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Saccharine-Coated Sting


The Scorpion King

Chuck Russell, USA, 2002

Rating: 2.5



Posted: April 21, 2002

By Laurence Station

Setting a movie 5,000 years in the past definitely has its advantages. The Scorpion King exists in a near vacuum, historical record-wise, a fact of which director Chuck Russell (The Mask, Eraser) takes full advantage, playing up the anachronistic elements to wildly fantastical heights in a film that's all about the rush and certainly not concerned with paying respect to, or making, history. As far as sub-two-hour diversions go, Scorpion King is exactly what it should be: Big, dumb and Saturday-afternoon-matinee fun.

In the year 3,000 B.C.E. a marauding horde worthy of Genghis Khan storms across the desert lands (an unnamed place best likened to Mesopotamia-meets-the-Nile-Valley), conquering all in its path and absorbing peoples and cultures along the way. The horde is led by Memnon (Steven Brand), reputedly the world's best swordfighter, whose string of pre-Alexander the Great successes (though far less written about by later generations) hinge on the ability of his seer, the aptly named Cassandra (coolly handled by Kelly Hu), to see pitfalls before they bring the would-be world conqueror down. Rome was still some 2,500-odd years away, but Memnon would have fit right in with the Caesars and Augustuses of later times.

Enter Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, a.k.a. Mathayus, Last of the Akkadians. To be fair, the Akkadian empire didn't even come into existence for another 650 or so years, but just go with it. (Besides, last of the Akkadians sounds cooler than, say, Last of the Harappas.) Mathayus has been charged by the remaining tribes to assassinate Memnon's sorcerer (not sorceress, as the movie is very P.C. about gender equality -- despite the fact that Kelly Hu wears little more than strategically placed strips of cloth), thus removing his foresight advantage, and hopefully bringing down his tyrannical rule.

The Rock winds up kidnapping Cassandra from Memnon's capital city of Gomorrah (pre-Lot, no doubt) and the two become romantically linked, team up to defeat Memnon, and rule as Scorpion King and Queen until the next marauding horde comes along. (Of course, this being a prequel to the Mummy movie series, Mathayus is already resigned to a less gentler fate.)

But no matter: The Scorpion King is all about B-grade popcorn fun, which the movie possesses in spades, tossing out such camp-worthy lines as "Live free...die well!" and "Nubian eyes will be watching."

Michael Clarke Duncan proves a worthy physical counterpart to the imposing Rock as Balthazar, an initial foe turned grudging ally, and Grant Heslov manages serviceable comic relief as the wormy horse-thief Arpid. John Leonetti (who worked with Russell on The Mask) does lively camerawork and the editing is sure handed, if not Indiana Jones-level groundbreaking. Fortunately, the film is stunt -- rather than CGI -- driven, and that brings a much-needed tactile weight to the proceedings. The main drawback here is that, unlike the first Conan film, Scorpion King is clearly marketed for kids, so any hard-edged ancient-world barbarism is intentionally dulled to butter-knife quality, denuding the film of any true sense of danger or urgency.

Scorpion King has nothing to do with history and everything to do with boffo box office, which it probably won't achieve on a Mummy-like scale. But it should manage just enough to merit a prequel to the prequel -- a time when Akkadians still existed and Gomorrah wasn't quaking beneath a divine hail of fire and brimstone.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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