayus is out for the blood of Memnon (Steven Brand), a master swordsman who has enslaved thousands under the pretense of bringing order to a chaotic land. Memnon has the help of a sorceress (Kelly Hu) who can see the future — she’s named Cassandra, cutely enough — and who promptly throws in with Mathayus and a comic-relief (read: annoying) horse thief (Grant Heslov) against Memnon, who it turns out has been forcing her to see the future for him.

Director Chuck Russell, who used to have some promise (rent his Blob remake and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 sometime), has shrewdly cast a bunch of mostly uninspired actors around The Rock, the better to make him look less bad. Kelly Hu has not one but two emerging-from-water-half-naked moments destined for the mental playlists of many twelve-year-old boys, and obviously hasn’t been hired for any particular emoting acumen; Grant Heslov fails to be the scuzzy-funny sidekick Kevin J. O’Connor was in 1999’s The Mummy (more on that in a minute); the massive, abyss-voiced Michael Clarke Duncan, as a warrior who shows enmity towards Mathayus until the script requires him to develop respect for him, does his Michael Clarke Duncan thing — standing around and frightening nearby air molecules away just by frowning, then tossing in that big goofy grin that’s as much his trademark as the eyebrow-elevation is The Rock’s (he deploys the Eyebrow once, hip-deep in a harem).

The Scorpion King is a spin-off of Stephen Sommers’ Mummy series; The Rock appeared briefly in The Mummy Returns as the Scorpion King, and this movie is meant, I guess, as the beginning of a prequel series. (One problem: since we know Mathayus eventually becomes the annihilating Scorpion King as seen in The Mummy Returns, one of the projected Scorpion King sequels has got to have a downer ending.) Chuck Russell, who doesn’t seem to share Sommers’ adolescent glee with action-adventure (he’s happier making monster movies, I think), stages much of the action in a manner that’s both hectic and bored; despite its whiplash running time, there are quite a few slow spots, never more so than when we’re asked to believe in The Rock and Kelly Hu falling in love. Hell, give me the spirit of Imhotep taking on the shape of a sandstorm and chasing soldiers across the desert; that, I can more readily accept.

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