‘The Scorpion King’ – An Action Star Was Born

Take a stroll back in time with me. It’s 2001, you’re nine years old, and you’re seated for The Mummy Returns. You were an unexpected fan of the first one, even though The Mummy was pretty scary for you at times, but oh so much rollicking fun. Brendan Fraser became your Indiana Jones, you had a crush on Rachel Weisz, and this is all you want more of in a sequel. Then the movie starts and you see another hero you’ve been watching on Monday nights, one who were a different kind of tights.

That’s right, I’m talking about The Rock. Not yet Dwayne Johnson, not quite a movie star then.

That shot of him in the opening narration of The Mummy Returns was SO axis-tilting that my mind couldn’t comprehend it – the sensation of seeing my moment-to-moment obsessions colliding in the same space. I didn’t know The Rock was gonna show up. Back then, trailers were only things I saw in previews. As a kid whose whole life was the TV, I groaned whenever commercials butted in and took me away from Ash Ketchum being the very best Pokemon trainer, or Goku battling Frieza on an exploding Namek. Or The Rock laying the smackdown on candy asses on Monday Night Raw. Everyone else knew – my siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. I didn’t know and there he was. Everybody in the theater started cheering, stomping in their seats. It was the closest I had ever felt to being in the Thunderdome.

I mention this because by all rights, The Scorpion King could’ve never came to fruition and Dwayne Johnson’s film career would’ve gone very differently. Universal Studios had no plans for a so-called Mummy-verse, the franchise model now in an age of tentpoles. (The same model that would doom Universal’s Dark Universe.) Spinoff prequels were far and few from being a thing at the time. The nearest example I can recall is U.S. Marshals, a spinoff featuring the Tommy Lee Jones character in The Fugitive.

But while filming The Rock’s scenes in Mummy Returns, Universal saw something, perhaps the same thing Hollywood saw in Arnold Schwarzenegger 20 years prior: this guy is a bona fide STAR just waiting to happen. And I imagine audience reactions like ours in the summer of 2001 to a guy who wasn’t the lead of the movie had to have been the assurance the studio needed to say, “Fuck it, let’s do a Mummy spinoff, whatever the fuck that means.”

Last week, I wrote an article for Inverse on The Scorpion King’s 20th anniversary this month, and, you guessed it, I can’t get this damn movie or this series out of my head just yet. I’ve got some leftover thoughts that need spilling. (I was tasked with 800 words. I wrote 1800 😬)

I expected The Scorpion King to age terribly. Instead, it was a lot of fun and I found myself weirdly nostalgic for this era of action movies. When the genre peaked in the 90s and the box office landscape had yet to be taken over by superheroes and sequels galore, studios were banking BIG on stars to lure the crowds. Therein lay the gamble. Mummy Returns may have been The Rock’s first cinematic appearance, but he had never been the star. Apparently, there was so much confidence in the prospect that the studio was willing to shell out a tailor-made action vehicle – a $60 million one at that.

A vehicle like The Scorpion King just doesn’t exist anymore. Only superhero movies seem to breed a proto-action star out of emerging talent like Chris Pratt or fellow wrestlers like Dave Bautista. These movies broadly function as an “action movie” because they often require 3-4 set-pieces.

The Scorpion King is an even more fascinating diamond in the rough when you consider the film trajectories of other wrestlers. Andre the Giant had a memorable bit in The Princess Bride, and Jesse Ventura was the extra dose of macho in an already macho movie, Predator (“I ain’t got time to bleed”). Wrestlers are either gags or an extra pair of biceps, far from being the lead. Goldberg himself was just an ape and foil for Jean-Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier: The Return.

Aside from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the athlete-to-actor success story is a million to one; he’s of the few to coalesce into mainstream stardom. Even when wrestlers are leads, it’s often direct-to-video movies that lack the budget and robust talent of a Hollywood production. The Marine for John Cena, and The Condemned the year after for Steve Austin tried to capitalize on a similar model, but the star-making formula isn’t a one-size fits all. You can make the movie, but if audiences don’t show up then… 🤷‍♂️

For one, The Rock was already a superstar in the wrestling ring. And if this hadn’t been the case beforehand, then his casting in Mummy Returns wouldn’t have happened either. The Rock had certainly earned his reputation as “the most electrifying man in sports entertainment.” His bravado and swagger in the arena; you had no idea what he was going to say if he had hold of the microphone. More importantly, he had CHARM, and action movies can run on charm. No matter what he was saying (and whether it would hold up in today’s Twitter cycle of discourse), you rooted for him. You wanted him to win. His WWE run is basically a microcosm of how he’d ascend in Hollywood – people loved him, hated him, and suddenly there was no stopping him.

