Background: Action adventure movies have long been one of the most profitable niches for Hollywood to pump out. Box office returns on such flicks have resulted in the kind of blockbuster offerings destined to line the pockets of industry hacks, knowing that serving the lowest common denominator is a relatively easy way to pay for those Mercedes, trips to the southern coast of France, and all the perks of "producer heaven". This being the case, the rise of the highly paid superstar actor (and I use the term lightly) along with such major productions seems a natural result, the years giving us guys like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Cruise, and dozens more that try to become "the next big name" by trying to establish a fan base with some witty one-liners, physical gestures, or crossover appeal. Such was the case with a man named Dwayne Johnson, AKA "The Rock" when he went from professional wrestler to movie star with the release of The Scorpion King. The movie was a sort of prequel to The Mummy Returns, a perfectly cute little movie that was big on special effects and low on depth, with Mr. Rock in a small role as an ancient warrior brought back from the dead to fight the hero, Rick O'Connell, and the lead villain, Imhoptep (The Mummy). The limited back tale spoke of Mathayus being a king that fought hordes of foes to the death, his army defeated and the man making a devils pact with the Egyptian god Anubis that resulted in him becoming a force of nature. When it was over, Anubis claimed his soul to fight for all time as a slave, thus ending any free will the man had. The popular wrestler wanting to be seen as "the good guy" made sure the subsequent offshoot title then converted his character into a positive protagonist, arguably boosting his career regardless of the box office returns for the movie itself.
Movie: The Scorpion King (Blu-Ray) really had nothing to do with the movie that spawned it so if that is your only concern, by all means go rent the new high definition release. It starts off with a band of tribes broken under the onslaught of evil king Memnon (Steve Brand) having conquered much of what we would call the Middle East thousands of years before the events in the Mummy series began. Memnon is a tough love kind of ruler, rewarding success and punishing failure, his devotion to earthly pleasures including lots of wine, a huge harem full of scantily clad hotties, and endless supplies of anachronistic swords and weapons (sorry to be a spoiled sport but steel wasn't invented yet). Having wiped out so many people in his reign also means making enemies, including a race of hired assassins known as the Akkadian. These skilled warriors have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves, defending their borders not one of them from the looks of their numbers, the idea of pre-Ninja type killers available for the low price of blood rubies (what other kind are there?), an appealing one to a mindless action flick.
Okay, so the sore sport tribes get together and find their tentative leader has hired the last three Akkadians to kill the true reason for Memnon's success, his sightseeing sorceress, Cassandra (Kelly Hu). Her physical appeal is well in line with the needed flesh such movies require, the genre fan boys all posting scores of pictures of her when the movie first came out back in 2002. While the deposed king and his bratty son argue over the wisdom of hiring such men, it becomes clear that this is a suicide mission arising from sheer desperation, the chances of success expounded in the pop philosophy the assassins embrace, "Live Free, Die Well." So despite the protests of other chieftains, rulers, and thugs, the three go off to stop the threat posed by Memnon and Cassandra, no one explaining to them that missions against those that can see the future have a special kind of problem attached...THEY CAN SEE YOU COMING! Needless to say, when the mission turns sour, having just enough time to establish the bond between Mathayus and his smart camel, his brother Jesup (Branscombe Richmond) and companion are ambushed and killed by Memnon. Mathayus is temporarily spared thanks to Cassandra claiming he has a destiny and the character of sidekick Arpid (Grant Heslov) is introduced, initially as someone the killer saves but then as comic relief.
The rest of the movie involves Mathayus capturing Cassandra, falling in love with her, and battling the forces of Memnon in desert sandstorms, in the streets of his town, and even combating his treacherous harem before the inevitable, formulaic showdown between good and evil. Remember, this was a pre-Anubis Mathayus, his nickname not yet established. The bumps he takes along the way serve as spoilers but you have all the generic elements of a modern day action tale and you never have to see the movie it was spawned from to appreciate it for what it is, a barebones effort complete with amusing (for all the wrong reasons though) performances by the cast. Suffice it to say, that even for genre fans, this is something of a guilty pleasure, Mr. Rock using his infamous eyebrow raise and muscular body to give his existing fans a nod while competently plowing through some of the lamest writing in years.
