For the most part, The Scorpion King is just what you think it will be: a series of smackdowns with opponents in barbarian garb and elaborately “masculine” (that is, large) jewelry, with time set aside for Dwayne Johnson to display his considerable self-love. True, Johnson plays a character who is not precisely The Rock, who rides a camel and beds a pretty girl (Maxim cover girl Kelly Hu), and who works his way through a plot that hasn’t been written by the WWF scribes. But these details are incidental. He is The Rock, and that’s what you’re paying cash money to see. (That Vince McMahon executive produced surely has something to do with the film’s more predictable pieces being in place.)
The plot — concocted by David Hayter, Will Osborne, and Mummy and Mummy Returns-maker Stephen Sommers, from a story by Jonathan Hales — is essentially extended backstory on Mathayus, who made his first, brief, and English-languageless appearance in The Mummy Returns. Now you’re reminded that he lives around 3000 B.C., as a member of a “clan of cutthroats who kill for money,” also known as the Akkadians. At the beginning of The Scorpion King, Mathayus is hired to assassinate Cassandra (Hu), the gorgeous sorceress who foresees battle outcomes for the evil warlord Memnon (Steven Brand). Mathayus begins his mission full of sand (as they say), but soon finds himself in love with Cassandra (whose near-nudity, occasionally wet, remains within PG-13 range by strategic arrangement of her long hair).
Deciding to take out Memnon instead of “the woman” (as he comes to call her affectionately, as in: “I’ve come for the woman… and your head!”), Mathayus faces down legions of red-turbaned flunkies on horseback, crashes through windows, fires torpedo-like arrows (blowing adversaries through walls), chomps on menacing fire ants, and vows vengeance for his murdered brother. He also puts a sandstorm to good use, and adopts as his requisite “comic sidekick” a nerdy horse thief named Arpid (Grant Heslov), who warns him that no one goes into the Valley of the Death: “That’s why it’s called the Valley of the Death.”
Nothing stops Mathayus, though. By film’s end, he’s convinced a whole squad of warriors to ride with him into the infamously rowdy city of Gomorrah to set it straight to rescue Cassandra and beat down Memnon. One of these new buddies is an initially antagonistic warlord, the Nubian Balthazar (Michael Clarke Duncan). In fact, they become such good friends that Mathayus feels able to kid the mighty — and mighty touchy — Balthazar, about his garish harem-girl disguise, referring to him as “miss.”
All this is to be expected, from the action scenes to the one-liners to sidekicks to the damsel in distress (though she proves quite capable of taking care of herself, after all). And yet, despite (or because of) its predictability and despite (or because of) its critical drubbing on its release, mainly by way of unfavorable comparisons to other, primal “barbarian” movies of the Arnoldian kind, The Scorpion King is a smashing success. It crushed all competition at the box office, making a whopping $36.2 million during its first weekend.
Certainly, much of its appeal has to do with The Rock, the coolest, smoothest WWF wrestler ever, the much-beloved “People’s Champion.” He’s the guy who wrestles while wearing his movie star sunglasses, whose single arched eyebrow speaks the proverbial volumes, and who has never met a camera that hasn’t drooled all over him. The Rock is a star, straight up. The fact that he also appears to have a sharp sense of humor about his career, his longstanding theatrical conflict with McMahon, his incredible physique, and his own as-yet limited acting abilities certainly endears him to his fans, and perhaps to those only considering becoming fans.
But even as The Rock’s total magnificence recalls the glory days of Schwarzenegger, there is something fundamentally and crucially different about this next generation of action heroics — the shifting dimensions of race identifications and race politics in The Rock’s movie universe (and this is a universe that extends far beyond that of the still predominantly white WWF). The Scorpion King is one amazing jamboree of race mixing and, at some level, even race rethinking. In part, this is a function of the Rush Hour phenomenon, the sudden “discovery” by producers and greenlighters that a blockbuster hit might be made with stars who are not white, and beyond this, the villains can all be identifiably “imperial” — Memnon speaks with a vaguely Euro-British accent, and his second, the insipid Prince Takmet (Peter Facinelli), might be reduced to this high concept: snotty class privilege.
As well, this shift is a function of a more general beiging of race difference and The Rock’s crossover celebrity, which tends to render race invisible, or at least undiscussed. He’s been described in reviews of the film as “charismatic” and “exotic,” without overt reference to his background (Miami-born, he’s the grandson of Samoan wrestler Peter Mavia), or to Hu’s Chinese, Hawaiian, and British heritage. Moreover, the good guys’ team is primarily comprised of Balthazar’s mixed-race Amazonian ass-kickers (including Queen Isis [Sherri Howard]), plus an older white-guy scientist, Philos (Bernard Hill), who behaves more or less like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, pseudo-inventing catapults and gunpowder, and quite pleasantly surprising himself when his experiments work out.
As they infiltrate the castle and the film heads toward its slam-bang, hugely actionated finale, the SK’s motley crew occasionally resemble the intrepid posse in The Wizard of Oz, except that they spread out, much like the characters in The Mummy Returns, in a concerted effort to provide multiple climaxes. Isis and her girls battle a bunch of deadmeat Red Turbans, Balthazar takes out that wussy boy Takmet, and Mathayus spends several delectably drawn out moments with his arch-enemy, the egomaniacal slimeball Memnon, complete with the fearful moment when Cassandra’s vision of her fabulous new boyfriend’s death appears to come true, in slow motion, with hair flying and flames lighting up his perfectly oiled pecs.
It’s a beautiful, and beautifully corny, sight, visibly grander and certainly costlier than The Rock might have managed in a wrestling arena. The investment appears to have paid off. Dwayne Johnson is well on his way to international superstardom. And perhaps, action pictures are on their way to reflecting the vastly diverse audience they pursue so furiously.