THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I first knew that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson could act when I saw Beyond the Mat, a remarkable 2000 documentary about professional wrestling. In a backstage scene, Johnson is seen talking to wrestler Mick "Mankind" Foley and his family. They have a pleasant discussion where he is very charming to Foley's wife and children. This guy is too nice to be a pro wrestler, I thought to myself. Then the film cut to the match, where The Rock brutally beat Mankind over the head with a folding chair - again, and again, and again, as Foley's wife and children looked on in complete horror. Somehow, this benevolent figure was able to put on a macho tough-guy persona and beat the living hell out of a man he obviously liked. Now that's acting. When The Rock turned up for a cameo in last summer's The Mummy Returns, he showed some real charisma in his very brief scenes. The character is the inspiration for a spinoff movie called The Scorpion King.

The Rock makes his big screen starring debut as the title character in The Scorpion King

The story takes place 5,000 years ago where a warlord named Memnon (Steven Brand) is pillaging his way across the desert, killing anyone who stands in the way of his quest for power. A number of tribes seek to stop Memnon, but he is guided by a seer called Cassandra (Kelly Hu) who advises him on battle strategies. In a last ditch effort to gain control, the tribes call upon the services of Mathayus (The Rock), a deadly assassin of great renown. Aided by a wacky sidekick and a camel, Mathayus enters the city of Gomorrah to find his prey. And that's about all the plot you get in this movie. In fact, I had to look at the press information just to piece together what little bit of a synopsis I could.

I'm not sure one goes to a movie starring a professional wrestler for plot, though. You go for action. If nothing else, the film is smart enough to know this. The Scorpion King kind of reminded me of an episode of "Xena: Warrior Princess" combined with a WWF grudge match. It has the campy quality of the former combined with the body-slammin' action of the latter.

Normally, a description like that would be justification for me to dread seeing a movie. (In fairness, I must admit that I didn't expect to like this movie, which just goes to show that you can't judge a film by its trailer.) However, there were enough tongue-in-cheek action scenes to hold my interest. My favorite occurs when Mathayus is captured and buried neck-deep in the ground. His enemies use torches to smoke a flood of fire ants out of their homes...and right for Mathayus's head. One of the ants actually reaches his face, so what does he do? Chews it up and spits it out. The scene is creepy and funny and campy all at once. Many of the other parts play at the same level, giving you action but also winking at you in recognition. The Scorpion King doesn't take itself seriously, so why should I?

As an actor, it's safe to say The Rock is much more accomplished than Hulk Hogan, although Hogan's 1989 howler No Holds Barred is one of my favorite bad movies. He's believable as a hero, yet he isn't afraid to look a little silly either. Sometimes a performer comes along who naturally draws your attention. Johnson is that kind of star. He looks the part, doesn't mangle his lines, and appears to be having a good old time.

As if this weren't enough, there is also a supporting performance from Michael Clark Duncan, some well choreographed fight sequences, and a few decent special effects. None of this stuff is earth-shattering, but it all lends itself to the mindless enjoyment (emphasis on the word mindless). I smell what The Rock is cooking. It's junk food: there's no nutritional value whatsoever and it doesn't fill you up, but it sure is fun to eat.

( out of four)

The Scorpion King is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence and some sensuality. The running time is 1 hours and 30 minutes.

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