To be blunt, director Chuck Russell's 'The Scorpion King' is an awful movie. It may have earned 165 million worldwide during its theatrical release, but it has all the essential components of a poorly-conceived flop. It really shouldn't, for any reason, register as anything other than bargain-bin clutter. With that being said -- sigh -- I have to admit I found myself chuckling, grinning, and even enjoying Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's high-spirited performance in this otherwise forgettable, popcorn-fueled exploitation of the popularity surrounding The Mummy franchise.
I was a casual fan of 'The Mummy' when it was initially released, but I despised the campier rehash of its plot in 'The Mummy Returns'. So when I sank down in my couch to watch 'The Scorpion King,' I realized I could barely remember how it was a part of the same, fictional universe. A few mouse-clicks later, I found my answer on an outrageous number of 'Mummy' fan sites. Apparently, the demonic arachnid at the end of 'The Mummy Returns' (the amateur-hour-CG creature boasting a silly-putty mask of The Rock's face) was the cursed spirit of the Scorpion King, Mathayus, and, like every movie series worth its dime and nickel, a prequel is an easy way to make a buck.
Taking place centuries before Brendan Fraser finds himself galloping across Egypt battling Imhotep, 'The Scorpion King' focuses on Mathayus (Johnson), a skilled assassin hired to kill a sorceress named Cassandra (Kelly Hu) in the employ of the evil and questionably caucasian King Memnon (Stephen Brand). With the help of a con-artist calling himself Arpid (Grant Heslov), a tribal leader named Balthazar (Michael Clarke Duncan) and other colorful characters along the way, Mathayus captures Cassandra, retreats to the desert, and prepares to kill Memnon, thereby saving his homeland from tyranny and evil. There isn't much depth to the story and the film unabashedly borrows from darker, swords-n-sorcery classics like 'Conan The Barbarian'. However, swirling beneath its surface is a mindless, modern actioner more akin to 'Sahara' and 'The Transporter.'
Your enjoyment of 'The Scorpion King' will come down to your affection for Johnson as an actor. Even in mediocre hosting stints at "Saturday Night Live," Johnson elevates any material he approaches with a natural confidence that hasn't been prevalent in action flicks since the golden days of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. He takes it one step further by introducing a well rounded performance that brings a warm charisma to a weakly written, one-note character. He inhabits Mathayus so completely that everything around him springs up and feels more alive -- a feat that instantly reminded me of Bruce Willis's breakout performance in the original 'Die Hard'. Even when the script is unintentionally funny, you get the sense that Johnson realizes it's as bad as we think. Pay careful attention to how he adjusts his performance to compensate for every blunder in the screenplay and you'll see exactly what I mean. Somehow it works -- he invigorates the comedy with life, leaps into the action with thrilling intensity, and genuinely emotes even when the dialogue is desperately incapable of producing a reaction in the audience.
Beyond that? Everything else 'The Scorpion King' has to offer is like a straight-to-video mess that's ripe with clumsy choreography, over-the-top bloodless violence, basement-theater acting, and poor CG effects. The sets might as well be made of cardboard, there are miscastings galore, the dialogue is packed with a distracting, modern phrasing, the love story is predictable and awkward, and Kelly Hu can't seem to figure out which movie set she stumbled onto.
With all of that being said, I have to reiterate that I didn't find 'The Scorpion King' to be a total waste of time. Sure, it's junk, and yes, it collapses under the weight of its own mediocrity... but give it a try. Unless you're yearning to catch the next Oscar hopeful, a scene or two with The Rock certainly makes it worth a rental.
If you were already a fan of 'The Scorpion King' before this release, you'll be in heaven with this 1080p HD DVD. More importantly, if you just want to marvel at the wonders of high definition, flip this combo disc over and compare the high-def transfer to the wretched, muddy sludge on the crowded, standard edition DVD. The high-def transfer oozes powerful colors, vibrant contrast, an unpixelated showcase of tiny details, textured clothing that's amazingly three dimensional, a full range of blacks spreading into the shadows, and a palette of blues and oranges during nighttime scenes that would send Michael Mann into a jealous rage.
Want your jaw to drop? Head to the fire ant scene and try not to blink. Once you get past the awful CG renderings of the insects themselves, you'll notice individual grains of sand, thin twigs in the desert brush, and even the slightest curl of rotting flesh on the peeled skull on the ground. Spend some time with the opening assault as Mathayus rescues his brother. Squint at the warm, flickering fire, take note of the miniscule stitching on the barbarian costumes, and count the pores across Johnson's nose. Finally, bask in the scene in which Memnon spars with his own men for practice. There's such a spectacular display of the transfer's contrast, color depth, and sharpness that the campy tone of the film is nearly justified. If you freeze-frame these shots, you'll notice how their appearance and coloring is strikingly similar to individual panels in a comic book.
There are a few dirty corners in this visual paradise, but each is a blemish on the source print. I've mentioned the mind-numbing CG in almost every paragraph so far, but the crystal clear transfer really exposes the discount-rate creature effects and highlights their disconnect with other natural elements. On top of this, there are random bouts of camera stutter on some long-lensed shots (most apparent before the credits roll), rare moments when the movie feels soft around the edges (check out Hu when her character returns to Memnon), and sporadic instances where red levels suddenly spike in skin tones (watch Bernard Hill's face when Johnson catapults through his window after the botched assassination attempt on Memnon). These examples are few and far between, but they do keep 'The Scorpion King' from being perfect. Strangely, the original print received a visible amount of digital work in post-production, so I'm confused as to why these problems weren't eliminated.
