Rating The Rock As ‘The Scorpion King’

Only time (and box office) will tell if grappler becomes next big action hero.

With this week’s release of “The Scorpion King,” audiences will have the chance to decide whether or not the Rock — one of pro wrestling’s biggest stars — can successfully make the leap from the squared circle to full-blown action-hero status.

“There is not a lot of sword fighting going on in the WWF,” the Rock joked about making the transition from ringleader to Conan-like swashbuckler. “I had to switch my regimen around a little bit, but after watching the film, [it was] well worth it.”

So far, reviews of “The Scorpion King” have been mixed, with a majority of critics calling it a fun if rather brainless popcorn flick. Some commentary surrounding the Rock’s acting performance is even less kind, with The New York Times writing that the Rock “may be the first movie action hero who appears more digital than human.” Regardless, his ability to handle simple Schwarzenegger-style one-liners and grueling stunt work is without question, as is his personal commitment to becoming a film star.

“For three and a half months we had to work on sword fighting every day,” the Rock said. “Camel riding every single day, horse riding, working with fire with the swords, staff fighting, a little bit of martial arts. So there was a lot of arduous work that went into it.”

Regardless of the eventual critical response to his debatable thespian ability, box office receipts, as always, will ultimately determine whether or not the Rock — who turns 30 next month — can count on a viable future in the movie business. The Rock’s first big flick, by all rights, should have no problem drawing in moviegoers, as built-in fans of the WWF star and the “Mummy” movie series (from which “The Scorpion King” is derived) are legion.

It was the overwhelming popularity of the Rock’s incredibly small yet glowingly charismatic turn as the Akkadian warrior in “The Mummy Returns” that generated such a buzz in Hollywood that production on “The Scorpion King” got moving while its predecessor still lingered in theaters. The extra bits on the recently released DVD version of “The Mummy Returns” play like little more than an extended trailer for “The Scorpion King,” which articulates the origin of its title character. In the film, the Rock’s Mathayus faces off against the evil Memnon (Steven Brand) and his fortune-telling sorceress Cassandra (Kelly Hu).

Aside from playing the Scorpion King and, well, the Rock, Dwayne Johnson has other acting credits on his résumé, including bit parts on “Star Trek: Voyager” and “That ’70′s Show.” Perhaps most notably, the Rock has turned in two head-turning performances hosting “Saturday Night Live,” both of which proved the imposing but loveable wrestler’s understanding of comic timing and light-handed approach to acting. Meanwhile, the WWF continues to turn out top-rated cable television programming, and the Rock is its biggest star.

According to co-star Michael Clarke Duncan — who earned an Oscar nomination for “The Green Mile” — the Rock was able to draw extensively from his wrestling background while making “The Scorpion King.”

“He knows how to take falls,” Duncan said. “He gave me pointers on how to flip [people]. He taught me a lot of things about doing my own stunts.

“I mean, he goes into the ring practically every night to do this on the WWF, so he was way better than I was in the stunts, but I kind of caught up with him.”

Hollywood seems to be betting on the Rock; he’s already been cast in Universal’s “Helldorado,” a buddy action-adventure pic. However, the leap from the ring to box office bling is no small challenge. After all, wrestling’s top icon, Hulk Hogan, could only manage a cameo in “Rocky III” and a series of B-movies, including “No Holds Barred,” “Mr. Nanny” and “Santa with Muscles.” So will it be A-list stardom or B-movie notoriety for the Rock? Only time, and the box office, will tell.