Caught between Rock and a hard place

Movie Review

April 19, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Scorpion King is a spin-off/prequel to the The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, but it plays like Abbott and Costello Meet Conan the Barbarian.

When you have a lead like wrestler Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, it's probably wise to focus on outlandish action and try for a tone that's part comic, part comic book. The Rock may be an amiable fellow, but he acts only with his arched eyebrows and maybe the whites of his eyes. He trains his gaze on his fellow actors as if they were opponents in the ring.

For a half-hour or so, the movie's kiddy-brand stew of archetypes from sword-and-sandal spectacles, including Spartacus, and "young adult" fantasies of every stripe, including westerns and King Arthur movies, may bring baby boomers back to their Saturday-matinee youth. The movie pits The Rock as Mathayus, the Last of the Akkadians - a vanishing tribe of Egyptian samurai - against the evil outsider Memnon (Steven Brand), who imposes order on all the clans of ancient Egypt with an iron fist. Among the many potential camp hoots in this film is that Memnon's capital is Gomorrah.

But to achieve camp you need either to be unabashedly primitive or capable of glitzy high style, and the people behind this movie are neither. Oh, they give us all the ingredients: the court inventor working on Chinese magic powder (i.e., gunpowder), the jumpy horse-thief sidekick who pratfalls even during cliff-hanging climaxes, the gargantuan rival warrior (Michael Clarke Duncan of The Green Mile) who becomes a trusted friend, and, of course, the scantily clad sorceress (Kelly Hu). But the ratio of cheeky strokes to cheesy melodrama tilts the wrong way as the movie creates a flimsy myth about Mathayus becoming Egypt's first great monarch, the Scorpion King.

Mathayus' most engaging power is that he can understand his camel - although the movie is so juvenile you expect the animal to speak English, like Mr. Ed with a hump. What's disappointing is that The Rock isn't much fun to watch as a swashbuckler. Whatever grace he has as an athlete doesn't translate into archery and swordplay, and even if it did, you wouldn't be able to tell from the grab-bag quality of this movie's set pieces. The Scorpion King is action-packed, all right, but the action is packed like canned meat.

The Scorpion King

Starring The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Kelly Hu and Michael Clarke Duncan

Directed by Chuck Russell

Rated PG-13

Released by Universal

Running time 89 minutes

Sun Score *1/2

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