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The Scorpion King
Reviewed by Joe Crowe, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Stephen Sommers (writer, producer) and David Hayter (writer)
Genre:   Fantasy Action
Released:   April 19, 2002
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

First off, let me cop to being a pro wrestling fan. So that's my perspective going into this movie. I've watched the Rock's work every week for several years. I have a similar perspective to what a Tolkien fan had going into Lord of the Rings, a comics fan will have going into Spider-Man, or a crappy movie fan's perspective going into Sandra Bullock's Murder by Numbers.

But don't let the lead actor being a pro wrestler scare you away. The movie does not wink-wink nudge-nudge you to death with "The Rock's a pro wrestler in real life! Get it? Huh? Do ya?" None of that. Once, Rock raises his eyebrow in a manner well-known to wrestling fans—but it's amusing and in context. A pro wrestling ring doesn't conveniently show up in the middle of the town square during a fight scene: this is not Gymkata.

Here's what it is: the Scorpion King is fun. It's fun in the way Conan the Barbarian was fun. It's lighter in tone than Conan was, and the special effects budget is Titanic-sized compared to Conan, but I can't really think of a movie in the intervening time between then and now that provides the same kind of visceral thrill. The action has clanging swords and pounding fists. It's the kind of movie where at certain points, you might find yourself hollering along with each punch. It's the kind of movie that makes you want to go work out afterwards.

Some are calling Rock the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. I disagree. Arnold is like a tank, rumbling through every action flick he's in. Since Arnold's prime, a smooth new type of action hero has appeared, like Jet Li—but Rock's not like them, either. Their moves are cool, but like ballet. The Rock's fighting is old-school action flick. There's no wires, and the fighters grimace and sweat. There are several scenes when the Rock is in motion that spell this out. When Arnold comes at you—boy, you're gonna get it as soon as he gets there. When Jet Li comes at you—he's going to kick you in the head, probably more than once. But when the Rock comes at you—he charges toward the camera looking like he's going to smear you all over the landscape. Of course, Rock should be good in the fight scenes. He's been choreographing fight scenes almost every night for the past six years.

The movie is lighter than Conan, but still serious. It's not full-on goofy like the Mummy movies that preceded it—but I'll get to that later. The Rock is not playing a medieval version of "The Rock," either. The Rock is "the people's champion" who does good deeds for the fans in the audience. The Scorpion King says himself that he's not in it for the people, he's in it for himself. He's not a completely miserable character like Conan is, though; in fact, he's pretty happy, except for the whole revenging himself on the main bad guy thing.

Michael Clarke Duncan looks awesome, too: he's Balthazar, the enemy who becomes a friend after the Scorpion King earns his respect. Duncan is huge—forget that crying stuff in The Green Mile. He looks like he's been waiting his whole acting career to swing a broadsword. Balthazar brings along a warrior tribe to the climactic siege on the bad guy's palace: an army of sword and bow-slinging women. I was surprised to see Branscombe Richmond, playing the Scorpion King's brother. He was Lorenzo Lamas' sidekick for years on Renegade, if anybody remembers that. At least he's showing some upward mobility in the action business.

Unlike some actors who underact in movies like this because they seem embarrassed to be there, the cast here stays the course without flinging themselves too far over the top. You expect a certain amount of that in movies like this—and that is fine, really it is. But there's no Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons here. The Rock is different from every single one of the big action stars in at least one respect—he can speak clearly and fluently! He enunciates! I didn't know action heroes were allowed to have English as their first language.

This movie is a spin-off of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, not a sequel, but it's made by the same people. It has the same style—retro storyline in a pretty new package. But I liked this one better than either of them. It improves on the previous two films in numerous ways. The Mummy flicks tried to convince everyone that lunkhead Brendan Fraser was a witty but hard-boiled action hero. That kind of worked, and kind of didn't, because Brendan Fraser isn't Bruce Campbell. Even Bruce Campbell wouldn't have been Bruce Campbell enough for those movies. No problems in that area with Rock.

The Mummy movies had screen-filling theater-blasting special effects sequences. If you can imagine this in a big-budget Hollywood movie—The Scorpion King's effects are understated. They had every bit of the CGI power of the first two at the click of a mouse, and chose instead to go the opposite direction. There's no magical monster, no Armageddon / Con Air style special effects spazz-out. There's no villain with a video game graphic for a head (like Rock himself in The Mummy Returns' Revvie Award-winning Worst Special Effects Sequence). The bad guys are human and quite hittable. The special effects here have been done in movies before, but this movie's producers have put modern technology to good use: they're using it to make doing the old special effects stunts easier, instead of producing video game cut-scenes.

Because of this, The Scorpion King seems more honest than the other two. Not honest like art housey and serious. Honest like they're not embarrassed to be wearing furs and swinging swords on camel-back. The Mummy hook was that it was just as cheesy and hokey as 50s and 60s monster movies, but they knew it, and smirked at it, and hedged their bets. They couldn't commit to being a full-on parody or a straight action flick. They mined a lot of funniness out of that, which I enjoyed—up to a point. But they couldn't relax and just accept that they were making a fun action flick, and that's when it got old. They didn't need to be sheepish about it.

The Scorpion King is a well-done action movie. Get some popcorn, go forth beyond the Valley of the Dead that is the rest of the movies at your theater, and enjoy.

—RevolutionSF News Editor and Humor Editor Joe Crowe worked out after The Scorpion King. And now his arms hurt, the poor baby.

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