Like all movies, The Scorpion King amounts to a guilty pleasure for most people. If you like popcorn flicks that you can mindlessly kick back and watch, preferably on a couch with a scantily clad significant other, this one will serve as well as any Dolph Lundgren, Stephen Seagal, or even early Schwarzenegger adventure. His later efforts have been better as he expands out of the typecast muscle-headed goon but I can't deny that this movie had limited replay value for me so I rated it as a Rent It. There were fewer sweeping special effects used compared to The Mummy Returns and if box office tallies mean anything to you (they fall on deaf ears to me), it was a hit when it came out, still playing on cable regularly due to the popularity of Dwayne Johnson. This blu-ray upgrade was decent compared to the standard definition release (sorry it took an extra couple of days but I wanted to compare it to the SD release, renting it locally for comparison purposes) and while it might not be a great movie, it was okay if you aren't big on plot, writing, acting, and other movie concepts.
Picture: The Scorpion King (Blu-Ray) was presented in widescreen color with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 as shot by director Chuck Russell. The 1080p resolution was a nice upgrade from the standard definition release using the VC-1 codec, probably using the same master as the previous HD-DVD release awhile back (as part of a package deal for the upcoming new franchise release for the Mummy series). The colors were accurate, the cinematography lush, and the amount of detail extremely fetching though a few parts of the movie must have been shot with a soft focus because both versions had weaker spots to speak of. They were few and far between, just as any other significant visual flaws (like moiré, artifacting, macro blocks, etc.) but I'm sure if you analyze it frame by frame like some armchair quarterbacks like to do, you'll find enough edge enhancement or other issues to act appropriately alarmed. I didn't see this one in the theater, nor did I catch the HD-DVD release when it came out, but aside from the decidedly cheesy CGI special effects, it was a decent looking movie on par with recently released titles.
Sound: The primary audio track was the 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio track, the usual sampling rate of 48 kHz expected but the audio bitrate typically hovering in the 4 Mbps or higher level. The vocals were crisp and clear, the score properly balanced (though maybe too enhanced compared to the rest of the aural experience), and the aural effects weaved in very nicely too. The surrounds and bass were more aggressive than usual, the score seeming to offer a mismatch of styles devoted more to the lead than the settings of the show, my anachronistic observations holding true for this part of the movie too. If you close your eyes during any of the major action sequences, you will also find that the headspace it provided was extremely directional, a fine example of what a movie should sound like, though turning it up to the right levels might have the neighbors complaining. I thought this was much better than the SD version I listened to a little while ago, admittedly expected but pleasantly surprising all the same. The spot checked Spanish and French tracks were also in 5.1 DTS with a 768 Kbps bitrate but I'm not fluent enough to suggest they whether they were accurate or not (the optional subtitles in English, Spanish, and French seeming to fit the dialogue very closely).
Extras: My favorite extra was the director commentary as Russell provided some background as to the characters, the actors portraying them, and the events on set. He seemed equally well versed in the technical side of things but appeared to care more about the big picture aspects of making the movie than limiting himself (as some online critics do) to minute technical matters. There were some funny moments, intentional or not, regarding how it all came about and to be frank, it softened my initial reaction to the movie somewhat. The other major extra was the PIP (Picture in Picture) tied to the U-Control aspect of the blu-ray release. This provided a number of older interviews, comments, and assorted features tied to the production of the movie together, though I certainly prefer seeing them offered in standalone selections as well (like the recent Starship Troopers). It made my third viewing of the movie worthwhile but most of it was cheerleading fluff so don't expect a whole lot from it (I didn't) and you will be okay.
Final Thoughts: The Scorpion King (Blu-Ray) was a light action film that really didn't rely on any ties to the movie that spawned it in any meaningful manner so it should serve as an amusing diversion for those so inclined to check it out. The technical aspects of the movie were nicely done, the CGI enough to entertain those into cheesy effects, and lead Dwayne Johnson charismatic enough to have earned his place as yet another mainstream mope with a following. The extras were bundled differently than previous versions and the value of the disc as a double dip is highly questionable but as stated in the body of the review, it had all the genre elements included (as expected) so high definition fans wanting it on the winning format might consider it as worthy of their attention.