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The Scorpion King (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

The Rock, director Russell says, has a 'deep commitment' to acting, bringing as much passion to the role as he does to his athletic endeavors -- good to know.

The Scorpion King

Director: Chuck Russell
Cast: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Steven Brand, Kelly Hu, Michael Clarke Duncan, Grant Heslov, Peter Facinelli
Distributor: wide
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Universal Pictures
First date: 2002
US DVD Release Date: 2002-10-01

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 (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 deeming damsel in distress (who proves quite capable of taking care of herself, thank you). 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, currently starring in Fox's Fastlane), 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 costlier than The Rock might have managed in a wrestling arena. The investment pays 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.

As if to underline this furiosity, the Universal DVD (a gorgeous transfer) includes all kinds of extras, some more desirable than others. Some bonus materials are promotional and/or superfluous ("Spotlight on Locations" is a mini-travelogue; wholly corny trailers advance the Universal Theme Park and the Scorpion King PlayStation Game 2), others are informational ("Ancient World Production Design" highlights the work of designer Ed Verreaux and DP John R. Leonetti's efforts to "make Sodom and Gomorrah in Southern California"; "The Special Effects" shows the development of the cobras and the fire ants, and a series of typed panels lay out the historical best guesses and myths surrounding the Scorpion King).

A segment titled "Preparing For The Fight" has Russell describing his ideas concerning the fight scenes ("First of all, every fight tells a story"), such that concept and choreography come together. "Outtakes" include antics with camels and snakes, as well as a bit where Clark Duncan struggles briefly while mounting his horse (following his advice for the SK to "Rule well"), as The Rock and Kelly Hu look on; once astride, he looks down on The Rock and says, not missing a beat, "Remember: Nubian eyes will be watching you, Scorpion King." Solemn. And then, a segment focusing on the relationship between the two actors replays another version of this difficult mount, with laughs, accompanied by Russell's observation that the two actors were great friends and competitive as well, rehearsing their moves for weeks, "taunting each other," and generally having a grand time (on the disc, they're still arguing over whether The Rock knocked Mike out or knocked him down).

Of all the extras, though, the commentary tracks are the most pleasurable, as well as enlightening. There are two, the "Enhanced Feature Commentary" by The Rock (whom you can also see as he "records the commentary live," for some reason) and the apparently regular one by director Russell, who is clearly thrilled with his good fortune. During The Rock's track, if you click on some sign in the corner, he'll appear occasionally in a PIP box, while the movie runs: wearing a soft brown shirt and headphones, he looks up at an offscreen screen, telling you what an image might be "establishing" or that he "really, really, really" likes a scene. He also reveals some "tricks" that enhance his performance as the SK, for instance, his snappy whistle is dubbed in, or someone is offscreen poking a camel "in the ass" to get it to turn on cue. The most Rock-like moments come when Johnson comments on his own superguy persona: while he strides through a marketplace, a stunning prostitute offers to help him with his cramped muscles; on the commentary track, Johnson answers her, "No you can't, honey. They're not ready for the Scorpion King!"

Russell's comments are more concerned with his vision for the film, with attention to the travails of working on a large-scale project. He talks you through the shooting schedule, experiences on the set, and his thinking about characters and actors, scenes, and stunts. He wanted to use as few camera tricks and wire gigs as possible in the fight scenes, to maintain "a visceral immediacy and real kinetic sense," and keep it from becoming "so stylized that it became an ballet or an exhibition." The Rock, he says (and he calls him The Rock), has a "deep commitment" to acting, bringing as much passion to the role as he does to his athletic endeavors -- good to know.

By the end of the film, Russell confesses, he added the epilogue, where everyone says goodbye and looks forward to making their "own destiny," as a "curtain call for each of my characters." After an amazing, multi-player action sequence, to show off The Rock's charisma: "Very simply, " he says, "I wanted to have an opportunity to have The Rock smile. He played a really tough character this entire film, and in person, the Rock is really a charming guy. And I thought we ought to try to end the movie with a little of that charm." It's a good insight, for that, above all, is what The Rock is cookin'.

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