With the sincerest apologies to Lu Saitta, who had been waiting on this review for a while ever since she answered a question correctly last summer (I ended up delaying it for a Halloween Mummy marathon that simply never happened), I dedicate this review to her and her unyielding patience (or ability to forget bad writers sometimes offer to write stuff for people).
The Scorpion King‘s origins as a film in early 2002 are quite a doozy. It is not only a spin-off to the reboot franchise of Universal Studios’ Mummy movies from the turn of the millennium, it is a PREQUEL to the SEQUEL to the REBOOT of Karl Freund’s 1932 masterpiece. Less than a year had passed between the April 2001 premiere of The Mummy Returns and the April 2002 release of The Scorpion King, meaning that Universal Studios and WWF Entertainment fast-tracked the production of the origin story on a character who spent more screentime as CGI that already looked video game-like back then in the hopes that he would prove extremely popular in the wake of The Mummy Returns‘ success (not expecting it to make slightly less than its predecessor). This film is the purest form of synergy I can possibly imagine.
The Scorpion King made enough of a pretty penny for the studios to not regret making the movie, but it’s very likely not on the merit of the character’s appeal and more the actor who portrayed him. For The Scorpion King was essentially THE role that began building Dwayne Johnson’s future movie star status from his acquired superstardom as a wrestler for WWE (formerly WWF) under the ring name The Rock, the name which the actor was billed as*.
Now, despite the mercenary intentions that animated the production, there’s little conflict in me declaring The Scorpion King the “best” of the four Mummy reboot films (ignoring the multitudes of Direct-to-Video releases WWE milked), but that is not a tall order. It already has the significant upgrade of moving from the dashing enough and overeager but still out of his league Brendan Fraser to The Rock, who hadn’t yet harnessed his full charisma as a screen persona but is remarkably confident at being a brawny barbarian given that it only requires fierce and mean looks while swinging and grappling no different than he did in the ring. He plays right along with the sword-and-sandals set he’s inhabiting, aided largely by the fact that this time he actually gets to be in the movie with his legs attached.
Yes, the Rock’s just the right sort of arch tan-muscled masculine tower in which to build a very boilerplate story of The Scorpion King’s original identity: Mathayus (The Rock, duh!), last of the Akkadians after witnessing his brothers’ betrayal and slaughter during their mission to assassinate the warlord Memnon (Steven Brand)’s sorcerer that’s been ensuring his conquest of Mesopotamia. This mission is only further complicated by the discovery that the mark is in fact an attractive sorcerESS given the obvious name of Cassandra (Kelly Hu) and, after 30 minutes of escaping and taking another go at killing her without being distracted by her beauty (made harder Mathayus by the fact that his second ambush happens to be while she’s naked), discovering her to be a hostage of Memnon and decides to escape with her into the hot desert sun without much of a plan except to stay as far out of Memnon’s grasp as possible and smolder at each other, despite Cassandra’s clairvoyance promising certain doom for Mathayus’ valiant actions.
The screenplay by Stephen Sommers (who directed the previous Mummy films), William Osborne, and David Hayter (HEY KIDS, SOLID SNAKE!) meanders with betrayal towards its desire to fit enough plot and qualify as a feature without wanting to give unnecessary depth to its characters (it is somewhat dedicated to reminding us of Memnon’s formidability, probably because Brand has to pretend to give the Rock a good fight), but – barring the fact that Mathayus could have learned everything he learned about Cassandra well before the things he had to go through – it gets to where it needs to be without wearing out its welcome. There is the irresistible observation that placing this is the 2800s BC and identifying Mathayus as an Akkadian implies the events of the film to lead into the Akkadian Empire, but his name is Mathayus instead of Sargon and there’s the ahistorical claim that he’s literally the last survivor of the race. And the setting of the film being in the Biblical city of Gomorrah, famously destroyed long before by God in the Book of Genesis. And the fact that the Mummy Returns presented The Scorpion King as a bloodthirsty ruthless tyrant and here he’s a charmingly scrappy rogue. But y’know, I’m feeling generous.
The Scorpion King also makes the significant upgrade of replacing the computer-effects-dependent glutton Sommers. Now, we have Chuck Russell who doesn’t have much in the way of control of tone (see also: The Mask and Dreamscape) but luckily The Scorpion King doesn’t demand much in the way of shifting tone. It’s essentially a middle-tier feature-length episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, swashbuckler all the way down with occasional indulgence in extra badass star vehicle (and one I’d say Russell qualified for based on the Jason and the Argonauts-esque skeleton battle at the end of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors). Sure, there’s a tiny bit of comic overtones but they’re mostly pulled in by the quicksand-like gravity of the wily horse thief sidekick Arpid (Oscar winner Grant Heslov and if you’ve seen The Scorpion King, you do not need me to tell you that the Oscar was not for Acting), pushing them to the side of a scene rather than making them interrupt any of the action. Even before The Rock was an ACTOR, you could hardly upstage the dude with a clown.
Russell’s main strength is competently putting together setpiece after setpiece until the movie runs out of time (see also: The Mask and Dreamscape) and The Scorpion King bats a decent enough average to breeze on its 92 minute runtime as Russell’s shortest film. Not that some of them aren’t ruthlessly cut to confusion, such as the middle sequence where Mathayus returns to Memnon’s stronghold and escapes with Cassandra (somewhat a big setpiece made out of smaller setpieces, including the most blatant Indiana Jones rip-off in a franchise that spent most of its time ripping those movies off). But the grand majority of them have a Raimi-esque theatricality to them based on how “oh this really metal thing happens where the swords are on fire” and “then this really metal thing happens where he tosses a guy in the way of a tomahawk”. It’s all in the service of making The Rock look cool and having a coherent or interesting style is merely incidental. If there is to be one major highlight, I would say it’s a battle during the escape in which Mathayus leads the guards into a cave during a sandstorm, using the limited shafts of light and a panning soundtrack to impose on the viewer the same sort of frightened confusion towards our hero’s guerilla tactics as the head guard while his men are effortlessly killed (there is one “Are you fucking kidding me?” moment where a guard gets swallowed by quicksand and then ANOTHER idiot guard steps into the same quicksand after seeing the guard die that way and no surprise at HIS fate).
So, is the movie successful at being quality entertainment? I don’t know. The seams are pretty much there. This movie looks its budget, with less characteristic production design than its predecessors and much dodgier CGI including a sequence where The Rock steps through a wall of fire and it separates as though it were a curtain. But Russell makes quick, tight work out of a script that doesn’t entirely know where it’s going and the Rock is one of several archetypes portrayed by a capable cast (including Bernard Hill as an absent-minded professor and the late Michael Clarke Duncan as the big burly rival turned ally). It all feels barely adequate to me and I’m hardly going to look back on it after tonight, but y’know the saying about one’s person’s discardings is another one’s treasures. That is how artifacts get made, even ones from the early 2000s.
*You will notice that some folks such as myself who grew up in that wonderful time in the 1990s have trouble shaking off calling him by The Rock, even though he’s moved on from that brand. I think I mark the line at being born in 1998 as my sister was and strictly refers to him as Dwayne Johnson without much recognizing him for his wrestling origins.