image The Scorpion King (Universal Pictures, 2002). Review by Amy Harlib

Directed by: Chuck Russell.
Written by: Stephen Sommers, William Osborne and David Hayter, based on a story by Mr. Sommers and Jonathan Hales.
Music by: John Debney. Running
Time: 91 minutes. Rated: PG-13.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson .... Mathayus /Michael Clarke Duncan .... Balthazar / Steven Brand .... Memnon / Kelly Hu .... Cassandra the Sorceress  / Bernard Hill .... Philos  / Grant Heslov .... Arpid  / Peter Facinelli .... Takmet  / Ralph Moeller .... Thorak / Branscombe Richmond .... Jesup  / Roger Rees .... King Pheron / Sherri Howard .... Queen Isis  / Conrad Roberts .... Chieftain  / Joseph Ruskin .... Tribal Leader / Esteban Cueto .... Third Akkadian  / Nils Allen Stewart .... Torturer

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Mathayus (THE ROCK A.K.A. DWAYNE JOHNSON), trained in the deadly arts, defends the people against an evil ruler.

The Rock AKA Dwayne Johnson, ROCKS in the movie The Scorpion King, a prequel to The Mummy Returns (2001 - see review), both fantasy-adventure genre films that offer mindlessly enjoyable entertainment not meant to be taken seriously. A WWF veteran and relative newcomer to the acting trade, The Rock nevertheless possesses tremendous charisma along with the requisite great looks (thanks to his half Black/half Samoan background) and the impressive, athletic physique to star in the eponymous role and do a damned fine job! He seems to be having such a good time that his energy and appeal can carry the audience along with him---if they can let go and just have fun.

Unlike the SPFX-fest of The Mummy Returns, The Scorpion King represents an homage (putting the emphasis on the adventure with minimal magic) to predecessor pictures like Conan the Barbarian (1982), Conan the Destroyer (1984) and even to vintage fare like the Sinbad series and the great sword-and-sandal epics of yore.

Set some five thousand odd years ago in an archaic period "before the pyramids", 'The Scorpion King's' background was conceptualized, (much to my amusement from an autodidact scholar of ancient pre-industrialized civilizations point of view), as a hodge-podge of elements from a widely disparate and anachronistic melange of Nilotic and Fertile Crescent cultures. This enhanced the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere that pervades the whole endeavor yet allowed the production designer (Ed Verreaux), to indulge in wildly imaginative and dazzling set, costume and prop designs often displaying improbable combinations of iconography. The Scorpion King name itself belonged to a real pre-dynastic Egyptian ruler whose deeds (according to the scant archeological record), bore no resemblance to those in the film.

The beautiful sorceress Cassandra (KELLY HU) serves the evil Memnon. photo

The plot, loaded with clichés, thanks to experienced genre director Chuck Russell's astute decisions, transcends them through the spoofing effect of the humor that comes from the dialog, the clever staging of the action and the excellent cast who all radiate the playful earnestness of participants in a grand game of dress-up and make-believe which describes the situation exactly. The totally ahistorical story gets set in motion by an ambitious, aggressive warlord named Memnon (Steven Brand) who seeks to rule the known world from his palace in the city of Gomorrah (yes, THAT Gomorrah) wiping out any and all tribes that stand in his way. The few, brave leaders of the resistors summon to their aid Mathayus (The Rock), head of a small but fierce band of desert warriors known as the Akkadians. Mathayus' main allies against Memnon include: the imposing Nubian ruler Balthazar (Michael Clarke Duncan); Balthazar's right hand lady Queen Isis (the stunning Sherri Howard, an Olympic champion runner turned thespian) woefully under-used and deserving of a much larger role; an endearingly goofy horse-thief Arpid (Grant Heslov), comic-relief character par excellence; Philos (Bernard Hill), an eccentric da Vinci-like inventor who defects from his hated master Memnon and who perfects the use of gunpowder he acquired from "his colleagues in China" (!); and a gamin little street urchin who manages not to be obnoxious. Let's not forget the obligatory ornery animal, Mathayus' mount---an albino camel with a remarkably vivid personality. Mathayus' first goal in halting Memnon's assaults involves assassinating the conqueror's powerful, spiritual advisor, a sorceress named Cassandra (Kelley Hu), but instead he kidnaps her and soon wins over the bodacious babe with brains in addition to a beautiful bod.

Before the climactic showdown with Memnon, the intrepid heroes must also cope with the traitorous Prince Takmet (Peter Facinelli) and the formidable general Thorak (Ralph Moeller) along with innumerable soldiers and spear carriers. Midway through all this, Matthayus gets hurt by an enemy arrow dipped in scorpion venom causing a poisonous wound that the recently recruited Cassandra heals---hence the protagonist's association with the titular stinging insect. Connections to The Mummy Returns also merit some tenuous mentions in the final moments of the proceedings. The Scorpion King comes packed with excellent stunts and fight scenes (of the sanitized, bloodless variety) that show the current commendable and trendy Hong Kong influence and reveal The Rock to be graceful and agile despite his considerable stature. The lead players all get to demonstrate believable martial art skill including, thankfully, Kelley Hu. The Rock also proves that he can act too, emoting effectively when tragic events help precipitate his quest against Memnon and when he experiences happiness and love with Cassandra. The other performers all ably pass muster, helping contribute to the film's blend of action and humor with many laugh-out-loud moments. A real dazzler, The Scorpion King, delightfully absurd romp that it is, offers an eyeful of lovely sets; costumes; scenery; judicious use of SPFX; action sequences; a refreshing and fascinating ethnic mix of hunky guys (I love the way The Rock looked with his long, flowing hair) and gorgeous gals; a lush, atmospheric score that successfully blends its mostly symphonic sounds with a rock-beat at carefully chosen minimal moments; plus plenty of excitement and thrills; and plain old-fashioned FUN. See it, enjoy---but don't expect any history lessons or Oscar nominations.

© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu