Monday, August 15, 2016

The Scorpion King (2002, Movie Review)

      Following up on my last movie review of “The Mummy Returns” is a review of the 2002 action adventure “The Scorpion King”. Universal had struck gold with their Blockbuster "Mummy" franchise, and an idea was floating around the studio to expand on its Egyptian setting with movies revolving around other characters from the Mummy universe. With the advent of “The Avengers”, Cinematic Universes are all the craze now, but back in the early 2000’s, this concept was bold and new. I have to admit, this was a really cool idea to expand on the Universe of “The Mummy”, and it opened the door for some potentially cool films. “The Scorpion King” is a spin-off movie of the character featured briefly in the opening of “The Mummy Returns”. The trailer for “The Scorpion King” got me really excited, like this was going to be a modern day “Conan the Barbarian” but with the epic size of something like “Gladiator”. The result is a film that didn’t really live up to the hype, has little to nothing in common with “The Mummy”, but I find it a mostly satisfying sowed in sandal adventure.

     I personally am a sucker for period action-adventure films of this sort, and the film isn’t without some charm, but I’ll talk more about that in a moment. Set some time before the creation of the pyramids, a malevolent horde has taken over the land, and their leader Memnon rules the people with an iron fist. The big ace up his sleeve is a mystical sorceress that can foretell that outcome of every battle. The last surviving group of rebels decide to send a mighty assassin named Mathayus to slay the enchantress in hopes to give them a winning edge. Soon Mathayus is betrayed, and his brother is executed by Memnon himself. Now Mathayus is out for vengeance, but finds aid though the very sorceress he intended to kill. So the two set off on a quest to free the people of the kingdom, and end the sinister rain of King Memnon.

     In short, it’s a basic action revenge plot, and really has no direct lead into the Scorpion King character featured in “The Mummy Returns”. Yes, we see how this assassin becomes a king, but the character’s journey has nothing to do with the events of the previous film. It doesn’t even feel like the same character at all. The titular Scorpion king featured in “The Mummy Returns” was a very ruthless beast, and a tyrant who would sell his soul to the devil just for a chance to gain power and vengeance. This Scorpion King named Mathayus is your typical cocky hero who drops one liners, has a personality, dose heroic things, and nothing makes me believe that he’ll become the villain from the established film. He doesn't even do anything scorpion related that would lead to his title. There's a scene in which he injected with scorpion venom, but it's a very short scene and doesn't really do anything in the long-run. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson played the Scorpion King in both movies, and while his performance is nothing great, this has always been the role that I associated most with the actor. Even with him playing “Hercules”, I still see him as the Scorpion King. He dose look good in the role, and he even offers some genuine charm. The character himself is just okay, he doesn't intrigue me as a person, and he really doesn't impress me as a warrior either, but he's not bad by any means, just average.

      It should be noted that the name of the character is actually a reference to a historical king of the Protodynastic Period of Egypt named King Scorpion. Don’t expect the film to have much historical significance beyond that. Actually the film has several small gaps in historical logic that I always take note of. For example, all the swords featured in this film are made out of steel, which contradicts the opening prologue that the film is set “Before the time of the Pyramids”. The earliest known production of steel is nearly 4000 years old, where the Pyramids are over 5000 years old. Supposedly this film is set around 3200 BC, which would put this somewhere in-between the “Bronze Area” and the “Iron Age” of swords. Then again, everything in this film is very artificial. No-one looks like a product of the time period, and there’s a lot of modern talk. The film is also set in the city of Gomorrah, which along with Sodom is mentioned in the “Book of Genesis” and all throughout the Hebrew Bible. I wish the film could have spent time developing this city and its heritage, but it’s quietly glanced over, and just becomes a typical location to set the adventure in.

      Obviously the main point of the film isn’t to educate, but to entertain with a non-stop supply of action scenes. Seriously, right from the start this film hits you with action, and more action. Personally, I like the variety in which the fights come at us, and each battle lasts just long enough without getting repetitive. The movie also has a perfect run time that's under 2 hours, which is a breath of fresh air now days. While it’s consistently entertaining, there aren’t any stand out action scenes that really “wow me” either, that is with the exception of the ending, but I’ll get to that later. I think the film is very self aware of what kind of film it is. It’s not pretending to be a great epic like “Braveheart”, but it doesn’t quiet reach the same entertaining heights of “300” either. I will say that I like the overall style and feel of the movie. It’s definitely cheesy, and mostly over the top, but in just the right way where it becomes a style. If you look at modern day adventure movies of this sort like “Clash of the Titans”, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”, “Immortals” and “Gods of Egypt”, their all so overly stylized, pretentiously artsy, and are polluted with over the top CGI monsters. “The Scorpion King” by comparison is actually quiet tame, yet over the top in just the right amounts. I like that all the action is in front of the camera, and the special effects are used very sparingly for little things like a swarm of fire ants and a sand storm. Some of the comedy is too modern for it's own good, but there are some select moments which are legitimately funny. The stand out funny moment involves a kid at a wishing well ... I'd better leave it at that. I also like that the magical elements are toned down, and are only associated with the Sorceress. The Sorceress has the power to see visions of the future, and these lead to some eerie atmospheric scenes that are shot beautifully. Aside from that, it’s good old fashion sword play, and it’s so welcome in this day and age.

