Providing a rock-solid new direction for Universal's surprisingly successful refried "Mummy" franchise, "The Scorpion King" expands -- or rather reinvents -- wrestling superstar The Rock's titular character from the last chapter's brief special guest appearance to a central hero's role.

Providing a rock-solid new direction for Universal’s surprisingly successful refried “Mummy” franchise, “The Scorpion King” expands — or rather reinvents — wrestling superstar The Rock’s titular character from the last chapter’s brief special guest appearance to a central hero’s role. Taking place entirely in the ancient Middle East (as opposed to the 1930s, with occasional flashbacks, like 1999’s “The Mummy” and last year’s “The Mummy Returns”), pic says nix to any onscreen mummies; that’s just one among many smart, less-is-more decisions made. Indeed, this scaled-down, sinewy adventure is perhaps most notable for what it discards: The last two features’ production bloat, fx overkill, running-time runover and increasingly feeble self-mockery are all quite pleasantly absent. With The Rock’s TV fandom added to series’ carryover B.O. pull, “The Scorpion King” should do muscular biz worldwide.

Not really a sequel (or prequel) save in brand ID, new chapter (co-penned by prior pics’ writer-helmer Stephen Sommers) simply forgets the Scorpion King’s status as a malevolent-supernatural-force in “Returns.” Instead, he’s presented as a nomadic assassin-for-hire during some more primitive period “before the pyramids” — which choice also neatly excuses “King’s” less grandiose production trappings.

Somewhat cartoonish first scene has Mathayas (Rock) rescuing his brother and fellow Acadian tribesmen from execution in the lair of barbarians. These skirmishing desert clans are the last remaining resistance to warlord Memnon (Steven Brand), a ruthless despot whose control of the region is fortified by reluctant collaborator Cassandra (Kelly Hu) — a sorceress who can see the future, thus providing Memnon an invincible tactical advantage.

Select tribes band together, deciding that only Memnon’s overthrow will stop the ongoing carnage. Despite opposition from one leader, Balthazar (Michael Clarke Duncan), they hire Mathayas & Co. to assassinate Memnon in his Gomorrah palace. The brigands are betrayed, however, by doublecrossing Prince Takmet (Peter Facinelli). Only Mathayas survives, narrowly escaping with Cassandra as his hostage.

Swordsman and sorceress annoy one another in typical genre fashion until his bravery and unexpected loyalty win her over — even if (implied) sack action means her extra-normal powers will be weakened.

After an excellent sequence in which Mathayas stealthily kills off would-be assassins, he, Cassandra and comic-relief thief Arpid (Grant Heslov) reunite with Balthazar’s rebel populace. Latter, however, figures Cassandra’s presence will mean their doom. To save them, she sneaks back to Gomorrah. Hero and his allies follow suit, sparking climactic battle.

If the two latter-day “Mummy” pics replaced original 1930s series’ horror with “Indiana Jones”-type swashbucklery, “The Scorpion King” shifts tenor again, toward sword-and-sandal action closest in spirit to John Milius’ 1982 “Conan the Barbarian,” grittier ’50s/’60s toga epics and the various “Thief of Baghdad” incarnations.

This latest endeavor is no classic. Yet its traditionalism refreshes amidst so many overblown recent digital fx fests — “The Mummy Returns” being one of the most slapdash-scripted, camp-exhausted examples among them. By contrast, “Scorpion” rouses excitement mostly from stuntwork and thesp agility rather than CGI excess. Notably, its nonstop fighting leaves gore and grossout conceits to the imagination, as opposed to the borderline-distasteful violence of the ostensibly more family-friendly “Mummy Returns.”

With his striking good looks, powerful physique and ease before the camera, The Rock undergoes transition from entertainment-sports celebrity to movie star as if to the manner born. Of course, this custom-tooled role hardly demands or reveals much thesping range. Still, he’s already leagues ahead of many prior athlete-actors in terms of screen charisma and hinted intelligence. He does nicely enough with the script’s few offhandedly smart-ass lines — which director Chuck Russell (“Eraser,” “The Mask”) wisely directs all thesps to underplay.

Clarke aside, support cast is void of marquee value, but they’re quite good within genre bounds. All women here are scantily clad and babelicious; Hu nonetheless carries herself with an attractive dignity. Brand, a European theater-trained feature debutant, sports considerable authority.

Production is definitely downscaled from the splashy extravagance of the “Mummy” outings. Yet it’s always handsome, thanks to John R. Leonetti’s burnished lensing and Ed Verreaux’s impressive production design. John Debney’s score combines orchestral anthems with heavy-metal guitar oomph. Greg Parsons and Michael Tronick’s editing is spot-on, other tech credits strong.

The Scorpion King

Production

A Universal release presented in association with WWF Entertainment of an Alphaville/Stephen Sommers/Misher production. Produced by Sommers, Sean Daniel, James Jacks, Kevin Misher. Executive producer, Vince McMahon. Co-producer, Richard Luke Rothschild. Directed by Chuck Russell. Screenplay by Stephen Sommers, William Osborne, David Hayter; story, Sommers, Jonathan Hales.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Panavision widescreen), John R. Leonetti; editors, Michael Tronick, Greg Parsons; music, John Debney; production designer, Ed Verreaux; supervising art director, Greg Papalia; art director, Doug Meerdink; set designers, Noelle King, Kristen Pratt, Bill Law, Jim Murakami, Dean P. Wolcott, Gary Diamond; set decorator, Kate Sullivan; costume designer, John Bloomfield; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Robert Anderson Jr.; supervising sound editor, Cameron Frankley; visual effects and animation, CFX/Das Werk; visual effects, R!OT; associate producers, Tronick, Josh McLaglen; assistant director, McLagen; second unit directors, Billy Burton, Greg Marshall; second unit camera, Robert La Bonge, Hiro Narita; stunt coordinators, Burton, Thomas L. Lupo; casting, Sarah Halley Finn, Randi Hiller. Reviewed at UA Galaxy, San Francisco, April 15, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

The Scorpion King/Mathayus - The Rock Memnon - Steven Brand Balthazar - Michael Clarke Duncan Sorceress - Kelly Hu Philos - Bernard Hill Arpid - Grant Heslov Takmet - Peter Facinelli Thorak - Ralf Moeller Jesup - Branscombe Richmond King Pheron - Roger Rees Queen Isis - Sherri Howard Chieftain - Conrad Roberts

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