Devenomized

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hail to the King, Baby!

What a world to be alive in when there are at least four versions of Army of Darkness. Count ’em, four of those fuckers! I’ve only seen three – the theatrical version which I own on DVD *ahem* in a special manner (I’ll get into it at the end of this review), Sam Raimi’s preferred director’s cut which I don’t own yet because I suck, and the television cut which is the first time I watched it on Sci-Fi sorry Syfy back when watching that channel wasn’t anywhere near punishing – but I also know of an international cut. And given that Army of Darkness is one of the most fun movies that has ever graced the earth, even if I still prefer its two predecessors in the Evil Dead series, that makes it a wonderful world when you could get a slightly different experience like Douglas Adams edited this movie rather than Raimi and Bob Murawski. If it were a perfect world, my preferred cut would be the first half of the director’s cut (which actually tightens up the crazy windmill scene where Ash deals with a bunch of mini versions of him in a manner only Ash could be excused for) up until Ash faces his evil version, the theatrical cut starting from his line “Good, bad, I’m the guy with the gun” (absent from the Director’s cut because even Raimi can be a fucking idiot) and go all the way down to the end, for reasons I will go into later on as well. But the world is wonderful enough where we have both. Maybe one day I’ll make an editing exercise of this, Soderbergh-style.

Still I dropped that bomb earlier about how, despite never ceasing my adoration for Army of Darkness as the one movie I am most likely to pop into my DVD player more than the other two films in my Blu-Ray player, I still consider those The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II the superior pictures. For one, those two previous movies actually still have that raw “we made this” sense to them that the studio production of Army of Darkness simply lacks… though Army of Darkness clearly eschews hiding that to embrace the fact that it is a great big adventure. It’s moving the adventures of Bruce Campbell’s Ashley J. Williams into a new fucking direction and it’s an absolute blast for that.

The other thing is that, maybe, as a result of Raimi and crew now having made into Hollywoodland and getting to make Army of Darkness there with that Universal Studios money, Army of Darkness‘s storytelling is less ambitious. It is not as dedicated to making a genre picture as its two predecessors (it is inarguably out of the horror genre – even the presence of living moving skeletons in the film is more Harryhausen tribute in swashbuckling adventure form rather than even the slightest effort at being spooky in even the obvious fun sense) and it’s less thematically sophisticated – taking basically the bare premise of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (as it’s obviously an unofficial adaptation of) and removing all Twain’s wit to make room for Raimi’s Three Stooges inspired slapstick sensibility. Which is fine, better you work with what you know than what you don’t know as well… nobody really likes Evil Dead II for its clever dialogue play, but because of Ash’s visual suffering.

Ash’s suffering has now taken a brand new turn here. He’s not stuck in one creepy wooden cabin anymore, but – as we last left him in the end of Evil Dead II – he and his Oldsmobile ARE still stuck somewhere he’d rather not be in. He’s in the Middle Ages, briefly enslaved in a misunderstanding yet still clear asshole move by Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) until Ash is able to prove himself a bit more of a top dog than Arthur by killing two Deadites – the possessed undead creatures from the franchise – which have been giving our 14th Century boys a bit more trouble than they’ve wanted. The Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie) recognizes Ash through his “boomstick” and chainsaw as a prophesied hero who would “fall from the sky” to rid our Medieval fellas of their Deadite scourge, but of course Ash is reluctant to get involved in the quest to find the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis in the far end of the land and bring it back to them until The Wise Man also states that the book will of course be able to send Ash back to his own time and his deadbeat job at S-Mart that he misses so much.

And like that, after courting one of the beauties there (Embeth Davidtz) like he didn’t days before have to kill his old girlfriend, Ash is now off on his quest to save the day and get back home.

