Dir: Chuck Russell. US. 2002. 92mins.

The Mummy franchise lives on in this rumbustious, two-fisted prequel that serves up breathless, B-movie action with A-level production values. Promoted to centre stage, Dwayne Johnson, aka wrestler The Rock, lays down a persuasive marker as a 21st-century action hero and the heady mixture of bulging biceps, buxom maidens, flashing blades and fisticuffs should find favour with an undemanding blockbuster audiences. Even a PG-13 rating in the US and a 12 certificate in the UK will not dent the potential of an essentially juvenile romp. Universal can anticipate buoyant short-term results at least until the heavyweight summer competition arrives in the shape of Spider-Man and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

An efficient, if resolutely soulless, adventure yarn, The Scorpion King has more in common with cult TV series like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess than with the recent big screen Mummy duo. Stepping back from a reliance on expansive CGI effects, director Chuck Russell places more emphasis on energetic fist fights and swashbuckling stuntwork than vast skeletal armies or ingenious displays of death and resurrection. Instead, this cheerful nonsense recalls the heyday of Maria Mountz, Sabu and the kind of preposterous kitsch that was a staple of Universal International in the 1940s and 1950s.

A mere supporting player in The Mummy Returns, the Rock's Mathayus shoulders the bulk of the storyline and the action in a prequel that unfolds around the biblical city of Gomorrah 5,000 years ago. In an age when the brutal tyrant Memnon (Brand) has swept to power, Mathayus emerges as the only hope for those warring tribes who have yet to fall under his rule. Desperate to avenge the slaying of his brother, he readily accepts an impossible mission to kill the sorceress Cassandra (Kelly Hu), acknowledged as the power behind the throne. Predictably, she loses her heart to his hunky heroism and joins Mathayus in the struggle to overthrow Memnon along with a rag-tag of comic relief and cohorts that includes absent-minded inventor Bernard Hill, cowardly street thief Heslov and Nubian warrior Balthazar, played by Michael-Clarke Duncan.

Stephen Sommers, director of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, is one of several names credited with a lacklustre screenplay that seems like a hotchpotch of remembered moments and staple characters from the desert adventure genre. Lacking in originality and flair, the script is the weakest aspect of the production and is particularly half-hearted in its attempts at comic relief and one-liners. Genre fans will probably be willing to overlook such deficiencies as the action is well staged, crisply edited and rarely flags. Barely a moment passes without another bruising fight, death-defying escape treacherous act or sneering showdown involving swords, arrows, deadly cobras and venomous scorpions.

Performances throughout are adequate within the constraints of the screenplay, although the Rock's physical resemblance to Conan The Barbarian, and his ability to carry a film, signal that action cinema may just have found a new Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Prod co: Universal Pitcures, Alphaville Films
US dist: Universal Pictures
Int'l dist:
Sean Daniel, James Jacks, Kevin Misher, Steven Sommers
Exec prod:
Vince McMahon
John Leonetti
Michael Tronick, Greg Parsons
Prod des:
Ed Verreaux
Music: John Debney
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Steven Brand, Kelly Hu, Michael Clarke Duncan, Grant
Heslov, Bernard Hill