Monday, March 19, 2012

Heavy Action: Kull the Conqueror / The Scorpion King

What is it that makes an action star? Why do some "pop" and others don't? Steven Seagal becomes a movie star and works consistently for two decades, while Jeff Speakman disappears almost immediately after The Perfect Weapon is engineered to make him a household name. Michael Jai White has incredible chops (both literal and figurative), but hasn't enjoyed one third as much success as Wesley Snipes. Then there's polar opposites Kevin Sorbo and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who met with very different career fates despite being launched as action stars in very, very similar movies.

Kull the Conqueror (1997)

Minnesota-born Kevin Sorbo did a few forgettable TV guest spots at the start of his acting career that never amounted to much, but as soon as he was cast as Hercules in a series of Sam Raimi-produced TV movies beginning in 1993, all of that changed. He became an overnight celebrity -- albeit kind of a cult one, with a very specific fan base. A few more TV movies led to a syndicated series, Hercules and the Legendary Journeys, which quickly became all the rage with fantasy geeks and masturbating housewives who were still a few years out from playing World of Warcraft. It only made sense that some enterprising producer would attempt to convert Sorbo's TV success and built-in fanbase into box office gold; thus, Sorbo's movie career began and ended with 1997's Kull the Conqueror.

Sorbo stars as the titular Kull. That much I get. The rest of the "plot" (as it were) is difficult to describe, as it depends heavily on the kind of made up names and places that can make fantasy fiction so impenetrable to all but the most die hard fans of the genre. Through a series of events, Kull is made heir to the kingdom of Valusia by a dying, mad king, who chooses Kull (despite the fact that he is from Atlantis and not of noble lineage) knowing that attempts will endlessly be made on his life. Feeling passed over for the throne and slighted, General Taligaro (Thomas Ian Griffith) conspires to revive Akivasha, Sorceress Queen of Acheron (Tia Carerre), who seduces Kull and marries him to become queen. She quickly poisons him and, believing Kull to be dead, rules the kingdom as a secret evil rubber monster.

This is all, like, the first third of the movie. Fuuuuuuck.

For the rest of the movie, Kull teams up with a priest (Native American rapper Litefoot) and his sister, Zareta (Karina Lombard), to defeat the witch Akivasha (who will gain ultimate power when a bunch of suns align or some shit, because of course she will), kill Taligaro and regain the kingdom of Valusia.
If Kull the Conqueror seems like little more than a Conan imitation, at least there's a good reason: the character was created by Robert E. Howard, the same guy responsible for Conan the Barbarian. Howard actually came up with the character of Conan while rewriting a Kull story, which is ironic since the movie version of Kull the Conqueror is actually just a revamped, rejected Conan movie (intended to be Conan the Conqueror, based on the Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon). Trouble was, Schwarzenegger didn't want to reprise the role for a third time, and Kevin Sorbo wasn't interested in playing a previously established character -- you know, even though he was ONLY FAMOUS FOR PLAYING HERCULES. Whatever. A quick name change later, and TA DA! -- you've got cinema's only depiction of Howard's second-most famous barbarian character.

The movie plays like a slightly larger scale, more expensive episode of Hercules. Perhaps suspecting that 1997 audiences were no longer interested in sword-and-sorcery epics (this was pre-Lord of the Rings), director John Nicolella (whose career consists almost entirely of -- SURPRISE! -- TV shows, as well as the Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" video) seems to hedge his bets by making the whole thing kind of goofy -- it never winks at the camera, exactly, but it comes pretty close at times. The score incorporates a bunch of heavy guitars, too, as though using a traditional orchestral score would be playing it too "straight."

