Someone's gone to the trouble of making a comic-book version of "The Scorpion King," but it's not clear why they bothered. The movie itself is a live-action cartoon, a fast-moving and cheerfully simplistic 88 minutes of exaggerated action put together with the preteen boy in mind.
Although it features wrestling star the Rock in the title role and is energetically directed by journeyman Chuck Russell, the driving force behind "The Scorpion King" appears to be "The Mummy"/"The Mummy Returns" director Stephen Sommers, who co-produced as well as co-wrote the story (with Jonathan Hales) and the screenplay (with William Osborne and David Hayter).
Together, all these people and the rest of "Scorpion's" creative team seemed to have ransacked so many Saturday-afternoon serials for plot devices that you almost expect to see the dreaded Chandu or Ming the Merciless skulking around somewhere in the background. As much as anything else, "The Scorpion King" has a low-budget soul inside an A-picture budget. Most of that budget has gone into the film's nearly nonstop action, the briskly cartoonish doings that are inevitable when your hero is a head-knocking, knife-throwing, arrow-shooting, sword-wielding, over-parapet-tossing kind of guy.
Using two stunt coordinators plus a sword-fight coordinator as well as someone who handled "additional stunt coordination and fight choreography," "The Scorpion King's" action is so furious yet so fastidious that unless I dozed off (unlikely, given the circumstances) and missed one, there's not a drop of blood to be seen.
There's also not a lot of clothing to be seen on "Scorpion King's" legion of barely clad women, from harem residents to warriors, all of whom are costumed like they just wandered in from a sunny day in Malibu. If the ancient world had this much in common with "Baywatch," it's been a well-kept secret.
"The Scorpion King's" saving grace, as much as it has one, is that it is unpretentious, refusing to take itself too seriously. This is a film in which a character says, with as much of a straight face as he can muster, "After a hard day of looting and pillaging, there's no greater city than Gomorrah." Pause. "Unless it's Sodom." OK, it's not Chekhov, but Chekhov never had to write bridge dialogue between action elements.
On the other hand, how seriously could any film take itself with the Rock as its star? But if the wrestler is not a guy you'd want to be doing "Hamlet" (his trademark eye-widening likely wouldn't work for the Prince of Denmark), he does have excellent action-hero presence and great fighting skills, and that's really all that's required.
The Rock's movie career began with a cameo in "The Mummy Returns," and the new film, set 5,000 years in the past, before the unforgiving desert knew from either pharaohs or pyramids, is billed as kind of a prequel to those momentous events.
The Rock plays Mathayus, the last of the Akkadians, a group of assassins "trained for generations in the deadly arts," whatever they are. He's hired by some bedraggled tribes to stop the dreaded conqueror Memnon (Russell Crowe look-alike Steven Brand), who will, yes, stop at nothing to take over the world.
Memnon, however, has a secret weapon, and she happens to look awfully good in those abbreviated costumes that were standard issue in the ancient world. That would be the sorceress Cassandra, played by Kelly Hu, an actress whose black belt in karate does not go wasted in this role.
One of the oddly amusing aspects of "The Scorpion King" are the loopy philosophical discussions between Memnon and his increasingly restive sorceress, who is far from immune to the charms of the hunky Akkadian. "You think I'm cruel, don't you, but I am only order after centuries of chaos," the ruler says. "Rivers of blood can never bring peace" is her comeback, topped by Memnon's "But it can bring obedience, and that is enough for now." Whatever.
These deep thoughts aside, "The Scorpion King" is all about the action. Can a scruffy camel-riding guy whose motto (often repeated) is live free, die well (why not the other way around?) defeat a powerful military leader and "the greatest swordsman the world has ever seen." No need to dignify that question with an answer.
"The Scorpion King" also has a kind of genial disregard of the niceties of classical filmmaking. It doesn't care that its characters have more clashing accents than the U.N. General Assembly. Indifferent to the virtues of spending large sums on location travel, it is proudly shot largely in the great state of California. It doesn't even care that its hero, the once and future king, was introduced as a villain in the last picture. When the swords are singing, what else could possibly matter?
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense scenes of action violence and some sensuality. Times guidelines: no blood but lots of slaughter.
"The Scorpion King"
Michael Clarke Duncan...Balthazar
Kelly Hu...The Sorceress
An Alphaville/Stephen Sommers/Mischer production, in association with WWF Entertainment, released by Universal Pictures. Director Chuck Russell. Producers Stephen Sommers, Sean Daniel, Jim Jacks, Kevin Misher. Executive producer Vince McMahon. Screenplay Stephen Sommers and William Osborne and David Hayter. Story Stephen Sommers and Jonathan Hales. Cinematographer John R. Leonetti. Editors Michael Tronick, Greg Parsons. Costumes John Bloomfield. Music John Debney. Production design Ed Verreaux. Supervising art director Greg Papalia. Set decorator Kate Sullivan. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times