Skip to main content

I may be a king, but I'm a wrestler first.


The Scorpion King
(2002)

I studiously avoided this prequel to The Mummy Returns on release because I was so repelled by that film’s incompetent CGI monstrosity of the Scorpion King himself. It turns out I did Chuck Russell’s film a small disservice for, whilst it bears originator Stephen Sommers’ smudged knuckle prints in the script department, he is crucially absent behind the camera. The result is an old-school sword-and-sandals picture, with more than a slight doffing of the hat to Conan the Destroyer, that doesn’t outstay its welcome and doesn’t make you feel like you’ve been beaten about the head by ILM (in the interests of fairness, eight effects houses are credited for the disastrous visuals in The Mummy Returns).

Russell hasn’t helmed a film in more than a decade; this is his last credit. Perhaps there are personal reasons, or he just hasn’t found anything to tickle his fancy. It’s not as if he was shunned for delivering a string of flops; he has the most respect A Nightmare on Elm Street sequel to his name as well as significant hits in the forms of The Mask and Eraser. Although, picking up on an inferior director’s “inspired” cast-offs does seem a bit like slumming it. Russell’s no auteurist dazzler behind the camera, but he’s a competent pair of hands who knows where to position the camera and how to ensure that action is coherent. He also doesn’t feel obliged to vault through the story at a breakneck pace, drama and tension be damned. He’s everything Stephen Sommers is not, basically, and for that he deserves some small praise.

I won’t get carried away, though. This is all relative, and I came upon Scorpion King after enduring TMR. Things don’t look good in the opening scene. The Rock appears wise-cracking (his first line, is “Boo!”) and there’s an inappropriate electric guitar on the soundtrack. But John Debney’s score proves to be agreeable rather than jarring in the long run, while John R Leonetti’s cinematography may not be striking but the plastic sheen of Sommers’ movies is thankfully absent.

The plot, as it is (I’m assuming the better elements come from the co-credited Watchmen and X-Men scribe David Hayer), sees Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s titular character (at this point a mercenary known as Mathayus) employed to kill nefarious King Memnon’s (Steven Brand) victory-ensuring sorceress Cassandra (Kelly Hu). Inspired name, that. I’ll bet that one came from Sommers. Of course, things don’t go quite as planned. Instead of killing her, he abducts her, and then leads a force against the King.

So it’s a bog standard premise, but Russell is blessed with the surprisingly charismatic Johnson as his leading man. His self-conscious delivery actually suits the material, so when you discover he has a pet camel, which he talks to, it’s amusing rather than tiresome. Most of the other performers don’t fare as well, from the obligatory comedy sidekick (The Men Who Stare at Goats helmer and Clooney pal Grant Heslov) to Michael Clark Duncan’s initially-at-loggerheads-but-sure-to-be great friends eventually tribal leader. Bernard Hill bizarrely shows up as a crackpot inventor, while Peter Facinelli (lately banished to Twilight movies) is a conniving turncoat.

Most damagingly, the villain is rubbish; Brand has little presence aside from acting like a swaggering prick. Hu, who would memorably clash claws with Wolverine in X2 the following year, doesn’t make an impression for her performance, it must be said.  That’s okay, as it doesn’t seem to be why she was cast. Instead, her form is much-adored by the camera as she progresses through a series of skimpy costumes; certainly as scanty as a PG-13 will allow.

Obvious CGI is limited, aside from re-use of the series’ crawling critters programme; this time to have Johnson threatened by large red ants. King didn’t make even half the sum of its parent films at the box office, but then it’s in a difficult genre. And, quite possibly, the lack of ADD on the part of its director was off-putting to viewers who expected something that barely made sense. Too slow, no doubt. Or maybe, as seems to have been confirmed subsequently, the Rock just isn’t a major box office draw.

I’m making it sound like The Scorpion King is a good film. It isn’t, but it’s a tolerable movie that doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. And you won’t finish watching it feeling as if your retinas have been assaulted. Which is more than you can say for Stephen Sommers-ville.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Well, we took a vote. Predator’s cooler, right?

