If you want to be a movie star, there are far worse careers you could emulate than that of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But really, Rock, there’s “emulate,” and then there’s “photocopy.”
Like Schwarzenegger, WWF superstar The Rock is a muscular athlete who seems like a natural to make a transition to action hero in a Hollywood marketplace dominated by cartoon characters. Like Schwarzenegger—who became a star 20 years ago almost to the day in Conan the Barbarian—The Rock picked a swords-and-pecs adventure as his first showcase feature, The Scorpion King. And like Schwarzenegger, he’s not going to have to worry about polishing that Best Actor acceptance speech.
So give The Rock credit for knowing how to choreograph a transition to the next phase of his career. Then sit back and pay only sporadic attention to a film that plays out like the generic third installment of Conan that Schwarzenegger hasn’t gotten around to making yet.
A “spin-off” from The Rock’s cameo appearance in last year’s blockbuster The Mummy Returns, The Scorpion King casts The Artist Formerly Known as Dwayne Johnson as Mathayus, member of a dying Old Testament-era tribe of assassins called the Akkadians. Mathayus is hired by a group of rag-tag rebels to infiltrate the camp of the warlord Memnon (Steven Brand) and kill the sorcerer who gives Memnon a strategic upper hand in his efforts to generally rule the world. But—surprise!—the sorcerer turns out to be a babealicious woman (Kelly Hu), causing Mathayus conflict between his oath as an Akkadian and a stirring in the general region of his groin.
And blah blah blah and let the hacking and slashing commence. The Scorpion King wastes little time pushing the limits of its PG-13 rating, killing off its first anonymous oaf within seconds. The opening battle sequence is actually quite nicely staged by director Chuck Russell (who worked with Arnold in Eraser), giving The Rock an opportunity to make his grand entrance and toss off his first Schwarzenegger-ian bon mots. It starts with a bang, and initially seems like it might actually be a fun time-waster, which is really as much as you can ask of a film like this.
Eventually, of course, the seams in this patchwork quilt of a story begin to show. Grant Heslov tags along as the obligatory simpering comic relief. Michael Clarke Duncan becomes the obligatory comrade-in-arms. Set piece after set piece goes pretty much exactly where you expect it to go, and pretty much exactly how you expect it to go there.
And in a sense, that’s what The Scorpion King is counting on. The Rock may be the name above the title, but Schwarzenegger is the name lurking beneath the surface. Unlike Arnold, The Rock comes into his film career with an established media persona from his WWF days, but The Scorpion King does little to capitalize on that brash character. He’s following a well-trodden path as a taciturn piece of loincloth-clad beefcake, wielding a sword or a bow with a grimly set mouth. “I’m The Rock, and I’m in an action movie,” he seems to say to his audience. “You know the rest of the story.”
It bears noting that The Rock isn’t nearly as wretched as you might fear from a guy whose mug was on screen all of 20 minutes in The Mummy Returns—five minutes without a word of English dialogue, and 15 minutes rendered as a computer-generated beastie. He’s way ahead of Schwarzenegger in terms of being able to deliver a line, courtesy of his years of acting training as a pro wrestler, and he’s not an entirely unappealing screen presence. But The Scorpion King sinks its stinger so deeply into being a retread of Conan that everything else is overwhelmed completely.
Around about the last minute of The Scorpion King, there’s finally an allusion to the fact that The Rock’s character was actually a villain in The Mummy Returns, a power-hungry warrior like the one he’s just overthrown. Then again, playing the bad guy didn’t exactly hurt Schwarzenegger’s early career in The Terminator. But let’s hope The Rock doesn’t decide to play a cyborg in his next film. After this ho-hum copycat start, maybe he’ll think to himself, in his best Ah-nold Austrian accent, “I’ll be Rock.”