Why does a movie like The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption exist? Film criticism as a pursuit, even a career, can become skewed by years of focusing only on A-list theater releases, so much so that critics stop asking the essential questions about the films they review. We take it for granted that a movie has been made to contribute to the art of cinema, to try to tell a compelling story or, in the worst cases, to make a quick buck by pandering to one demographic or another. Not all films achieve any of these three things, but many more don’t even really try. SK3 is one such movie. It’s not, by the standards of anything playing at the multiplex, a good movie. Hell, it’s barely a competent movie, but expecting anything from it but the weakest sauce a major studio like Universal can muster is ridiculous. It’s the straight-to-video second sequel to the cheesy spin-off of an already relentlessly cheesy theme park ride masquerading as a movie franchise. So, why then does The Scorpion King 3 exist?
Judging by the title, one would assume that Universal wanted to milk its reasonably profitable franchise for at least one more go-round. The original Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vehicle made a tidy $100 million profit back in 2002 and its Rock-less prequel was made for a song, so any brand recognition at all would mean a few stray dollars. Money is, naturally, the only real reason SK3 exists (on a $5 million budget, it’d be hard not to rake in at least a little scratch), but there’s more to it than that. Being released a decade after the baldly of-the-moment original, it’s not a reasonable gamble to assume the target demographic is going to have any brand recognition at all.
That’s because the target demographic is boys between the ages of let’s say 10 and 16. The plot, pacing and logic of SK3 can be summed up as “And then there were _____”. As in, “And then there were war elephants” or “And then there were ninjas” or “And then there were racial stereotype demons”. The movie finds Mathayus (an awful Victor Webster), the titular bad-ass, on a mission to help an Egyptian king (Ron freakin’ Perlman) secure an ally in ancient Thailand against his evil brother played by the world’s favorite actor not just gone to seed, but born in seed, Billy Zane. This means that anyone who ate up the Mummy/Scorpion King franchise thus far out of a love for all things Ancient Egyptian (pleasing them being another potential reason for SK3‘s existence) aren’t really the intended audience anymore. No, I imagine the rationale behind this bizarre story decision was the fact that it’s cheap to film in Thailand.
What follows is a lazy, meandering adventure that more or less randomly introduces things the tween boy demo would likely find amusing. A belching sidekick, a bunch of tigers, the aforementioned elephants, ninjas and WWE-ready demons are all on the docket, pacing and plot coherence be damned. The subtitle refers to Mathayus battling with the specters of his past (thankfully not literally), but the exposition-heavy opening pretty much burns down the entirety of the franchise’s mythology, so the struggle never really registers. Not that the intended audience would really care.
But the most fascinating artifact of SK3 is the way Universal is using it as one of its first UltraViolet streaming titles. The studio has been apprehensive about putting too many of its releases online for this already too complicated Web service, but as with its UV premiere Cowboys and Aliens, it kinda makes sense. The tween boys of the movie-watching world don’t go to the dwindling number of video stores, they get their media online. Sure, you have to get your hands on the UV authorization code, which ostensibly requires purchasing the Blu-Ray disc, but it’s a step in a younger direction nonetheless. As a movie, The Scorpion King 3 is exactly the kind of joyless slog one would expect, but as a way to while away a long middle school Saturday on a sugar high, I’m sure it does the job nicely.