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20 years ago, The Scorpion King predicted everything about modern blockbusters

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20 years ago, The Scorpion King predicted everything about modern blockbusters


InIn the opening sequence of The Scorpion King, a Bronze Age barbarian camp celebrates the seize of Jesup (Branscombe Richmond), one of many final survivors of the rival Akkadian tribe. Flagons are hoisted. Filthy, battle-hardened males cheer. Half-nude girls pose like they’re sitting for Frank Frazetta portraits. Simply earlier than the barbarian chieftain can execute his prisoner, an outsider crashes into the scene, organising the movie’s first large action setpiece.
The intruder is Jesup’s half-brother, Mathayus (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), whose chiseled, 6-foot-5 body is lit and framed for optimum ogling potential. His first line, given to a roomful of startled warriors and their occasion visitors: “Boo.” A melee ensues, a star is born — and so is the trendy blockbuster. Nobody knew it on the time, however The Scorpion King was surprisingly prescient. Seen as we speak, it appears to be like like an early instance of the movies dominating the field workplace.
Twenty years in the past, when The Scorpion King hit theaters, Johnson was maybe probably the most recognizable skilled wrestler on the earth, a multi-time WWF champion with sufficient mainstream star energy to host Saturday Night time Stay. However he wasn’t a movie actor but. His first movie function was as Mathayus in 2001’s The Mummy Returns, the place he offers a wordless efficiency that’s principally buried beneath layers of hideous, PlayStation 2-cutscene-style CGI.
In The Scorpion King, he reprises that function. However aside from a couple of clumsy bits of dialogue about how “the blood of the scorpion will all the time move in his veins,” this model of Mathayus stands alone.
“The Rock has the authority to play the function and the fortitude to maintain a straight face,” Roger Ebert wrote in his three-star assessment of the movie. “I count on him to develop into a sturdy action star.” The fruition of Ebert’s prophecy, as Johnson rose to develop into one of the crucial recognizable and bankable action-movie stars in America, is only one of a number of methods The Scorpion King anticipated the subsequent twenty years of blockbuster movies.


The occasional dodgy little bit of CGI apart, The Scorpion King is an appealingly old-school piece of filmmaking. Helmed by veteran director Chuck Russell, it sits in a lineage that features the Technicolor Biblical epics of the ’50s and ’60s and the pulpy sword-and-sorcery flicks of the ’80s. The story is flimsy and comfortingly acquainted — a noble warrior is tasked with killing a sorceress whose magic aids a tyrant, however they fall in love as an alternative, teaming as much as usurp the throne.
Russell shoots it with scenery-chewing delight, with solely minimal breaks for expository dialogue between its bouts of swordplay and derring-do. The movie it most resembles is John Milius’ 1982 adaptation of Conan the Barbarian, starring a younger Arnold Schwarzenegger within the title function. Like Johnson, Schwarzenegger wasn’t forged for his performing chops a lot as the way in which his bodybuilder’s physique regarded on celluloid. However each males delivered placing performances that lit a path ahead for them in Hollywood.

The truth that Johnson was nonetheless primarily often known as a wrestler is used as an in-joke in The Scorpion King’s script. In an early scene the place Mathayus arrives within the harem of the despotic Memnon (Steven Model), the tyrant’s concubines stealthily steal his weapons, so when the palace guards enter, he has to wrestle them. In a later battle between Mathayus and Nubian warrior Balthazar (Michael Clarke Duncan), their swords instantly shatter on influence, forcing the boys to grapple and suplex each other for a number of sweaty minutes.
At instances, Mathayus simply wrestles dudes as a result of he needs to, even along with his bow and sword at his again. Russell’s digital camera in these scenes is kinetic with out being frantic, and the moments when The Scorpion King turns into what the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink referred to as “wrestling photos” are among the many greatest issues in regards to the movie.
However the movie did assist increase the alternatives out there for wrestlers-turned-actors like Dave Bautista and John Cena, males who have been as soon as forged for his or her brawny our bodies, however now work constantly in main movies, crossing style traces within the course of. (Each have developed into higher actors than Johnson, however his pure movie-star charisma nonetheless outshines theirs.)