But, of course, the big problem at the center of Kull is Sorbo himself, who demonstrates in just 95 short minutes that he doesn't have the stuff to be a movie star, despite the fact that he's working right in his wheelhouse. Whereas the 6'3 Sorbo may have seemed larger than life on television, he's nothing more than a talking side of beef in Kull -- stiff and dull and totally uninteresting as the lead character. There's nothing about the movie or Sorbo's performance that teaches me anything about who Kull is as a character, except that he's tall and good with an axe. He frees all of the slaves at the end, so I guess he's pretty good-hearted for a barbarian, but it feels like an awfully long way from Conan wanting to hear the lamentations of the women. I guess that shit just wouldn't fly in the '90s. That, and Kull is rated PG-13 to ensure extra blandness. If it had been made just six years later, it would have definitely premiered on SyFy (RIP Sci-Fi Channel). The good news is that Kevin Sorbo would still star in it.

No one in the movie stands out -- even the actors playing the villains, who have the most colorful roles and ought to know better. Thomas Ian Griffith, the Prince of DTV action movies, is generic, and Tia Carrere doesn't understand the difference between overacting that's fun and overacting that's bad. What's worse is that her body double from Showdown in Little Tokyo fails to make an appearance. Karina Lombard is very pretty, but manages to show even less personality than Sorbo -- one longs for Sandahl Bergman, a kick-ass warrior woman who's great with a sword and an HJ. Would a better female lead have made Sorbo look better as well? Or would she just have served as a constant reminder that he's totally outclassed as an actor? I tend to think it's the former, since a movie with only a single block of wood in the cast has to be better than one with two.

Kull the Conqueror isn't the worst that the action fantasy genre has to offer -- the '80s saw many entries that were much, much shittier -- but it's a movie out of time and, with the charisma suck that is Kevin Sorbo as its star, it's a movie without a center. The advertising tried to convince us that "Kull Rocks!" But you know how advertising can be. It lies.

The Scorpion King (2002)
Despite the fact that it's really similar in a lot of ways (including the fact that it marked an attempt to launch a new action star within the fantasy genre), The Scorpion King is a very different -- and much better -- movie than Kull. The reason? Dwayne Johnson, who was still under contract with the WWE at the time (Vince McMahon is an executive producer) and was therefore required to be billed as "The Rock." On the one hand, UGH. On the other hand, it might be the best performance by an actor with a "the" in his name.

The Scorpion King is not a great movie, but it is a decent one, and it immediately announces The Rock as a legitimate action star cut from the very same cloth as Arnold Schwarzenegger: amazing physical specimen, tons of charisma, self-deprecating sense of humor that works its way into almost everything he does. It seems odd that he would enter the acting world with a movie like The Scorpion King, because it exists in a genre that still wasn't all that accessible to mainstream audiences. Sure, the original Conan the Barbarian launched the career of Schwarzenegger, but that was 1982 and fantasy was a totally viable genre. The Scorpion King seemed designed to only appeal to wrestling fans interested in seeing the WWE's biggest star swing a sword and kick a bunch of ass. It wasn't until his next movie, The Rundown, that Johnson got to play a more traditional action hero and his onscreen persona really began to take shape.

He stars as Mathayus, an Akadian mercenary hired by a king to kill Emperor Memnon (Steven Brand). He spends most of the movie trying to do this, eventually teaming up with Cassandra (Kelly Hu), the emperor's sorceress who has the ability to see the future and helps him rule; Balthazar, the Nubian king (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Arpid, a horse thief.

The Scorpion King is, of course, is a prequel/spin-off of The Mummy Returns, in which Johnson appeared as the same character during a prologue and then was played during the movie's climax by the WORST CGI IN HISTORY:
He's also the villain in that movie, even though he's a hero in this one. I'm not sure what exactly makes him go bad, since he's a pretty stand-up guy in The Scorpion King. I'm able to divorce the two, because I like Mathayus and don't want to imagine him turning evil. Also, I don't like thinking about The Mummy Returns. Ever.

Without Dwayne Johnson, The Scorpion King is pretty much Kull the Conqueror: a fairly generic, watered-down (it, too, is PG-13) fantasy epic about a heroic barbarian type. But The Artist Formerly Known as The Rock elevates every minute on screen through the sheer magnitude of his charisma -- he's macho and strong (and even gets a chance to do his then-signature raised eyebrow, though here it plays for laughs instead of coolness) but not afraid to be silly. He knows exactly the kind of movie he's in and, unlike Sorbo in Kull the Conqueror, avoids just going through the paces. In professional wrestling, Johnson's character was solely about being arrogant and egotistical. Also, he always wanted us to smell what he was cooking. Here, though, (and in nearly all of his movies) he projects warmth and humor, and it's those qualities that make him one of the best action stars since the heyday of the 1980s.