     Now let’s talk about the absolute best thing in the film, and that’s Kelly Hu as the Sorceress. Holly cow, back in the early 2000’s Kelly Hu was like a Goddess among mortal actresses ... well, okay, that’s just how I viewed her. All joking and insanely good looks aside, this is actually a fairly strong female lead. In fact, she was so good at holding her own, that I honestly don’t know if I could call her a typical damsel in distress. Her arch, while under developed was laced with a lot of potential, and we do get spades of some terrific character traits. As stated in the synopsis, she had the power to read the future and ever sense she was a child, she was used as a weapon for her evil master. Mid way through the film she escaped her tower only to find herself in a different kind of cage. Along the journey she witnesses kindness and respect in others, but was also aware that her absence would lead to the deaths of innocent lives. Then after losing her power, she willingly goes back to her evil master to prevent him from committing mass murder in the process of looking for her. She also gets to shine in the action scenes, and while not a total bad-ass, she can clearly take care of herself. I really wish this film spent more time developing the Sorceress because I felt that she had potential to be a really great character rather than just a better than average damsel stereotype. Bottom line, she may not be the greatest female lead in the world, but she made for an excellent addition to the film, and by God did she steal the scenery with her killer good looks.

    Steven Brand plays the villain Memnon, and he does a serviceable job. The villain himself is nothing original, but he still works, and I like that he’s at odds with our hero. The Scorpion King is all mussel and brute strength, while our villain is smaller and more agile, so they balance out very well. There’s another warrior King named Balthazar who’s played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan, and he’s great as always. He’s one of those special talents who can turn anything he touches into gold. His part is admittedly small, but he’s always committed to a role, and it’s always a treat to see him on screen. One of the films highlights is when Balthazar gets into a fight with our hero Mathayus and I get the impression that the two actors were having the time of their lives while filming this scene. The remaining characters are all very disposable and just fill in space. There’s a witch doctor played by the great Bernard Hill, who supplies our hero’s with explosive powder, but does nothing else beyond that. Grant Heslov is droped in the film as an annoying comedic side character, and there’s even a pointless little kid character thrown it just to be a cute side kick. We have the enjoyably clichéd Evil Henchman who looks cool, but is taken out in a rather anti climactic way. But the most undermining character of all has to be this evil Prince, who in the beginning of the film betrays our hero, and kills his own father. This character was set up with lots of potential to be a real menacing presence, but he’s just sort of put in the corner, doesn’t do anything, and his comeuppance just isn’t as satisfying as it should be.

       While the action is serviceable at best, it’s at the finally when things get really cool. Our hero’s mount an Attack on Memnon’s castle, and the last half hour is just one awesome, non-stop action packed spectacle. Most films of this sort have the exact same climax involving massive armies (usually over the top CGI) clashing in an open field, and personally I’m sick of it. This climax is a straight up siege on a castle with some beautifully choreographed close-quarter fighting, exciting sword play, and a terrific use of props. It’s such a breath of fresh air, but it’s not without some spectacle either as we still get big explosions, hot chicks kicking ass, and a nice variety of different fights in this one big location. The final confrontation between Mathayus and Memnon is personally one of my favorite Hero/ Villain duals. Everything in this fight is just fiery blaze, and they cover a lot of ground too. The fight begins in a throne room, then they work their way out side to the top of the palace, and the momentum just keeps building and building. Memnon pulls out two swords that he sets on fire, and there's one hell of an awesome quire which just adds to the excitement of this duel.

    On that note, let’s quickly talk about the Sound track. Fitting right along with the films style and tone is a cool instrumental rock theme that plays whenever our hero is on screen. It’s not the typical theme music you’d here in a sword and sandal adventure, but it always gets me excited whenever I hear this score. The individual songs from the movies soundtrack are dated products of the time, but I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and still enjoy some of these tunes for representing a decade. The stand out song titled “I Stand Alone” performed by Godsmack was one of my favorite heavy rock songs of the early 2000’s, and always brings to mind fond memories of favorite video games like “Prince of Persia: Warrior Within”. The “I Stand Alone” music video actually felt more like a "Mummy" spin off then “The Scorpion King” movie did, and even featured armies of skeletons coming to life. Other artists from this soundtrack include Nickelback and Creed, neither of which I’m a fan of now days, but back then I thought their music was actually really awesome. Whether their music is good or bad, they have this way of taking me back to my teenage years, so I guess there’s some novelty in that.

      The best way to describe “The Scorpion King” is a harmless waste of time. It’s one of those films I can enjoy after a long days work, and I just want to get vegged out on my couch. Most may call this a forgettable and average film, but even so, this kind of derivative entertainment isn't without it's merits. I of course will remember “The Scorpion King” on some level, mostly due to the amount of times I watched it as a young teenager. There were 3 sequels that followed titled “The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior”, “The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption” and “The Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power”. These films were truly forgettable, and a real waste of time in the worse possible way, so don’t bother. None of them featured Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson reprising his signature role, and all the elements of a fun action adventure are noticeably lacking.

      To sum things up, “The Scorpion King” is a cheesy, silly, by the numbers action adventure, and personally ... I still enjoy watching it to this day. It’s arguably my second favorite film in “The Mummy” franchise, and it somehow works as an amusing little product of the time. There are definitely better sword and sandal adventure films out there, but for what this is, I think “The Scorpion King” is perfectly passable. I honestly think its aged better then even “Conan the Barbarian” from the 80’s, but that’s just me talking. I’d say the film is worth checking out for some of the action, the overall cheese factor, and of course for Kelly Hu.

                                             I give “The Scorpion King” 3 stars out of 5.  

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