The third installment in The Mummy series, The Scorpion King should have been one of the top action-adventures of the summer, a showcase for money magnet The Rock and the true successor of the series' tongue-in-cheek Indiana Jones escapism. What it actually is, however, is wretched. In fact, this movie is so bad it could quite possibly make you retroactively hate the first two Mummy movies for even making it possible.
It didn't have to be so awful. The Mummy was the sleeper hit of the summer of 1999, director/writer Stephen Sommers making the most of an outlandish tale and a charming cast in the story of an archaeological dig gone haywire in 1920s Egypt. Hapless tomb raiders Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah returned in 2001 for the sequel, also directed and cowritten by Sommers; The Mummy Returns was ever so slightly less charming and a little too outlandish, but nonetheless diverting multiplex fare, a logical extension of the franchise. Fatefully, the film also introduced the character of the Scorpion King, as played by World Wrestling Federation superstar The Rock, a development that spelled big bucks at the box office and, of course, led to the inevitable feature film deal.
With a real cast and a half-decent script that didn't ask too much of him, the wrestling phenomenon looked like he could be the next Arnold. Unfortunately, Sommers seems to have hiccuped, as The Scorpion King (which he cowrote and coproduced) can claim neither cast nor script. If the wise man builds his house upon The Rock, the foolish movie man bets his and doesn't bother to construct any kind of a story. Bereft of all assistance from those whose job it is to try to make him look good, The Rock shows a moment or two of honest-to-God action-hero potential, but, bless his heart, he just can't survive the surprising inferiority of his material and his mates.
As the movie creakily unfolds, Akkadian assassin Mathayus (The Rock) and his brother are hired to kill a sorcerer, the secret weapon of an evil territory-gobbling warrior named Memnon, who strikes terror into the hearts of his enemies with superior swordplay and a fearsome mullet. One dead brother and a doublecross or two later, we've got a sorcerer who is really a put-upon sorceress in need of rescue (Kelly Hu), a wacky camel thief in need of a swift kick and the makings of one spectacularly crappy movie.
For its story, The Scorpion King reaches back into the prehistory of Egypt, to the days before pyramids or mummies -- or interesting dialogue, apparently -- and that's one of its biggest problems. There's no Book of Amon Ra, no reincarnated Egyptian princesses, no treasures of the dead pharoahs, no ancient curses, no flesh-eating scarabs, no nothing. Devoid of the slightest shred of swashbuckling grandeur or ancient mysticism, all we've got is a slightly glorified wrestling match in the sand. Which could ostensibly be at least a little fun, if only there weren't so many stupid mistakes along the way -- a close call with a swarm of rabid fire ants waved away with a cut of the camera and without so much as a "by your leave," the use of ridiculous and unnecessarily computer-generated cobras, swords that touch fire and then inexplicably burst into flame, the fact that Michael Clarke Duncan has lines.
Screenwriters Sommers, William Osborne and David Hayter seem only too happy to string together scenes that allow The Rock to show off his hand-to-hand prowess, admittedly not surprising for a movie headlined by a professional wrestler but downright shocking for Sommers, whose wit and humor buoyed the first two films.
The Rock does get the occasional one-liner, but they are all utterly unoriginal and don't produce anything approaching the desired effect. All they accomplish is to make the audience feel excruciatingly sorry for the man behind The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, who is so obviously smarter than the lines he's asked to deliver. Granted, he does seem to have taken a page from the Schwarzenegger school of acting, substituting a look of puzzlement for each of the human emotions he is asked to approximate, but there's no denying the guy's got a big-screen appeal this movie fails to capitalize on.
If all The Rock wanted to be was a wrestler who made a summer movie, he could go home a happy man. But Johnson has made no secret of the fact that he'd like a movie career. If that's true, The Rock needs to catch a whiff of reality and understand the power of choice. Choosing to work with those who only see him in the context of the ring is only going to get him terminated instead of getting him the next Terminator.