The act of casting a wrestler in a movie used to really feel like a reflexive gag — assume Andre the Big taking part in an enormous in 1987’s The Princess Bride, or Roddy Piper in 1988’s They Stay taking trip from uncovering an alien plot to wrestle Keith David for practically 10 minutes. Right now, this sort of profession crossover simply feels regular.
The Scorpion King’s place within the cultural firmament appeared unremarkable in 2002. It was a low-stakes spinoff of a profitable action sequence, with a charismatic lead actor and a breezy screenplay that performed to his strengths. Studios made a dozen of those movies yearly, most of which discovered audiences large enough to maintain them coming. The Scorpion King made $180 million in opposition to a $60 million price range. It was a tidy revenue for Common, and proof that the gamble of constructing Johnson the highest-paid actor in a debut lead function paid off. Three weeks after the movie’s launch, the whole lot modified.

On Could 3, 2002, Sam Raimi launched his superhero trilogy with Spider-Man, an uneasy companion piece to The Scorpion King. Each movies handed the keys of PG-13 popcorn franchises to administrators who’d made their names with ’80s horror movies. (Russell directed the well-regarded third installment within the Nightmare on Elm Road sequence, in addition to the 1988 remake of The Blob. Raimi was the lo-fi wizard behind the Evil Lifeless movies.) Each movies launched their advertising and marketing campaigns with extremely-of-their-time alt-rock songs, with The Scorpion King tapping Godsmack for “I Stand Alone,” and members of Nickelback and Saliva teaming as much as write “Hero” for Spider-Man.
And each walked the road of taking inherently ridiculous materials significantly and figuring out when to inject fun. Not like The Scorpion King, although, Spider-Man redefined the enterprise of movies, making $825 million and serving to set the stage for the all-consuming Marvel Cinematic Universe that launched in earnest six years later. (The way in which The Scorpion King was instantly overshadowed by a superhero movie is probably the a method it was most forward of its time as a blockbuster movie.)
Earlier than lengthy, the burgeoning superhero style all however pushed movies like The Scorpion King out of cinemas. As soon as it was obvious that there was more cash to be made in exploiting acquainted IP than in introducing audiences to new characters, the writing was on the wall for Mathayus and his ilk. The Scorpion King spawned a handful of direct-to-video sequels, none starring Johnson. In 2021, 5 of the highest six home field workplace hauls have been for Marvel variations. The sixth was F9: The Quick Saga, the newest installment in a franchise that till just lately included Dwayne Johnson. The type of filmmaking that helped make Johnson a movie star was going extinct — however he discovered a strategy to transcend it.
By 2005, Johnson had shed “The Rock” from his stage identify, rightly assuming that identify recognition for his movies was rapidly outpacing his wrestling fame. He joined the forged of the Quick & Livid sequence, headlined his personal franchise with Jumanji, led movies like Ache & Acquire and Skyscraper, and even grew to become an unlikely Disney star along with his voice work within the animated function Moana and the Indiana Jones throwback Jungle Cruise. Probably the most dependable movie franchises outdoors of the MCU and Star Wars may be “movies with Dwayne Johnson in them.”
Maybe it was inevitable that Dwayne Johnson would develop into a star, however any person needed to give him his first lead function. Although The Scorpion King got here on the finish of 1 epoch in blockbuster filmmaking and the dawning of one other, it actually appears to be like prophetic in its large casting gamble. It additionally predicted trendy cinema’s mania for interconnected worlds, prequel spinoffs, and the tendency to take even vanishingly minor characters from profitable franchises and construct whole universes round them.
Mathayus didn’t find yourself anchoring a cinematic Mummy-verse, however on reflection, the guiding rules behind The Scorpion King look rather a lot just like the logic that led to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and to Disney Plus’ massively standard MCU and Star Wars spinoff exhibits. (Who’s Hawkeye if not the Mathayus of the Avengers?) The Scorpion King can be a superbly gratifying movie by itself deserves, a brisk 92-minute journey romp with wealthy settings, memorable characters, and sharp combat choreography.
It’s no masterpiece, nevertheless it’s the form of movie that we used to take without any consideration, till it grew to become an endangered species. Multiplexes as we speak are purveyors of too-big-to-fail spectacles, with marathon runtimes, hulking lead actors, and universe-enveloping stakes. The Scorpion King appears quaint by comparability. However whereas it belongs to an earlier period of blockbuster filmmaking, it helped plant the seeds for the one we stay in now.

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