Well, I gave up on Stephen Sommers after the rhythmless THE MUMMY so I never watched THE MUMMY RETURNS. But I have since learned to enjoy The Rock so today I finally got around to watching the prequel/spin-off THE SCORPION KING. It’s directed by Charles NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 Russell, so I didn’t have to break my Sommers boycott. And I’m glad I finally watched it. This is probaly the best riff on the CONAN THE BARBARIAN type of movie I’ve seen. Not as stylish or violent as 300 but a little more fun. And a hell of alot better than KULL THE CONQUEROR.
The movie got me from the opening scene where Tyler Mane and a horde of barbarians have some hapless dude who they call “an Akkadian” tied up. They are very proud of all the races and nationalities they’ve murdered but they never bagged them an Akkadian before, so this is a big day. But the Akadian says, “May the gods have mercy on you, because my brother won’t.”
His brother, is, of course, The Rock (registered trademark of World Wrestling Entertainment) as Mathayis, a long-haired, giant-muscled, bow and arrow toting, sword slinging, rope swinging, cuthroat motherfucker who storms in for a Rock vs. Mane Smackdown, and fires an arrow into Mane so hard he flies out the side of the building and lands five years later in the remake of HALLOWEEN.
After the opening we get a narrated explanation of the mythology of what was going on out there in the desert exactly 3,000 years before Christmas of 0 BC. Some prick named Memnon was the king, he was good with swords and could catch arrows shot at him by Al Leong and he had a sorcerer who gave him visions that made it easy for him to slaughter the fuck out of everybody. So a small band of rebels hires what’s left of the mercenary Akkadian race (Mathayis, his brother and a couple other dudes) to kill the sorcerer and take away Memnon’s power. Mathayis hates that asshole so even though he’s a sleazy killer for hire he offers his services pro bono. Giving back to the community.
When he goes in for the kill though everything goes wrong. First of all the sorcerer turns out to be a girl, so obviously he falls in love with her. Then Memnon kills his brother. So now it’s all about revenge, swords, etc.
The tone of the movie is goofy but straight-faced. The Rock gets to say “Die well, my brother” and “I’ve come for the woman… and your head.” Michael Clarke Duncan gets to ask “Will you stand alone before the fury of his armies?” When the sorceress tells Mathayus he’s destined to die he says, “I make my own destiny,” they kiss and it dissolves to the next morning with them in bed together. It also has that lovable barbarian brand of machismo, so at first Mathayis and Duncan’s character Balthazar talk shit to each other, but then they fight and earn each other’s respect and become allies.
In my opinion the science is questionable. He gets hit by an arrow poisoned with scorpion venom and they manage to nurse him back to health, but they say the scorpion venom will be in his veins for the rest of his life. And I guess that must be why he’s the Scorpion King. In my opinion that diagnosis may not hold up to scrutiny by modern doctors, but maybe it’s for the best because it’s a pretty tough name.
There’s a little bit of bad comedy. Grant Heslov, the Academy Award nominated co-writer of GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, plays the wacky horse thief sidekick. He’s lame but not as painful or racist as the comic relief in THE MUMMY. There’s also some cheesy effects involving snakes and big fire ants (before KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, but not as good) but I forgive them because they don’t lean on them too heavily, there’s much more emphasis on sword fights (choreographed by the great Al Leong) and punching. There are alot of shots of dudes reacting to axes stuck in walls very close to their anatomy. Mathayis flies around on ropes, falls off buildings, catapults himself, there’s even a character who manages to invent gunpowder so they can blow shit up.
This is a world where almost everybody is a fierce fighter, including the sorceress and the sexy ladies in the harem. There’s even a little street moppet who gets involved in the battle and it doesn’t get too cute. Grant Heslov might be the only character in the whole movie who can’t kick ass, but he is a trickster so he has some skills such as being able to escape from being buried up to the neck in the brief moment when you have your head turned.
The Rock is great. He has such charisma that he can play a musclebound barbarian and still seem like your buddy. In the climactic showdown they put their weapons down and it becomes a WWE wrestling match complete with something thrown in the eyes (cheating), falling off a ledge into the 3000 BC equivalent of folding chairs, etc. There are alot of good badass moments, like when Mathayis takes an arrow in the back to save his girl – I thought he was gonna die, because I figured he must be a mummy in THE MUMMY RETURNS – but he manages to pull the arrow out of his back and fire it at his enemy. Way to recycle.
I realize this benefits from low expectations, being kind of the Hollywood studio version of a B-movie. But man, this is how you make a fun dumb movie. Let me count a few of the ways it’s better than THE MUMMY. First of all, an appealing star. The Rock may or may not be this generation’s Laurence Olivier, but he’s not any worse than Brendan Fraser. Meanwhile he he’s way more likable, his voice is not annoying, he knows how to deliver jokes properly and sounds like he understands the meaning of the sentences that he says, and obviously he’s a more interesting physical specimen. He’s both a larger than life cartoon and a down to earth dude you would want to hang out with. And then there’s the action. In THE SCORPION KING it’s all better orchestrated. It doesn’t feel much slower paced than a MUMMY movie but it has rhythm to it. It builds to crescendos. It doesn’t feel like the same BANGBANGBANGBANGBANG for the whole movie.
The Scorpion Kingdom (or whatever this place is called) is a land where you become king by proving yourself as a warrior. Too bad, because in a democratic society I would totally vote for Mathayis for Scorpion King. Long live the Scorpion King! And I’m sure if I ever watched THE MUMMY RETURNS I would root for him to win. But that ain’t gonna happen any time soon.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.