This is obviously the Ash show, even if we have a wider cast of characters now. Everybody is just moving out of Campbell’s way as he delivers annoyed, snarky sarcasm every single step he has to take, but with a newfound certainty and undertones of grizzledness to his fatigue that wasn’t in his hysterics during Evil Dead II (though the scene where he is stuck in a windmill with the night’s effects messing with him still harkening slightly back to the sort of torture he had to go through in the second film) that frankly make him… there’s no other word for it…. a badass. He’s totally rude (my favorite delivery of a line in this movie is a nearly unnoticeable throwaway: as he’s being congratulated by the peasants in his return, he is so done with this shit that he tells one of them off-hand “Get the fuck out of my face.”), he’s much more of an asshole than he ever was in the series, he totally thinks his life is bullshit at this point, but he’s also maybe the most badass here than he ever has been in the series. And Campbell’s ability to still make a character so blatantly dismissive yet charismatic as an adventure hero this time around promised great things for that show the following year The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. that only three people in the world watched (seriously, I’d recommend it).

And it’s not like Campbell doesn’t have a bunch of studio sets and big budget stuff to keep him in the moment anyway, as Raimi begins to expand his toybox of techniques he’s learned between the previous Darkman and here, to the continued effect of cartooniness from Evil Dead II (except in a more appropriate playing field now). Some are kind of easy to catch, like the superimposition used for the mini Ashes scene, but they’re all really bubbly and the artificiality of it is only a minor annoyance. I can’t get mad at catching the claymation bones of a villain as he has a thrilling swordfight with someone. I can’t get too angry at Raimi’s camera movement trying to hide the fact that Ash’s final Oldsmobile battle rig isn’t moving when just the introduction of the thing in the fighting zone is bombastic enough to get me going “Yeah!”. That ending battle between the knights and the undead is chaotic and everywhere and I love it all the more for that, especially when it can still make clear the stakes and location of all the major players. The movie takes care of just the bare minimum of what it needs to and you can either enjoy the ride or take a hike. It’s not that long anyway, it’s a brisk 81 minutes, so stop your whining.

Of course, unlike The Evil Dead or even Evil Dead IIArmy of Darkness is so light and frothy that we never once have the idea that anything will go wrong and Ash will fail. So I don’t feel I’m spoiling anything by pointing out the biggest major difference between the theatrical cut and the Director’s cut which is their endings. In both versions, Ash drinks a potion the Wise Man makes him to have him sleep through time, but in the Director’s Cut, Ash drinks one drop too many and ends up waking in an apocalyptic future rather than the time he came from. It definitely is more in line with both Twain’s novel and how the Evil Dead movies before it ended with their own “Ash is still in deeper shit” moment, but I can’t say I’m fonder of this ending that what Universal mandated for their American release of the film.

Which is Ash getting back to his time just fine and suddenly saving the day again from a Deadite at S-Mart with all the confidence and cockiness a hero needs to make a battle against a demon seem like an effortless inconvenience. It maintains the humor, the grandeur (hell, it translates it and transforms the mundanity of an suburban department store into a fucking battleground), and of course, the badassery that makes me absolutely love the movie entirely. Every line Ash has here is a quip and we just keep loving him more and more. I wish it wasn’t edited and shot in a discontinuous manner that felt like Raimi was begrudged to make this ending (the Deadite never really gets a final blow so much as just dies). But it’s still totally awesome and the movie ending on any other note than Ash having just reholstered his shotgun, telling a girl to “Hail to the King, Baby!”, and making out with her would have been an outright tragedy, I don’t care how dark the Director’s Cut ending would have been.

It’s way too good to be King.

And of course, a King Campbell was in my eyes. I hadn’t seen Evil Dead II yet in high school and obviously his performance in The Evil Dead was too bland and cookie-cutter to be stand-out, so it is his Army of Darkness performance that really made the guy shine in my eyes making him my favorite actor as a teenager as I kept watching a movie or tv show that would be on the air if he even had the smallest appearance (bad move since that meant I sat through The Love BugMcHale’s Navy, Man with the Screaming Brain, etc. the poor guy’s been in a lot of stinkers) and always having a blast to see him on-screen no matter what he was doing.

So back to the manner in which I own the DVD. Well, since I live in Miami for a while where Burn Notice was filmed, my mom found out they were filming right outside her workplace, so I talked my way out of work that day, arranged to meet with my friend there, snuck on set and well…

Photo on 10-27-15 at 4.39 AM #2

Hail to the King, Baby!