The Predator (2018)
(SPOILERS) Is The Predator everything you’d want from a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator (or Yautja, or Hish-Qu-Ten, apparently)? Emphatically not. We've already had a Shane Black movie featuring a Predator – or the other way around, at least – and that was on another level. The problem – aside from the enforced reshoots, and the not-altogether-there casting, and the possibility that full-on action extravaganzas, while delivered competently, may not be his best foot forward – is that I don't think Black's really a science-fiction guy, game as he clearly was to take on the permanently beleaguered franchise. He makes The Predator very funny, quite goofy, very gory, often entertaining, but ultimately lacking a coherent sense of what it is, something you couldn't say of his three prior directorial efforts.

Right! Let’s restore some bloody logic!

It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)
(SPOILERS) "I think our film is arguably better than Spiceworld" said Neil Tennant of his and Chris Lowe's much-maligned It Couldn't Happen Here, a quasi-musical, quasi-surrealist journey through the English landscape via the Pet shop Boys' "own" history as envisaged by co-writer-director Jack Bond. Of course, Spiceworld could boast the presence of the illustrious Richard E Grant, while It Couldn't Happen Here had to settle for Gareth Hunt. Is its reputation deserved? It's arguably not very successful at being a coherent film (even thematically), but I have to admit that I rather like it, ramshackle and studiously aloof though it is.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

My pectorals may leave much to be desired, Mrs Peel, but I’m the most powerful man you’ve ever run into.

The Avengers 2.23: The Positive-Negative Man
If there was a lesson to be learned from Season Five, it was not to include "man" in your title, unless it involves his treasure. The See-Through Man may be the season's stinker, but The Positive-Negative Man isn't far behind, a bog-standard "guy with a magical science device uses it to kill" plot. A bit like The Cybernauts, but with Michael Latimer painted green and a conspicuous absence of a cool hat.

The possibilities are gigantic. In a very small way, of course.

The Avengers 5.24: Mission… Highly Improbable
With a title riffing on a then-riding-high US spy show, just as the previous season's The Girl from Auntie riffed on a then-riding-high US spy show, it's to their credit that neither have even the remotest connection to their "inspirations" besides the cheap gags (in this case, the episode was based on a teleplay submitted back in 1964). Mission… Highly Improbable follows in the increasing tradition (certainly with the advent of Season Five and colour) of SF plotlines, but is also, in its particular problem with shrinkage, informed by other recent adventurers into that area.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Bring home the mother lode, Barry.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

If Panos Cosmatos’ debut had continued with the slow-paced, tripped-out psychedelia of the first hour or so I would probably have been fully on board with it, but the decision to devolve into an ‘80s slasher flick in the final act lost me.

The director is the son of George Pan Cosmatos (he of The Cassandra Crossing and Cobra, and in name alone of Tombstone, apparently) and it appears that his inspiration was what happened to the baby boomers in the ‘80s, his parents’ generation. That element translates effectively, expressed through the extreme of having a science institute engaging in Crowley/Jack Parsons/Leary occult quests for enlightenment in the ‘60s and the survivors having become burnt out refugees or psychotics by the ‘80s. Depending upon your sensibilities, the torturously slow pace and the synth soundtrack are positives, while the cinematography managed to evoke both lurid early ‘80s cinema and ‘60s experimental fare. 

Ultimately the film takes a …

What a truly revolting sight.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (aka Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) (2017)
(SPOILERS) The biggest mistake the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have made is embracing continuity. It ought to have been just Jack Sparrow with an entirely new cast of characters each time (well, maybe keep Kevin McNally). Even On Stranger Tides had Geoffrey Rush obligatorily returning as Barbossa. Although, that picture’s biggest problem was its director; Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge has a pair of solid helmers in Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, which is a relief at least. But alas, the continuity is back with a vengeance. And then some. Why, there’s even an origin-of-Jack Sparrow vignette, to supply us with prerequisite, unwanted and distracting uncanny valley (or uncanny Johnny) de-aging. The movie as a whole is an agreeable time passer, by no means the dodo its critical keelhauling would suggest, albeit it isn’t even pretending to try hard to come up with …

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…