"The Scorpion King" - one of the sweatiest, dustiest and most cartoonishly violent movies to hit the screens in quite a while - is a desert actioner without much character, story or real suspense. It's also a star-making vehicle for pro wrestling's glowering hunk The Rock that recasts him as the monster he played in "The Mummy Returns," drops him into ancient Egypt and surrounds him with fiendish villains, comic boobs, desert babes and lots of CGI effects.
Guided by producer and co-writer Stephen Sommers, the man behind the "Mummy" movies, "Scorpion King" is another grandiose, hyperactive crock, full of lame jokes and gorgeous, stupefying images. The Rock plays a sort of junior-grade Conan the Conqueror here - a barbarian without portfolio, in beefcake chic - called Mathayus the Akkadian. He starts out as just another assassin but soon becomes Scorpion King material - all the while embarking on a campaign to defeat the bad-tempered tyrant Memnon (Steven Brand) and steal the heart of Memnon's lynx-eyed sorceress and security adviser, Cassandra (Kelly Hu).
The Rock gets into this dopey role with commendable intensity. He struts, poses and glares like Bluto in the "Popeye" cartoons - and he says his lines as if he can't bear to part with them. But though the movie may succeed in its strictly mercenary goal of establishing The Rock (a.k.a. Dwayne Douglas Johnson) as the next Arnold Schwarzenegger, it doesn't offer much more narrative interest than Schwarzenegger's worst recent movies - the films like "End of Days" and "Jingle all the Way" that were so bad they seemed to create a need for a new Arnold.
The greatest virtues of "Scorpion King" are that it's so outrageous and elaborately silly that it's sometimes amusing, and also that it's so fast that nothing lasts very long. Just as you begin to get annoyed with one stupid scene, director Chuck Russell ("The Mask"), like a canny tour guide, whips you right into another.
You don't like watching Mathayus and wily horse thief Arpid (Grant Heslov) buried to their necks near red-ant hills or pursued by oily, half-naked thugs through the streets of Gomorrah? Well, what about Mathayus trapped in a harem with dozens of lusty concubines, all garbed in Frederick's of Hollywood-style veils and pantaloons, cooing and fondling him? You don't like the grunt-and-groan, sword-busting battle between Mathayus and his top-knotted Nubian foe turned brother-in-arms Balthazar (Michael Clarke Duncan)? What about another vision of sorceress Cassandra, as she imagines most of the cast getting killed in a massacre led by the rapacious Memnon (Brand), a villain who lives to kill played by an actor who loves to sneer?
If you get tired of the Tom Cruise imitation by Peter Facinelli as treacherous Prince Takmet, you can watch the faraway Ralph Richardson-style stares of Philos the seer, played by Bernard Hill - who seems to be trying to imagine what it was like to appear in films like "Gandhi," "I, Claudius" and "Titanic" instead of movies like this. And finally, when in doubt, Russell just cuts to another close-up of The Rock, clobbering some baddie, ogling Cassandra or sweating, straining and drawing back his taut bow.
Director Russell did a wonderful job with the cartoonish action and effects of 1994's "The Mask," but "The Scorpion King" doesn't have any of that movie's jokes and pizzazz. Nor does it have Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz - or anyone remotely similar. Instead, this movie tries to knock our eyes out with its "Egyptian" backgrounds (cleverly faked in California and the Arizona desert), drown us in beefcake and babes, and, every once in a while, slide in another witless joke, usually from Arpid the wily horse thief, who tries everything for a laugh but actually stealing a horse. The story is almost as ancient as the settings. It's minor comic-book-style stuff, reminiscent of campy '50s desert epics like "Son of Sinbad" or "The Adventures of Hajji Baba." That's probably what the producers wanted. "The Scorpion King" is a dumb movie, but it's also a knowing one: a cheap castle of lewd trivia and corny excitement built on The Rock.
"The Scorpion King"
Directed by Chuck Russell; written by Stephen Sommers, William Osborne, David Hayter; photographed by John R. Leonetti; edited by Michael Tronick, Greg Parsons; production designed by Ed Verreaux; music by John Debney; produced by Sommers, Sean Daniel, James Jacks, Kevin Misher; executive producer Vince McMahon. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, April 19. Running time: 1:34. MPAA rating: PG-13 (action violence, some sensuality).
Mathayus (the Scorpion King) - The Rock
Memnon - Steven Brand
Balthazar - Michael Clarke Duncan
The Sorceress - Kelly Hu
Philos - Bernard Hill Arpid - Grant Heslov
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.