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Thursday, August 21, 2008


Okay, I didn't see THE SCORPION KING with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, so I can't compare it to this 2008 direct-to-video prequel, THE SCORPION KING: RISE OF A WARRIOR. It's a fairly self-contained story, though, so I can surmise that a familiarity with the first movie isn't necessary in order to appreciate it.

In the ancient Middle East kingdom of Akkad, the elite warriors who serve as the king's bodyguards are known as The Black Scorpions. When the greatest of them, Ashur, is murdered by one of King Hammurabi's ambitious generals, Sargon (Randy Couture), Ashur's young son Mathayus swears revenge. So he goes into training as a Black Scorpion and returns six years later (now played by Michael Copon of DISHDOGZ and POWER RANGERS TIME FORCE) to discover that Sargon has assassinated King Hammurabi and now sits upon the throne.

Mathayus tries to kill the new king but fails due to Sargon's knowledge of the black arts. After fleeing the city, he plans his revenge with the help of a boyhood friend, girl-warrior Layla (Karen David), and an erudite young Greek poet named Ari (Simon Quarterman), who suggests that they try to acquire the invincible Sword of Damocles with which to defeat Sargon. Trouble is, the sword is currently in the possession of the dreaded Astarte, Queen of the Underworld (Natalie Becker), who is in league with Sargon.

The movie starts out as though it might be a rather straight-faced affair, with rich production design and a potentially somber narrative. But as we begin to notice the flashes of cartoony CGI and the often contemporary-sounding dialogue (such as "You were going to tell us this--when?" and "Nice place to visit, but..."), it becomes apparent that SCORPION KING 2 is little more than an exceptionally nice-looking B-movie. Which is fine, once you realize this and start to enjoy it as you might enjoy earlier Universal B-pictures such as THE MUMMY'S HAND. If you're looking for "great", you'll be disappointed. If "okay" is enough, then grab the popcorn.

The cast is adequate and likable enough. Copon, David, and Quarterman have a lot of amusing dialogue between them and play it with a light touch, with Quarterman giving what is probably the best performance as the heroes' cowardly but resourceful sidekick. David is the typical "you go, girl" wannabe-warrior without being tiresome about it, and thankfully the script is never desperate enough to have her spouting things like "male chauvinist!" at anyone. As the young man who will someday grow up to be The Rock, Copon manages to convey a goodnatured self-deprecation one minute and then switch easily into steely-eyed badass warrior mode the next.

As Sargon, real-life UFC champ Couture makes up for whatever refinement may be lacking in his acting skills with an imposing physique and sheer presence. He reminds me of the excellent character actor Patrick Kilpatrick, only about twice as big and half as talented. It's exciting to see this skilled fighter in action, and I was really disappointed when, during the final battle between Sargon and Mathayus, Couture is replaced by a huge black scorpion that looks like it escaped from a defective 80s videogame.

Bad CGI rears its cartoony head in several other areas as well, including a none-too-convincing minotaur that threatens to eat Mathayus and his pals, and a "gateway to the Underworld" sequence that looks like something out of TRON. You can get JURASSIC PARK effects with a Spielbergian budget and ILM-level technicians, but otherwise, most of this stuff looks about as realistic as Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse. On the plus side, though, the practical effects during the creepy Underworld sequence, complete with lots of dead bodies, skulls, doomed souls growing out of trees, and slimy creatures slithering around in a swampy, moss-ridden hell, are well done.

Director Russell Mulcahy, who practically invented what is now referred to as "MTV-style" filmmaking, isn't quite as flashy and hyper as he was back in his HIGHLANDER days. He makes good use of his actors and locations and, for the most part, stages the action scenes well. Still, he retains an annoying tendency to tinker around with the editing, needlessly weighing down entire action sequences with endless speed-up/slow-down effects, distracting Shaky-Cam, and other cinematic frou-frou. On the whole, though, he shows marked improvement and acquits himself fairly well here.

Directorial noodlings aside, the fight scenes are pretty cool and are a nice mix of swordplay and martial arts. We even get a brief chick fight between Layla and Asarte (Natalie Becker is obviously having a great time playing her evil character), although it isn't a patch on the thrilling gold-standard sequence from THE MUMMY RETURNS. Michael Copon knows how to look good with a sword and can sidestep a slow-motion spear with the best of them, while Randy Couture pretty much owns the screen whenever he goes into action. A bonus featurette, "Fight Like An Akkadian: Black Scorpion Training Camp" details the rigorous training the cast endured to make these scenes work, and it was time well-spent. "On Set With The Beautiful Leading Ladies" covers the same ground from the female perspective.

Other bonus material includes an interesting profile of Couture, who originally tested for a lesser part before being "bumped up" to play Sargon. There's also a "making-of" featurette (in which director Russell Mulcahy comes off as a really fun guy who runs an efficient but happy set), brief looks at the production design and visual effects, some deleted scenes, and a gag reel. The DVD features 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.

If you're a fan of THE SCORPION KING, you'll probably want to see the origin of the character and how he became the invincible warrior that he is (or was, anyway, until his somewhat unpleasant fate in THE MUMMY RETURNS). But even if you're new to the character, THE SCORPION KING 2: RISE OF A WARRIOR is a lighthearted, action-packed adventure that looks good (save for the bad CGI) and can be quite entertaining if you accept it for what it is--a competently made B-movie that makes the most of its budget and doesn't take itself too seriously.

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