The movie's other secret weapon is director Chuck Russell, an underrated genre filmmaker whose movies always have a lot of energy and humor. He cut his teeth making a pair of '80s horror films, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and the excellent remake of The Blob (both of which were written by Russell's frequent collaborator, Frank Darabont) before entering the action arena with Eraser, a decent Schwarzenegger effort that's not quite as good as what came before it but much better than anything that came after. With The Scorpion King, Russell is talented and comfortable enough with the material that he can let the movie be funny without undermining the whole thing. There's a great gag fairly early on in which The Rock is buried in sand up to his neck and is attacked by fire ants; he starts smashing them with his chin and then chewing them up and spitting them out. It's a good indication of the movie's tone, and if you get on board with that, you'll probably have a pretty good time.

The supporting cast, which includes Michael Clarke Duncan and George Clooney's producing partner Grant Heslov, is fairly bland, and leading lady Kelly Hu is only marginally more interesting than Karina Lombard. Like Tia Carrere in Kull, she's playing a sorceress. And, like Tia Carrere, she's Asian. Because RACISM. At the very least, she has some chemistry with Johnson, though I suspect that's mostly his doing.

Having had success turning Johnson into an action star, the WWE would attempt to do the same with more of its wrestlers: "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in The Condemned, John Cena in The Marine, Ted DiBiase Jr. in The Marine 2. None would have the same success as Johnson, who pretty quickly was able to shed the wrestling baggage and become a movie star in his own right, alternating between more action movies (including the aforementioned Rundown, a remake of Walking Tall and Fast Five), terrible family comedies (once again following Schwarzenegger's Kindergarten Cop lead, only much less successfully) and quirkier, more interesting stuff like Southland Tales. He's still best in the action roles, because they make the best use of everything he has to offer as a star. The best ones do, anyway.

Arnold Schwarzenegger became a movie star with Conan the Barbarian. Marc Singer made The Beastmaster and didn't. Dwayne Johnson hit it big with The Scorpion King. Kevin Sorbo did not with Kull the Conqueror. Sure, the quality of the movies helps, but can anyone imagine Marc Singer in The Terminator? Or Kevin Sorbo in ... anything? Great action movie stars aren't necessarily made. Sometimes they're just born.

Got a movie you'd like to see included in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. Haven't seen either one of these movies but your column makes it a pleasure to read about them (always the sign of a good writer when he/she can engage an audience into reading about stuff they don't know about). I love the way you parallel the star vehicles for Sorbo and Johnson in their diametrically-opposed paths and name-dropping Jeff Speakman (you have to do THE PERFECT WEAPON in this column, Olive Films released it on Blu-ray in February) and Marc Singer (BEASTMASTER 2: THROUGH THE PORTAL OF TIME too much to ask for?).

    And an 'F This Movie' podcast about Arnold's CONAN movies would be most welcomed based on your writing/opinions about it here. If you're afraid a CONAN podcast would be an hour-long Chris Farley Show podcast then make sure to talk about CONAN THE DESTROYER and the 2011 CONAN remake. These last two automatically means the podcast cannot be an all Chris Farley Show gush-fest, but please do spend most of the time talking about the '82 BARBARIAN. :-) Guess we can throw in Jason Momoa from the CONAN remake into the same category as Sorbo and Singer in the 'not quite there' action star genre, which are harder to launch these days than when KULL and SCORPION KING were made.

    Dwayne Johnson is back on WWE doing appearances and last week sang at a wrestling-staged concert on USA Network's "Raw" program. Is this a sign things aren't going as well for Dwayne in the movies or is it a promotional thing? Not a wrestling fan (I really don't know), so the WWE thing I thought was just Dwayne chilling in-between movie projects with a little good-natured self-ribbing. He's a decent-enough singer but the concert thing was played for laughs, again showing why the guy has star charisma that eludes the Speakmans and Sorbos of the movie world.