The Scorpion King succeeds as a star-making vehicle because it doesn’t ask The Rock to do anything he wasn’t already a pro at. It’s why he’s always in ripped up garb, as if his muscles tore through and he’s always one cut away from being shirtless. It’s why there’s a fight spread out every 10 minutes or so to distract you from his limitations as an actor. It’s why damn near every line written for him is either a one-liner or a joke (not exactly screamers but it lends to an upbeat vibe), or why every shot of him could be the poster shot. This was his first leading man role and his name was already above the title. Universal could’ve easily gotten away with calling this The Rock: The Motion Picture.

So OF COURSE he’s gonna get a badass storyline. In Mummy Returns, he’s a king who shoots his shot at conqueror, pays the price, then pledges his soul to the god of death and becomes a pawn. In The Scorpion King, he’s Mathayus, not yet the Scorpion King. Mathayus is an Akkadian – a tribe of warrior assassins, the last of his kind, blah blah blah. It’s the kind of retcon job that Vin Diesel pulls playing a serial killer with dope irises in Pitch Black, to a Furyan destined to kill the evil galactic overlord in the jump to The Chronicles of Riddick.

All you need to know is good guy has to kill bad guy to save the day and get the girl. The movie makes no illusions about this either. It’s a 90-minute action movie. 90 minutes is all I could’ve asked for at the theater in 2002. (I ain’t here for a long time, I’m here for a good time.) And you know what, this kind of action romp is all I want in movies now when you can’t legibly see fight scenes in today’s tentpoles, or CGI has become the overriding solution in scenes that could otherwise be done practically. I don’t care that The Scorpion King didn’t obviously shoot in Egypt. But they did shoot outside when the scenes were scripted for exteriors, or at night when it was set at nighttime, or used real-life scorpions and snakes on top of fire and actual flaming swords when the movie called for it. Maybe I’m losing my edge, but I still find this so so so badass.

There’s something refreshing about The Scorpion King as a standalone venture that’s having so much cheesy fun moment-to-moment. It knows what kind of movie it is, and is defiantly unconcerned with its place in the franchise. One could easily imagine how they could’ve made more explicit tie-ins, like a post-credits scene with Imhotep, an Oded Fehr cameo hinting at The Medjai’s long lineage, or Cassandra foretelling the prophecy in The Mummy Returns that will doom Mathayus. It’s not prestige, certainly not Spartacus or Gladiator. It ain’t even as swashbuckling as The Mummy movies. But it’s a solid action movie through and through, which isn’t something I can say about most “action” movies now.

I miss this Dwyane Johnson, him at his earnest and trying his best—well before his movies and his image became obnoxiously self-aware. Sure there are rough edges and cringes, but The Scorpion King gets the job done for me. The year after The Scorpion King, he stars in The Rundown, a riff on 48 Hours and Midnight Run. And the year after he does Walking Tall, his town sheriff Western. Long before his gym, tequila, and coffee brands and enacting his plan for world domination, Johnson strove for the career heights of Arnold Schwarzenegger. (There’s a cheeky passing-of-the-baton scene in The Rundown.) And I miss these bare bones-style action movies Johnson did when he wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty. I know stuff like Red Notice or Jungle Cruise don’t need to appeal to me, that Johnson’s gonna be just fine making movies like San Andreas and Rampage here on out – good, clean, & fun entertainment.

Funny enough, it makes the rough edges of The Scorpion King shine that much brighter 20 years later.

2 thoughts on “‘The Scorpion King’ – An Action Star Was Born

  1. Jade says:

    I didn’t like The Scorpion King when I first watched it, though it was several years back. I kinda want to rewatch it now!

    • Adrian Manuel says:

      Haha I totally get that! It was the thrill of seeing a WWE star in a movie that excited me at the time. What’s funny about Scorpion King now is that, cheesy as it is, there are things they pull of in camera that they don’t do anymore. I’m weirdly nostalgic for this trashy stuff now.

      It ain’t “good, actually” or a misunderstood masterpiece. It’s 90-minutes of a fun time, and that’s all I want these days 😁

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