With action scenes that are inadvertently two dimensional, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround mix on 'The Scorpion King' is a fully realized and welcome surprise. Subtle effects like thrown blades whiz across the soundfield with realistic and natural movement, frenzied scenes still display a nuanced refinement between a multitude of stacked effects, and the dynamic range leaps from earth-shaking booms to the crisp, airy whine of a drawn sword. I was really impressed with the amount of variation in the bass pounding through my subwoofer. Usually, sound design is limited in the upper and lower ranges because viewers generally don't care about the precision of their soundscape. However, the sound designers on 'The Scorpion King' are less concerned with matching the tone of the film and focus instead on the impeccable reputation of their mix.
On the downside, because the movie is a swashbuckling adventurer at heart, the sound effects tend to be limited to punchy blasts and stagey effects. Pay attention during the final battle between Mathayus and Memnon -- you'll applaud the sound implosion in the mix when Mathayus draws the arrow out of his back, but shake your head after the arrow strikes its target. What begins as an interesting design choice climaxes with an underwhelming 'ker-chunk' that I could find on a consumer level sound effects CD. Worst of all, the filmmakers layer 'The Scorpion King' with an obvious and obnoxious heavy-rock soundtrack. It matches the movie's tone, but the score is another missed opportunity for bringing 'The Scorpion King' closer in line with its cinematic idols.
Alas, quantity does not always equal quality. There are a ton of features spread across 'The Scorpion King' but none of them really make your time with the movie any more fulfilling. All of the special features, aside from the commentary by director Chuck Russell, appear only in standard definition on the DVD side of this combo disc. As usual, this presents several problems: unfinished scenes and footage are even more ugly and abrasive, featurettes still appear in full screen instead of anamorphic widescreen, and the video is heavily compressed to make room for the feature film quality.
First up (and the only feature making an appearance on both sides of the disc) is a mixed-bag director's commentary that's engaging and interesting one moment and dry and delusional the next. On a positive note, Russell is clearly a student of history and spends a good deal of time talking about authenticity, attention to detail, and trends of the era that he reflected in the film. Less interesting is his habit of narrating what's occurring on screen, the boring anecdotes that have a shoulda-been-there quality to their structure, unnecessary technical details about camera rigs and dollies, and his seeming inability to recognize the weaknesses of his production.
Flipping to the standard-def side of the disc, I worked my way through a commentary with Dwayne Johnson. With small hints of engaging humor, The Rock isn't very adept at talking at length about his films. He stays silent for long portions of the film and generally points out what's happening on screen instead of talking about the process of making the film, crafting the character, or working with many of the actors. Like Russell, he's mainly concerned with complimenting the cast and crew and he adds little even for fans of the movie. The occasional option that allows you to see Johnson as he views the film is a throw-away feature at best... it's like turning around in a theater and staring at Joe Neighbor as he watches the movie.
Next up is a group of short, haphazard featurettes that sprinkle a few gems into an otherwise average supplemental package. "Outtakes" is a standard romp through miscues and bursts of laughter, "Alternate Versions of Key Scenes" is a waste of time that doesn't alter the characters or plot enough to justify their inclusion, "Making of The Scorpion King" is promotional fluff that belongs in a 2002 commercial break to advertise the movie's theatrical release, "Working with Animals" is a cutesy nap without any exploration of animal wranglers on set, and "The Special Effects" examines the cobra and fire ant CG creations... two of the worst effects in the film. This featurette, in particular, would've been much more captivating if it focused on the superior background elements where villages were extended, cities were built, and armies were expanded. Finally, "The Scorpion King - Man or Myth" is a text description of the actual archeological existence of a Scorpion King in ancient Egypt. I seem to remember a History Channel documentary on this subject around the time that 'The Scorpion King' was released in theaters, but I could be wrong. Maybe the filmmakers invented the entire real-world connection just to sell more tickets. Either way, I found myself wondering why there wasn't more on the subject.
Even though most of the special features will put you to sleep, all is not lost. If you enjoyed the film, there are a few mini-docs that are worth a try. "Ancient World Production Design" is a four minute look at the re-creation of the ancient cities and their historical detailing. "Preparing the Fight" is a six minute rundown of the process behind the training for an action scene. Both of these featurettes include quick-fire interviews with cast and crew members and you do get the sense that everyone had a good time working on the project. These videos are definitely too short but, unlike the featurettes I mentioned before, these at least held my interest.
Best of all, "The Rock and Michael Clarke Duncan" is a hilarious, four minute look at the friendship and friendly rivalry that developed on set between these two powerhouses. With quick edits between Johnson and Duncan talking about each other, amusing behind-the-scenes footage, and a great argument between the two about whether the Rock knocked Duncan down or out with an accidental hit during a fight scene. I laughed out loud a couple of times and you should definitely head to this featurette regardless of what you think about the movie.
'The Scorpion King' is a leap ahead of 'The Mummy Returns,' but for me falls short of the first film in the series. Everyone involved clearly had a good time, but The Rock can only boost the film so high before it starts to choke on its own limitations. In the end, this HD DVD is a great showcase disc that will impress anyone walking through your home theater. The video and audio, while not entirely perfect, take enormous ahead of their standard DVD counterparts. The supplemental features are for fans of the film only and most of them are too short, too dull, or too vague to make this package a great value for the money. If you haven'r seen it, you should seriously considering picking up this flick, particularly if you're a fan of The Rock, but only if you can prepare yourself for a campy actioner with far less brain than brawn.