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"THE SCORPION KING"
(2002) (The Rock, Steven Brand) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Adventure: A trained assassin sets out to find and kill the seer who's providing an evil warlord with the information he needs to conquer and rule the world.
PLOT:
Long ago and in a distant land, the evil warlord Memnon (STEVEN BRAND) has conquered and now rules most of the known world and its people. While possessing a physical prowess and fighting skill of near unmatched proportions, his greatest weapon is a seer who has visions of the future and thus allows him to know when, where and how to strike his opponents.

Desperate to stop him and the carnage, the few remaining tribes have decided to hire three highly trained Akkadian assassins to find and kill the sorcerer and thus eliminate Memnon's knowledgeable advantage. Much to the disdain of Balthazar (MICHAEL CLARKE DUNCAN), another of the rulers, the assassins - led by Mathayus (THE ROCK) - set out on their mission.

They quickly find the seer's location, but Mathayus' partners are killed and the sorcerer turns out to be a sorceress named Cassandra (KELLY HU). Mathayus' surprise and hesitation in killing her allows him to be captured and then left to die a horrific death. As luck has it, Arpid (GRANT HESLOV), an opportunistic vagabond, rescues Mathayus in exchange for getting to travel with him.

After meeting Philos (BERNARD HILL), an enslaved inventor, and avoiding the palace guards, Mathayus kidnaps Cassandra and sets out for the Valley of the Dead, only to be pursued there by one of Memnon's top men, Thorak (RALF MOELLER). Following another deadly battle, Cassandra's return to Memnon, and a precarious encounter with Balthazar, Mathayus and his unlikely team head back toward Memnon's palace in an effort to rid the world of him once and for all.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
While Disney may have been the first movie studio to open a major theme park and base some of its attractions on its movies and/or characters, Universal is the studio that took that concept and really ran with it. Whether it's Earthquake, Jaws, Back to the Future or, more recently, the Jurassic Park ride, their visitors can ride the movies just like their slogan says.

With a studio and its theme park so closely tied together and the latter needing a new attraction from time to time, one has to wonder if some of the decision making in giving any film the green light deals with what kind of ride it could spawn. Not all films fall under that guideline - for instance, "A Beautiful Mind" would be a tough fit ("Ride along on a journey of schizophrenia") - but some are obviously better suited for "ridedom" than others.

1999's "The Mummy" and its 2001 sequel, "The Mummy Returns" obviously have the right elements, and that also initially seems true for the spin-off from that second film, "The Scorpion King." With pro wrestler turned actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson reprising his much ballyhooed but brief debut role from that film, this prequel - that takes place an untold time before "TMR" - would actually be more appropriate for one of those cheesy amusement park stunt shows.

That's because while the "Mummy" films were high tech pictures with big budgets and relied as much on special effects as stunt work, this one looks and feels cheaper and utilizes the sword far more often than the computer, or pen for that matter.

Something of a campy, "B" movie throwback to the sword and sorcery films of yesteryear, the film is a lackluster combination of the "Mummy" films, "Conan the Barbarian" and parts of the James Bond film "Live and Let Die," all filtered through a WWF approach and mentality. That shouldn't come as a surprise considering that WWF head honcho Vince McMahon is the film's executive producer.

Under his influence, the filmmakers - director Chuck Russell ("Bless the Child," "Eraser") and screenwriters Stephen Sommers ("Deep Rising," "Tom and Huck), William Osborne ("Twins," "Ghost in the Machine") and David Hayter ("X-Men") - have obviously been informed about what their target audience wants and expects, and they've dutifully delivered the goods.

The thing is, the goods really aren't that good. The plot, when not ripping off other films, is void of much imagination or actual story, the acting is about as stiff and grating as the metal found in all of the swordplay, and the dialogue is often laughably bad. I suppose if one is able to get down on the film's level and wallow in the campy material, there's something entertaining here, but I'll just say that one won't confuse what's offered with a film such as "Gladiator."

