The Scorpion King

“The Scorpion King” is the cinematic equivalent of a large piece of Limburger cheese. You know it’s going to stink, but for some reason you still want to take a bite. This also applies to the films star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, whose ham-on-wry performance will please his legion of fans but leave the rest of us starving for something more substantial.

A prequel to “The Mummy Returns,” in which Johnson had a small role, “The Scorpion King” has franchise written all over it. Everything about “The Scorpion King” is big and dumb, a popcorn movie that fails to pop. What survives is a film that resembles those kernels left on the bottom of the kettle, warmed over and impotent.

I really wanted to like “The Scorpion King.” Although I wasn’t as thrilled with “The Mummy Returns” as much as “The Mummy,” I enjoy these sort of films. Exotic locations, beautiful women, hunky warriors, a little horror and lots of adventure, what’s not to like? Unfortunately, for every step forward “The Mummy” took the genre, “The Scorpion King” takes it two back.

There’s no horror in “The Scorpion King,” unless you count the by-the-numbers screenplay and star turn by Johnson, who obviously has designs on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career but delivers a performance more in tune with another Arnold, Tom. This isn’t acting, it’s reciting lines and hitting marks. Johnson, whose “The Rock” character rules the television wrestling ring, has presence but lacks the talent to create anything more than a cardboard cut-out character.

It really doesn’t matter, because everything in “The Scorpion King” feels inferior when compared to the film that spawned it. Shot on a healthy (but meager for this sort of effort) $60 million budget, the film lacks the sense of tongue-in-cheek whimsy that made “The Mummy” and its sequel so much fun. There are one liners and literal stabs at humor, but they feel like afterthoughts and fall flat.

Set 3,000 years before “The Mummy Returns,” “The Scorpion King” features Johnson as an Akkadian assassin named Mathayus, who has been hired to stop the evil ruler Memnon (Steven Brand), whose grip on the land is becoming absolute. Together with two other assassins, Mathayus’ target is the ruler’s seer, who provides him with the information he needs to head off enemy attacks.

After the other two assassins are killed, Mathayus is stunned to learn that the seer is actually a sorceress named Cassandra (Kelly Hu), whose mystery and beauty blind Mathayus long enough for him to get caught and be sentenced to grueling death. Mathayus is rescued by a local vagabond, who becomes his sidekick, and then sets out to kidnap Cassandra and force one final showdown with Memnon. It’s impossible to take any of this seriously, especially the film’s action violence that feels like you’re watching the stunt show at Universal Studios.

“The Scorpion King” was shot in the desert outside of Los Angeles, and it shows. The film lacks the majestic sweep of “The Mummy,” and the visual effects look cheap to the point of being embarrassing. Director Chuck Russell, whose career high was “The Mask,” lacks the style to make any of this matter. It’s all eye candy, and even then most it tastes like sour balls.

I can understand the filmmakers infatuation with “The Rock.” I caught him on “Saturday Night Live” last week, and he’s every engaging in short bursts. However, unless he is wearing trunks and standing in the middle of a ring, he has a real problem holding a scene together.

With time, maybe Johnson might develop into a better actor, but then again, so might my cat. Michael Clarke Duncan stands tall as one of the local rulers, but his performance is more reaction than action. Kelly Hu looks terrific in very little, which is exactly what the writers give her to work with. Hu is the best of the lot, while Steven Brand feels like he’s channeling Malcolm McDowell’s “Caligula.”

“The Mummy” director Stephen Sommers contributed to the screenplay by William Osborne and David Hayter, a mish-mash of sword play and loud dialogue that seems to have totally forgotten that “The Scorpion King” was one of the villains of “The Mummy Returns.” I guess they needed for him to clean up his act if he’s going to carry a summer franchise. Schwarzenegger is going back in front of the camera as “Conan the Barbarian,” so do we really need “Conan” lite?

It may have cost $60 million, but “The Scorpion King” feels like a direct-to-video effort. The production values are weak and extremely conventional, while the music, photography and editing all suggest a mediocre Saturday afternoon serial.

HARD ROCK EYE CANDYScorpion King’s bark is worse than his sting


Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Steven Brand, Kelly Hu, Michael Clarke Duncan, Grant Heslov. Directed by Chuck Russell. Rated PG-13. 93 Minutes.


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