Is The Rock the new Arnold? Ty Burr says when it comes to a reliable blockbuster action star, it's out with the old and in with the new
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dwayne ''The Rock'' Johnson
Credit: The Rock: Steve Granitz/; Schwarzenegger: Plambeck/face to face/ImageDirect

Is The Rock the new Arnold?

Is The Rock the new Arnold? I’ll go you one better — he’s Arnold 2.0. And the world has long been been waiting for a new, improved model of that trusty old Humvee, as witnessed by the respective grosses of their most recent movies (a 98-pound-weakling $49 million for Arnold’s ”Collateral Damage” over two months vs. $36 million in one weekend for the former Dwayne Johnson’s ”Scorpion King”).

But numbers tell only part of the story: Go see ”Scorpion King” if you want to know why The Rock is poised to be the next-gen action-movie lunkhead de la lunkheads. The movie itself is, surprisingly, not awful — a straightforward sand-and-swords saga that recalls the old Steve Reeves Saturday matinee specials of the late 50s. Yeah, it’s updated: The heroine (Kelly Hu) wears fewer clothes, there are almost-convincing CGI effects rather than rickety stop-motion animation, and the villain (Steven Brand, coming on like Billy Ray Cyrus with some of Russell Crowe’s DNA stirred in) sports a mullet. But new trappings aside, this is old, reliable stuff, and served with enough professionalism that it almost passes for panache.

In truth, ”The Scorpion King” is ”Conan” by any other name: The Rock’s Mathayus, an Acadian mercenary wandering the battlefields and palaces of a time seemingly before history, is a character right out of the Robert E. Howard playbook. But where the Schwarzenegger ”Conan the Barbarian” of 1982 labors mightily under the Wagnerian pretensions of writer-director John Milius (I know, plenty of you fanboys out there disagree — bring it on, fellas), ”Scorpion King” hews closer to the busy, fast, droll tone of the Marvel ”Conan” comic. That’s for the better.

And The Rock is part of the effect. Fred Astaire he ain’t, but he’s lighter on his feet than Schwarzenegger in all ways. Maybe that’s just the difference between a pro wrestler and a bodybuilder, or maybe it’s that the ersatz arena of the WWF is a better theatrical training ground for make-believe. Or maybe The Rock is just the first notable POST-Schwarzenegger action hero.

Think about it: When Arnold uttered those magical words in 1984’s ”The Terminator” — ”Ah’ll be beck” — no one had seen a movie muscleman wink at the audience. Irony was not for the likes of Steve Reeves or Johnny Weissmuller before him. Rising from the career dumps, the newly arch Arnold rode that one-catchphrase-per-movie gimmick to the bank and back again, and a host of wannabes followed in his wake. Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, all the way down to Brian Bosworth. But none of them ever put it over with such scowling, we’re-haffink-a-pahty wit as Schwarzenegger.

I bet The Rock has a shot at it, though. What’s the difference between him and the other testosterone boytoys? Well, for one thing, he’s as big as a house ? and physical massiveness counts for something. But so does verbal dexterity; otherwise, Andre the Giant would have made a career out of ”The Princess Bride.” So when The Rock, running toward some evil palace guards, says to the young street urchin by his side, ”You kill half and I’ll kill the other half,” then does a double-take and says, amiably, ”Okay. I’ll kill them all,” he’s already about three steps ahead of where Arnold would have been in the same situation. (And the movie still gives the kid the last word: ”Why don’t we just run around them and not kill any of them?” Which, shockingly, is what they do.)

Of course, The Rock still gets all marble-mouthed when he has to pitch woo to Hu, or do anything that requires actual acting. But give the guy time, I say. He may not evolve into a De Niro, but if we’re lucky, he’ll spare us an ”Eraser.”

Who’s the better action hero: Ahnuld or The Rock?

The Scorpion King
  • Movie
  • 94 minutes