Of course, it's obvious that the cast and crew know that (or at least one hopes that's true), and have proceeded not necessarily with tongue in cheek, but at least with a less than serious attitude. There's no denying that the film has the over-staged theatrics of a pro wrestling match, what with the hulking guys battling each other while scantily clad women watch on, serve as eye candy or occasionally even get into the action.

In fact, at times you might find yourself thinking that wrestling ring ropes around the action might actually appear - due to all of the wrestling inspired action on hand -- or that the addition of them could create some additional, bounce around stunts (a point lovingly mocked in a scene from last year's "Shrek").

While I can accept the campy material, the lack of imagination on display here is disappointing. For a film supposedly designed to show us the background of the character (meaning what led up to him becoming the titular character), there's a surprising shortage of story. Simply put, the character is hired, fights a bunch of people, gets the girl and battles the bad guy at the end.

It's not surprising that the film borrows from the "Mummy" films (considering that screenwriter/producer Sommers wrote and directed them), or that it draws the inevitable comparisons to the far superior and bloodier "Conan" picture (one has to wonder if The Rock is trying to follow Arnie down a similar path to movie stardom).

Yet, its borrowing of elements from "Live and Let Die" (the villain being upset that the hero deflowers his virginal seer, thus crippling her psychic abilities and his competitive advantage over his foes), "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (the hero hides from arrows, rather than machine gun fire, as he runs behind a rolling, oversized gong) and other pictures shows a clear lack of original or creative thought (although the "Mummy" films were guilty of that as well).

Worse yet, the villain - played in stereotypical one-dimensional fashion by Steven Brand (making his feature film debut) with absolutely no fun or flair - is boring as well. The standard training sequence of him beating up his warriors is supposed to show us how tough he is in the belief that we'll then buy into the improbably mano a mano battle at the end.

In fact, the filmmakers goofed by playing the big battle of The Rock vs. Michael Clarke Duncan ("Planet of the Apes," "The Green Mile") far too soon. There's little doubt that Mathayus will eventually defeat his much smaller and laughably intimidating nemesis, but Duncan would have been a far more interesting villain and their battles - which could have been spread out through the film - could have taken on something of a Godzilla vs. King Kong status. Either that, or we could have at least rooted for which would deliver the worst acting (Duncan is surprisingly bad, especially considering some of his past work).

The Rock is probably about on par with Schwarzenegger at the same stage in his career (although far easier to understand), and he certainly has an undeniable onscreen charisma and presence. Unfortunately, the role demands very little of him above the shoulders, beyond his cocky and/or determined expression, and his one-liners aren't particularly noteworthy (although I wonder if it took all 3 writers to come up with "Boo!" while confronting some combatants).

Perhaps the filmmakers were too busy seeing how many episodic segments they could assemble in one picture, how they could insert contemporary dialogue and slang into this decidedly period piece, or how many times they could put actress Kelly Hu ("The Doors," TV's "Martial Law") in as little clothing as possible and still get away with a PG-13 rating. Thankfully, they didn't forget the annoying sidekick character played by Grant Heslov ("True Lies," "Congo") or the inventor one -- Bernard Hill ("Titanic," "The Ghost and the Darkness") - who just so happens to figure out the formula for gunpowder just in time for the big conclusion.

Simply put, the film is about as smart and entertaining as an overblown WWF match as if performed as an amusement park stunt show attraction. If read that as a positive comment, you might enjoy the film. If not, all of the bad writing, acting and directing may just make you long for the earlier "Mummy" films that seem like rather superb entertainment in comparison.

Bad, but not bad in enough of the right way to be fun, the film has a few enjoyable moments, but otherwise is a nonstop fight-fest that easily could have appeared on pay-per-view if just those ring ropes were present. "The Scorpion King" rates as a 3 out of 10.




Reviewed April 16, 2002 / Posted April 19, 2002


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