The Scorpion King

(2002) ** Pg-13
92 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Chuck Russell. Cast: Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Kelly Hu, Grant Heslov, Peter Facinelli.

/content/films/3176/34.jpgMovie critics have to be careful of relative thinking. In moderation, relative thinking is wise: given the other movies on the market (and the wealth of options on TV and home video), does this movie deserve anyone's time? But the passage of years, the surprising staying power of an actor, and the relative awfulness of other movies can often lead a critic to think, "Hey, maybe that movie isn't so bad after all." After suffering through the tortures of the damn 10,000 B.C., it's tempting to give 2002's The Scorpion King a pass. Director Chuck Russell (The Mask) and star The Rock (in his leading-man debut) conspire to bring this pulpy adventure a winking quality. The Scorpion King may be bad, but at least it has no pretensions.

The Rock (a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson) plays Mathayus, an Akkadian assassin hired sometime "before the time of the pyramids" to bring down a warlord named Memnon (Steven Brand). Memnon is headquartered in Gomorrah, so you know he's bad; plus, he has consumed most of the ancient world. The remaining tribes trust aging King Pheron (Roger Rees, who must've taken a wrong turn at Albequrque) when he insists that Mathayus can save them by slaying the source of Memnon's confidence, a seer named Cassandra (Kelly Hu).

The Scorpion King is a loose spinoff from the Mummy franchise. The Mummy Returns was framed by scenes featuring The Rock as a fearsome warlord named The Scorpion King, who at the end of the movie nearly kills hero Rick O'Connell. But the better to make The Rock a star, The Scorpion King becomes in his own movie Mathayus, a roguish guy on the side of good (the arachnid nickname is duly explained). To help fill out the running time, screenwriters Stephen Sommers (writer-director of The Mummy films), William Osbourne and David Hayter add a surplus of supporting characters, including Nubian warrior Balthazar (Michael Clarke Duncan), comic-relief sidekick Arpid (George Clooney's close collaborator Grant Heslov), and court magician/scientist/inventor Philos (Bernard Hill), who's been experimenting with explosive Chinese powder...

Hindsight shows that The Rock's bid for Schwarzeneggarian stardom was reasonably sound, though at this point, he's still leaning on his gimmicks from the wrestling world (wrestling promoter Vince McMahon executive produces the film, produced in association with WWF Entertainment). In a trademark move, the star cocks his eyebrow at a harem: can you smell what The Rock is cooking? And the score by John Debney incorporates elements of (what else?) rock music.

Russell saw the movie as a swashbuckler at heart, and the adventure comedy that results certainly packs in plenty of elaborate fights. The problem is that none of them are particularly inventive and therefore none of them are memorable (the film's most memorable scene isn't a battle, but a CGI-enabled "cliffhanger" escape involving fire ants and Mathayus buried up to his neck in sand). In the end, The Scorpion King is a ridiculous though not entirely unpleasant way to while away ninety-two minutes.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 7/22/2008

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Universal makes its Blu-Ray debut with the Mummy franchise: sparkling new discs of The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and The Scorpion King. The Scorpion King charges home with a very impressive AV presentation, in a special edition that includes most of the bonus features found in previous home-video versions. 

I can find no fault with the stunning high-definition presentation, which puts forward an image of considerable depth, detail, and accuracy that easily keeps up with the film's fast-paced visuals. The DTS HD Master Audio surround track doesn't miss a trick, either, bottling for home listening the robust sound effects and thundering score. The principal bonus feature is a Feature Commentary with director Chuck Russell. It can be a bit spotty, but Russell shares his thoughts on his approach to the material, his actors, and the production challenges, including the precautions one must take with venomous cobras (yikes!).

To feed the Universal-brand U-Control experience, the video-based extras from the previous DVD have been repurposed as part of a Picture-in-Picture feature. With U-Control enabled during feature playback, an icon prompts the viewer to bring up cast and crew interviews, storyboards, and behind-the-scenes footage, when available. Here you'll find comments by the likes of Russell, Dwayne Johnson, producer Kevin Misher, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Steven Brand.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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