Retrospective

20 years ago, 'Scorpion King' turned The Rock into a movie star

“Catch this!”

In the fiery climax of The Scorpion King, Mathayus has an epic staredown with his nemesis, Memnon.

The fortress is ablaze. Memnon (Steven Brand) readies to defend his reputation as the greatest swordsman as Mathayus (Dwayne Johnson) yanks the arrow out of his back and cocks his great big bow in slow-motion. The score, composed of chants and guitars and blaring horns, swells to unsustainable levels of badassery. Then Mathayus lays the one-liner on top that Arnold Schwarzenegger himself wouldn’t miss the chance to say: “Catch this.”

Consider it a star-is-born moment. Lady Gaga had “Shallow.” The Rock had a show-stopping finale in The Scorpion King.

20 years ago today, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made his onscreen debut as a leading man. It’s tough to imagine that at one point, the world wrestling champion had yet to prove himself as an action star. These days, it’s a no-brainer. He’s the highest-paid actor in the world who became a super-producer in the process, but in the early 2000s, he had never headlined a movie before. Could his wattage as “the most electrifying man in sports” be enough of a draw?

Athletes appear in movies and television all the time, but wrestlers like Johnson traditionally function little more than gags. Andre the Giant played, well, a giant in The Princess Bride. Jesse Ventura was the minigun-toting Blain in Predator. The same year, “Macho Man” Randy Savage played a version of himself in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

“Thankfully, Universal Studios wasn’t trying to launch a shared Mummy-verse.”

The surprising part, then, comes early on in Johnson’s explosive entrance, delivering a flurry of fists and takedowns that you half expect him to bust out a steel chair. John Debney's rock and roll score is essentially walk-on music. The movie knows what we’re here for and gets going before we can pick apart Johnson’s wig. This was an extension of what he did on Monday Night Raw simply given the Hollywood treatment, and his transition into a movie star became a natural progression.

Johnson’s first cinematic appearance came the year before in The Mummy Returns. Largely a glorified cameo leading to horrendous CGI-rendering, his film career could’ve easily gone the same way as his wrestling peers. In a “Rock Reacts” video (then reflecting on The Scorpion King’s 15th anniversary), he recalls being blindsided by the sudden studio interest in what was a bookended villain role, now being re-jigged as the protagonist of his own spinoff. Thankfully, Universal Studios wasn’t trying to launch a shared Mummy-verse.

Nearly every frame of Mathayus is composed as a hero shot.Universal

Instead, Johnson plays Mathayus, who’s not yet the Scorpion King. He’s an Akkadian, a breed of warrior assassins, the last of his kind, etc. You can dive into the lore if you want, otherwise, it’s carefree storytelling. Exposition is just another color in the palette where the goal is to build Johnson an action vehicle. Dialogue is as flimsy as the concept of metal is to Mathayus’ arms. If he’s not saying something lean and mean, then he’s laying up a joke. He can also talk to his camel for no other reason because it’s funny. His lines always have the cadence of a one-liner, just as nearly every frame of Mathayus is composed as a hero shot.

This is a movie that plays to its leading man’s strengths. The script, co-written by Mummy director Stephen Sommers, doesn’t ask Johnson to do anything he wasn’t already good at. Any dramatic limitation is reframed as a strength. When Mathayus’ brother is murdered in front of him, he’s physically restrained by a bunch of bad guys to push against. An emotional beat becomes a physical one of powerlessness that sells the plot point, even if Mathayus’ brother is never mentioned again.

It helps that Johnson is surrounded by upcoming and veteran actors to lighten the load. Kelly Hu is in varying levels of naked throughout the movie, while Steven Brand’s villain performance as Memnon relies on having an English accent. Grant Heslov is the comic relief, Bernard Hill (King Theoden in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers later that year) adds a nice touch as a Doc Brown genius who conveniently invents the gunpowder, and Michael Clarke Duncan’s voice alone provides a gravitas the script just doesn’t have.

Steven Brand, Kelly Hu, and Michael Clarke Duncan at a DVD release event for Scorpion King.Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc/Getty Images

Johnson was in capable hands with director Chuck Russell, who previously helmed the Schwarzenegger action-thriller Eraser. Helming a launchpad for an up-and-coming action star seemed an ideal matchup. In the film’s commentary, Russell was smitten by his leading man: “I realized there hadn’t been any new exciting talent in the action genre in the last ten years.” He knew how physically capable and committed Johnson was and capitalized on the movie’s swift action component.

Elsewhere behind the camera is cinematographer John R. Leonetti. Known mostly for his frequent collaboration with James Wan, Leonetti had also done the action circuit a few times. Leonetti’s camera is the lucky spectator in the brawls – static, holding the action, occasionally sweeping the set as Mathayus lays the smackdown on deserving candy asses. It ain’t groundbreaking spectacle, but it’s crisp and clean staging.

The movie has a kickass stunt choreographer in Al Leong, who himself played henchmen in action classics like Lethal Weapon and Big Trouble in Little China. He’s the reason why the swordplay in this movie rules. And the finale – when there’s no need for dialogue anymore – is a flaming swords extravaganza that still singes the screen.

Johnson first appeared as a CGI monstrosity in The Mummy Returns before getting his own spinoff prequel.Universal

The Scorpion King isn’t as swashbuckler-y as The Mummy movies. There are no puzzles to solve or quests to fetch. Mathayus goes to Gomorrah, escapes with the sorceress, then comes back to get revenge on the emperor, which is just sword-and-sorcery speak for “guy saves the day and gets the girl.” There are visual callbacks to The Mummy if you want it, along with some tidying up done in the plot. (Mathayus comes to be known as the “Scorpion King” because of a poisoned arrowhead, and now has the blood of the scorpion flowing through his veins. Do with that information what you will.)

It might’ve been filmed on the same backlot as Spartacus, but everybody knows the movie they’re making. Vince McMahon was the executive producer. This isn’t Gladiator, nor is this the revenge movie it wants to be. Like Mathayus, it gets the job done. This is Johnson’s debut, a thrashy action romp to the tune of Conan the Barbarian and Godsmack. The Scorpion King bottom-line laid a rock-solid foundation for a reliable brand of breezy Dwayne Johnson movies that entertain if nothing else—and remains one of the reigning box office champions 20 years later.

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