The Number One Movie in America: The Scorpion King
By Sean Collier
July 24, 2020
“The Scorpion King” is a prequel to a sequel to a remake.
“The Mummy,” 1999’s massive hit adventure with Brendan Fraser, was (barely) a remake of the classic Universal picture from the early days of horror. Its sequel, 2001’s “The Mummy Returns,” was an even bigger hit; it crossed the $200 million mark and finished 6th overall that year.
“The Mummy Returns” featured an up-and-coming star out of the then-WWF, simply billed on-screen as The Rock. He wasn’t the reason “Mummy Returns” was a success — the character eventually morphs into a laughable CGI arachnid that looks like a Playstation 1 mini-boss — but the young Dwayne Johnson was a rising star. Universal decided to strike, fast-tracking a prequel to “The Mummy Returns” that would investigate the origins of the character.
So: a prequel to a sequel to a remake.
“The Scorpion King” arrived just 11 months after “The Mummy Returns.” It was a mild hit, winning two weekends amid sleepy box-office. (April wasn’t summer yet back then.) It would be utterly obliterated in its third weekend by the debuting “Spider-Man,” but hung around long enough to earn $91 million domestic.
That is decidedly less than every entry in its big-brother franchise. “The Mummy” grossed $155 million; even the forgotten third installment, 2008’s “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” pulled in $108 million. While a sizable portion of the fans of the Indiana Jones lite formula employed by Fraser and company did follow The Rock into the past, it’s worth noting that “The Scorpion King” has none of the Egyptian mythology that was a hallmark of the series.
It might not even take place in Egypt. I can’t tell. It is very, very unclear when and where the events of “The Scorpion King” are occurring.
The rambling plot follows Mathayus, not yet a monarch (Scorpion or otherwise), on a tedious and unfocused adventure. There’s a menacing bad guy, Memnon (Steven Brand), his imprisoned oracle (Kelly Hu) and a foe-turned ally (Michael Clarke Duncan). There’s even a knockoff of Short Round, as the filmmakers desperately grab at any stray page from Indy’s playbook they can find.
To be clear: “The Scorpion King” is very bad. The effects are terrible, the comedy falls flat and the story is an utter mess. More to the point of the matter, The Rock is not Dwayne Johnson yet; he has his physical presence and little besides.
Add in every era hallmark you can name (look for chugging post-grunge guitars insinuating themselves in the otherwise generic score) and an alarming number of problematic scenes (the less said of Mathayus’ visit to the harem, the better), and “The Scorpion King” is not worth revisiting. It was barely worth attention at the time; it’s merely a training ground for Johnson, the cinematic dark match before he made it to the main event.
Miraculously, though, it gave birth to four more direct-to-DVD “Scorpion King” films. These may still be in production; the most recent, “Book of Souls” was just released in 2018. The series’ fans — a group which may or may not actually exist — can hold out hope for more Scorpion-adjacent adventures.
By the way, one of those latter films, “Rise of a Warrior,” is actually a prequel to the theatrical “Scorpion King.”
That’s right: It’s a prequel to a prequel to a sequel to a remake.
“The Scorpion King” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1982. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: After “Spinal Tap” but long before “Popstar,” Chris Rock tried to launch his career by skewering the music business.