"The Scorpion King" should have been a throwback to the B-movie hey-day of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Conan the Barbarian" flicks.
Unfortunately, the end result of The Rock's first headlining film falls far short of those campy treats.
Instead, audiences are served up something more akin to a two-hour episode of UPN's "Hercules."
I went into "The Scorpion King" with the mind-set of an 11-year-old kid ready to escape the fifth-grade world of fractions and the three-paragraph writing prompt for two hours of action, thrills and scantily clad women.
The film succeeded on one of those fronts: No one but Larry Flynt could complain that "The Scorpion King" doesn't show enough of the female form.
But all that audiences will truly gain from seeing the film is a reason to dislike The Rock. That's not entirely his fault, though. He's only a pawn in this Hollywood game of luring in audiences ready for an escapist epic.
The Rock has always been the most interesting and charismatic lug of the rowdy WWF bunch. He carries his character in the ring with an equal amount of eyebrow-raising irony and people's-elbow seriousness.
But for "The Scorpion King," director Chuck Russell leeches any weight The Rock's curious blend of brains and brawn could have given this stagnant film.
Russell's film jumps haphazardly from one scene to the next with no concern for transitions or holding the audience's interest. And there are times when it seems dialogue was cut to add more "action" to the film.
What's more, the camera work feels sloppy and rushed, as if Russell and Co. were remaking an episode of MTV's "The Real World." The shoddy filming makes for dull viewing during even the most engaging of action sequences. The audience is rarely treated to any fights that look real or show any blood, and every move seems too choreographed to be real.
Consequently, The Rock is more believably violent in TV-14 than he is in PG-13. Come on, if we can't get our gore on the big screen, Mr. Russell, we'll just go back to the WWF.
The screenplay, by Stephen Sommers, William Osborne and David Hayter, is typical Hollywood roughage. With pain-inducing, cliched lines like, "Live free, die well," the script leaves nothing but a bad taste in the audience's mouth.
But the most egregious wrong is that these screenwriters fail to give us a real hero, the main reason anyone goes to see a movie like "The Scorpion King" in the first place. The Rock's character, Mathayus, should be dynamic and appealing in a Mel Gibson "Braveheart" sort of way. But ultimately, due to The Rock's stoic performance and his virtue-less, bounty-hunter character, the audience has no reason to care about his destiny.
Similar to The Rock's performance, the rest of the film's acting is bland at best. Oscar nominee Michael Clarke Duncan ("The Green Mile") gives a turn as Balthazar that is shockingly terrible. And unless showing skin now counts as acting, Kelly Hu gives a transparent run in the role of the sorceress.
Only Steven Brand, who plays the villainous king, Memnon, gives a performance that begs attention. He scowls and snarls his way through every scene, which normally wouldn't be noteworthy. But in an ancient land where no one has any emotions at all, Brand's performance stands out only because he seems partly human. By the end of the film, the audience is almost rooting for him, if only because a charismatic leader is better than a boring, predictable one.
Sadly, The Rock will be the one to take the backlash for "The Scorpion King." But the film was made as a Hollywood cash-in, and the blame should go to Russell, who robbed the soul and momentum from a film that -- in the very least -- could have been entertaining.
The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk.unc.edu.
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