Hey kids! Remember when the Mummy series was still kind of good? Remember when Michael Clarke Duncan had a career, when Dwayne Johnson still called himself the Rock and when WWE was still called the WWF? Well, then you probably remember this movie, 2002’s summer blockbuster The Scorpion King.
The film is set in a vaguely middle eastern region some 5,000 years BCE. If you didn’t know this was a spin off of the Mummy, you wouldn’t know it was supposed to be Egypt. The Rock plays Mathayus, an Akkadian assassin (though they mispronounce “Akkadian”. It’s supposed to be pronounced ah-cah-dian” not “Acadian“). He’s the last of his kind, an honour bound member of a proud warrior race who makes his own destiny, or at least so he thinks. Driven by revenge for his dead brother, he leads an uprising and eventually earns his own kingdom, which ushers in an age of peace and prosperity. He’s less a character than an archetype, a one-line spouting 80’s action hero as a sword wielding barbarian hero. In case you can’t tell, it’s a bit cliched.
The other characters, and other elements of the film, aren’t any less cliched or one dimensional. The villain, Memnon, is a typical world-conquering Übermensch bastard with little characterization beyond that. Aside from the silly flaming swords at the end, he exists to be an arrogant, conquering dick of an emperor and nothing more. The comic relief sidekick is a fast-talking and irritating thief, and quite the coward. The sexy sorceress, played by Kelly Hu, is, uh…sexy and a sorceress. And also immediately attracted to Mathayus, because she’s a good person being forced to work for the bad guy and good people always fall in love at first site. Michael Clarke Duncan plays the same character he’s played in every movie since The Green Mile, and it’s mildly charming here, at best. Everyone else is as stock a stock character as can be, with the exception of the awesome inventor guy who’s in maybe 3 scenes total.
Sword and Sorcery fantasy movies, when not directed by Peter Jackson, are almost always called “cheesy”. I don’t always agree with that label, but god damn is this movie a cheese fest. The first scene plays like a parody sketch, complete with hammy acting, over the top machismo and arrows that send people through walls. The climax involves Mathayus shooting the bad guy (who had two flaming swords) off the roof and into an explosion, again using only a bow and arrow-and an arrow he pulled out of a wound in his own back, at that. That was so absurd it was hilarious. If this was the tone of the whole thing, then this would be a great parody of heroic fantasy. As it is, it’s uneven, divided between over-the-top hilarity and bland, by-the-books bullshit.
I blame the same person that I blame everything else on for this: Vince McMahon. Actually, no, I blame the WWF/E. Actually, no, I blame WWF/E FANS. The majority of fans of that particular brand of pro wrestling are kids who couldn’t see a higher rated movie, thus, they had to tone down the violence and keep Kelly Hu from getting more naked (BOO!) Even worse, so many of these fools are so used to cliched, stupid writing that the writers can’t challenge them without losing them as an audience. As awesome as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is, a large part of his fan base (at least at the time) were stupid teenagers who wouldn’t “get” a subversive parody at all. This was a star vehicle for Johnson, his first ever starring role, and anything that isn’t straightforward action would alienate the morons. It could have been a Princess Bride for sword and sorcery movies, instead, it’s another Dungeons & Dragons.
Of course, everything I just said is pure conjecture. It could be that I’m giving the filmmakers too much credit. Maybe the brilliant parts of this movie were accidental, and they were trying to make a pure dumb, cliched action movie. Maybe I just don’t want to hate this movie as much as I should, since I actually like the Rock. He is, after all, a capable actor, and the few times the script gives him something worth reciting, he delivers it well. Either way, even if they did try to make it a clever parody, most of this movie is bland, by-the-books paint-by-numbers boredom.
I give this 3 Rock Bottoms out of 10 because while it was hardly a good movie, those flashes of (possibly accidental) satirical genius keep this film from truly hitting rock bottom.
By the way, you should be proud of me! I went a whole article without name-checking Conan, even though this film is a clear “homage” to Conan. It also features Ralf Moller, who played Conan in the live action Conan the Adventurer show, as Memnon’s right hand man. In addition to this, Scorpion King 3, released direct to DVD in January, featured Ron Perlman, who played Conan’s dad in the 2011 Conan the Barbarian film, and signed on to voice Conan in the aborted animated feature based on the Robert E Howard story Red Nails. See, I COULD have shoehorned that stuff into the review, but I didn’t, proving I can go a whole article without mentioning Conan the Barbarian. Clearly, I’m not obsessed.