    You either got 'IT' or you don't, and right now only Johnson and Jason Strathan have the 'IT' that I'm sure Adrien Brody doesn't have (even though the makers of "Predators" tried to pass him as having 'IT').

    1. I want to do The Perfect Weapon (I've never seen it). I'm waiting until the Blu-ray (hopefully) comes way down in price.

  2. FINALLY, the ROCK has come BACK to ... FThisMovie.

    Dwayne Johnson is one of those movie stars that I'd trade places with for a day, mostly for the reasons that Patrick mentions: he has a sense of humor, he's charismatic, he's athletic, and he's usually smart enough to figure out what kind of movie he's in. Also, he doesn't seem like a jerk.

    JM - if I were to guess, then I'd say his WWE appearances are just for fun, not signaling a permanent move back to wrestling; the cameo is a frequently used gimmick in the pro wrestling world.

  3. I guess I'd have to second Vargas's comment above - I apparently did not watch nearly as many action movies back in high school as I thought I did because I have not seen any of the movies featured in your Heavy Action columns (except maybe the Van Damme but even some of those blur together - I suddenly have a hankering to watch Time Cop again though - was that actually any good?) BUT have still been enjoying your writing about them.

    And I had to comment on the "masturbating housewives" line - love how casually you just sorta drop that in there - conjures up some interesting mental pictures!

    1. Sol, I've got news for you dude: EVERYBODY MASTURBATES. Patrick could have said 'disc jockey,' 'firefighter,' 'airline pilot' or 'waiter' and it would have still been true and fun. But you're right, 'masturbating housewives' (is that why they're so desperate? :-P) has a catchiness to it. Makes you wonder how many hours/days/weeks (seconds?) Patrick agonized over that metaphor so it would come just right.

      "Timecop" is in that middle-ground between being a very good and a very bad Van Damme movie, sometimes in the span of the same scene. It's a decent action film (asses are kicked, people are shot, body parts fly and JCVD flexes his things) with a sci-fi bend and studio money (Unversal) behind it. But, because it was co-produced by Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert during their syndicated TV prime days, there's an overall air of cheese throughout "Timecop" (Ron Silver's villain, the "Stargate SG-1" TV-like special effects, some really laughable western scenes, etc.) that never allows you to take it as seriously as a "Hard Target" or "Universal Soldier." Only "Sudden Death" (from the same director of "Timecop," Peter I-wouldn't-recognize-a-light-if-it-hit-me-in-the-face Hyams), which Patrick already covered in this column, would come close to matching Van Damme's earlier roles. Shoot, Stallone's "Demolition Man" does a slightly-cheesy-future-as-seen-in-the-1990's that's more believable than the cars/fashions in "Timecop."

      It's also the one movie that stands out to me as having the streets devoid of extras or other cars (just JCVD and/or whoever he's with, Ron Silver and henchman, etc.) because the filmmakers either didn't want to pay for extras in the background or they just didn't care (think anime scenes when the characters walk around Tokyo or their local town and the streets are deserted except for the show's characters). Guess this also prevents the filmmakers from having to pay for futuristic wardrobe to dress the extras or 'future cars' to be seen in the background. Seriously, it's distractingly funny to see how barren the streets/malls/worlds of "Timecop" are.

      I own "Timecop" on HD-DVD (decent transfer but no extras) and it's no long after this this that the quality of JCVD's output really jumps the shark ("Double Team" with Rodman, "Knock Off," etc.) and then he starts getting the direct-to-video disposable roles that would marginalize him. So "Timecop" is the beginning of the end of Van Damme as an American box office draw.

    2. @Sol - I've always imagined that masturbating housewives are Kevin Sorbo's key demographic. The ones that aren't already into Lucy Lawless, anyway.

  4. As a huge fan of Robert E. Howard’s work, I found Kull yet another second rate disappointment. Other than the first Conan there have been no decent films based on his characters, and even that isn’t really a true representation of the Conan that appears in the stories.

