The Scorpion King (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) in The Mummy Returns was merely a ruthless conqueror. But then the man who would be the Scorpion King made a Faustian bargain: In return for his soul, the god of the underworld, Anubis, would grant him a new lease on life on Earth — and order him to command a legion of two-legged hellhounds assembled to conquer it.
But that was last summer. Now, on the eve of what is already being called the Summer of the Sequel, the writer-director who resurrected The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, Stephen Sommers, spins off the tale of the Scorpion King into the lesser hands of director Chuck Russell (Eraser). Though you might trace the bloodline of Sommers’ epic period-action plots through Spielberg’s Indiana Jones trilogy back to the high-adventure flicks of the ’30s, The Scorpion King’s clichéd tangle of fake myth, ancient battle and comedy looks like it descends from lesser stock: mass-produced, violent (but goreless) syndicated TV fantasy series like “Xena: Warrior Princess.”
The first sequence is a warning sign. The Scorpion King doesn’t open on the sands of ancient Egypt’s desert, but on snowy mountaintops right out of Conan the Barbarian (1982). Mathayus (The Rock) must rescue his Sitting Bull-lookalike brother from the clutches of a Viking horde (replete with warriors who could be on loan from the Swedish Bikini Team). Somehow back in the desert, Mathayus and his band accept a contract to assassinate the requisite evil ruler, Memnon (Steven Brand appearing as a low-budget version of Russell Crowe’s titular gladiator). Along the way, Mathyus picks up a wacky sidekick, Memnon’s gorgeous sorceress Cassandra (Kelly Hu, “Martial Law”), and earns the respect and aid of the fierce warlord Balthazar (Michael Clarke Duncan, Planet of the Apes).
Russell has performed up to par with his previous features, Eraser (1996) and The Mask (1994). But he doesn’t get much bang for this movie’s 60-million-buck budget — or a solid performance from The Rock. Both the sets and most of the actors on them are “B” quality and, unlike Sommers, Russell never fires The Rock into the steely blood lust required to spark life into this kind of hero (the narrow emotional range The Rock demonstrates makes Schwarzenegger look like De Niro).
But The Scorpion King’s fundamental tragic flaw is its script. Cute street urchins chisel and sexy harem girls melt The Rock’s Mathayus as he journeys with comic detours through this unlikely and hackneyed plot hobbled with feet of clay. This is a prequel in only the broadest sense: By the end, his destiny as the Scorpion King seems about as likely as cute little Anakin Skywalker’s as Darth Vader.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at email@example.com.