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,