    I quite liked The Marine; it was nothing ground breaking but I thought John Cena did a good job. The Marine 2 on the other hand is nearly as dull as Boiling Point. Ted Dibiase’s charisma was not passed on to his son, who has to be one of the worst leads in an action film I’ve ever seen. It’s crazy to think a couple of years ago WWE thought he was going to be a breakout star.

    Regarding The Perfect Weapon, I watched that a couple of weeks back, and the only things that have stuck in my mind are the opening training montage to Snap’s The power and seeing Mariska Hargitay’s name in the opening credits, then for the sum total of her performance to end up being a few short scenes in which see does thing like look out of a window or close a door, all the while never uttering one word. Apparently there was some more stuff involving her that was cut.

    1. I liked The Marine, too, Stuart (just saw it for the first time). It was ridiculous in the way that some '80s action movies were, and I dug that. I even tracked down 12 Rounds because I thought John Cena was a pretty good action hero. It's not bad, but it's kind of generic. Probably a "better" movie than The Marine, but loses all the craziness that gives the first movie its personality.

      Couldn't agree more about The Marine 2, by the way. That was a huge letdown. I had no idea Ted DiBiase Jr. was even a wrestler, much less a popular one, and the decision to try and turn him into an action hero was a bad one. The movie would have been SOOO much better with the actual Million Dollar Man in the part. Or at least Virgil.

      Snap's "The Power" is TOTALLY in the trailer for The Perfect Weapon, too. I have to see this movie.

  5. If Kull the Conqueror seems like little more than a Conan imitation, at least there's a good reason...

    Unfortunately for the filmmakers, it isn't really a good reason at all when you read the stories in question. While the first Conan story is indeed a rewrite of an unpublished Kull story, that Kull the Conqueror seemed a half-baked Conan ripoff is because the film somehow managed to remove everything that made Kull different from Conan, and replacing it with stuff to make him more similar.

    Case in point, "Kull" in this movie is a lady's man: a sensitive lady's man, to be sure, but clearly a guy who's been around. Howard's Kull, on the other hand, was a virgin: growing up a feral child after your tribe was wiped out in a flood does things like that to your development. That right there is a marked departure from Conan. Also, "Kull" is a big dumb warrior who occasionally has moments of college-level philosophy: Howard's Kull was a philosopher king prone to bouts of melancholic introspection and easily distracted by strange fancies and ideas - Conan, though not averse to learning, is a bit more concerned with carnal matters. Then you get into things like career (Kull was a gladiator and slave, two things Conan never was outside the 1982 film) and the little details like Kull and Conan's sense of humour. Aside from being barbarians who become kings of civilized kings, Kull and Conan are remarkably different in temperament, history and ethos.

    But of course, they decided to go with a cut-price Conan, 'cause why would you want your character to be remotely unusual or memorable when you can be Conan-lite?

    1. Hey, Taranaich! Welcome!

      I haven't read much (any) Howard, so I appreciate your breakdown of the differences between the characters. It sounds like the filmmakers didn't even bother to remove what made Kull different -- this wasn't written as a Kull movie at all. They just couldn't call it Conan, so they called it Kull and then didn't bother to go back and rewrite anything to make it truer to the character. I have to say, though, that this would have been a very disappointing Conan movie -- possibly even worse than the Marcus Nispel version from last summer, of which I was not a fan, and definitely worse than Conan the Destroyer.

      I kind of wonder if the resurgence in the popularity of fantasy (thank you, Game of Thrones) will lead to another version of Kull. I kind of doubt it, though, because I'm guessing the Kevin Sorbo take killed the brand name for good, as far as movies go.

      Thanks again for posting!

  6. I really hope you'd seen Kull the Conqueror before this post or else I feel *really* bad about suggesting it for this column. Like, UBER bad.

    1. Don't ever feel bad about making suggestions for the column, Dawn! They're always welcome.

      And don't worry. I saw Kull the Conqueror IN THE THEATER back in '97. Talk about feeling BAD.