In that prequel, “The Scorpion King,” The Rock has found the perfect vehicle for his particular brand of brawn. Whereas fellow muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger, to whom The Rock has been compared repeatedly, carved out a niche in futuristic actioners such as “The Terminator” franchise and “Total Recall,” The Rock utilizes his wrestling skills in a genre packed with swordfights and hand-to-hand combat. “The Scorpion King” has a self-aware, silly tone, not unlike “The Mummy” movies before it, that recognizes that we shouldn't be expected to take The Rock too seriously.
It is to the screenwriters' credit that the Scorpion King rises to heroism from dubious beginnings, perhaps setting up his eventual turn to evildoing as seen in “The Mummy Returns.” It is 5,000 years ago in the ancient desert. A member of a race of assassins known as the Akkadian tribe, Mathayus (The Rock) is hired by a coalition of scattered nomadic tribes to kill the sorcerer who is advising the ruthless warlord Memnon (Steven Brand) in his rampages across the land. With the seer at his side, Memnon has never lost a battle in his quest to rule over the desert peoples.
However, when Mathayus discovers that the sorcerer is a beautiful woman (Kelly Hu), he decides she is of more worth to him alive than dead and kidnaps her instead. And, as it turns out, the sorceress has been a prisoner of Memnon's since she was a child and is grateful for her emancipation. But when she realizes that her presence in the makeshift village of the desert tribesmen poses a threat to them, she returns to Memnon in Gomorrah, where Mathayus and his allies stage a covert operation to end Memnon's reign once and for all.
“The Scorpion King” is saturated with the stereotypes of the genre: quirky sidekicks (the mad scientist, the precocious child, the village idiot) and beautiful women, including a lusty harem of writhing bodies, juxtaposed against dirty, smelly, swarthy men. But in an age when CGI often replaces old-fashioned special effects, of which “The Mummy Returns” is a prime example, the movie is a refreshing throwback to swashbucklers a la “Indiana Jones,” where the fight scenes are carefully choreographed with nemeses who are actually there.
And at the center of the action is The Rock. Like Arnie before him, The Rock arrives onscreen with an already well-developed and well-known superhuman physique, and he looks comfortable and familiar in the physicality of the role. Face-to-face with a fist or considering where he should point his bow and arrow (Kill Memnon or save the boy? Kill Memnon or save the boy?), his eyes bug out and his brow wrinkles in debate, his facial expressions cartoonish in a performance that could often be characterized as over-the-top. Still, the silly style is pitch-perfect in what amounts to the first popcorn picture of the season. Starring The Rock, Steven Brand, Michael Clarke Duncan and Kelly Hu. Directed by Chuck Russell. Written by Stephen Sommers, William Osborne and David Hayter. Produced by Stephen Sommers, Sean Daniel, James Jacks and Kevin Misher. A Universal release. Action adventure. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence and some sensuality. Running time: 88 min