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.
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)
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:
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.
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