The Scorpion King
Chuck Russell, USA, 2002
Posted: April 21,
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
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
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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