Can you smell what the Rock is cooking? Barthes asserts that professional wrestling must be considered as a “spectacle of excess” rather than a sport, and that “the public wants the image of passion, not passion itself.” WWF’s “People’s Champion” the Rock—as famous for arching the People’s Eyebrow as he is for laying the smack down with the People’s Elbow—writes in his autobiography, “I’m a firm believer that perception becomes reality.” The Scorpion King, the Rock’s lead debut and the prequel to Stephen Sommers’s Mummy movies, is so divorced from both the raw absurdity of the ring and the wonderfully overdone CGI of its predecessors that it conveys only the reality of Hollywood barrel scraping, or the image of the image of passion: top-heavy ancient-worlders grimly grappling in ragged sets salvaged from beyond Thunderdome.
The perfunctory plot, devised by no less than four scribes (including Sommers and Attack of the Clones writer Jonathan Hales), transforms the most electrifying man in sports-entertainment into an Akkadian mercenary hired by ravaged tribes to capture the seer of a power-mad Gommorah warlord. But when the sorcerer turns out to be an indentured prophetess (Martial Law‘s Kelly Hu, wardrobe hanging by a thread), he directs his brawn to taking down the man. Director Chuck Russell lacks the visual panache, the comic touch, and perhaps the budget of Sommers’s title-bout features, which refined a historically grounded B-movie sensibility into pure, gasp-inducing entertainment: legions of jackal-headed warriors turning to dust, the Rock amplified into a wall-walking arachnid. The Scorpion King‘s only bits of dash, amid rampant impaling and defenestration, are an erupting formicary and a swelling dust storm (in the latter, strapped in protective headgear, the Rock resembles WWF archrival Mankind, who dumped a dozen beer kegs on him, via forklift, during a 1999 upset).
In his Mummy Returns cameo, the Rock mostly grunted, but when he spoke it was, loopily, in ancient Egyptian. Here he mouths rancid would-be catchphrases (“Live free—die well”) with an Ahnoldian terseness at odds with his loquacious ringside manner. The trash-talking flesh Rock is laudably candid about the scripted nature of professional wrestling, but in his celluloid incarnation, he adheres too literally to his own adage: “Know your role—and shut your mouth!”