Intermittently this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: in Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, Dwayne Johnson plays a character who was introduced as a villain in a franchise film before becoming a hero in this standalone adventure only glancingly connected to that franchise. Opinions are split as to whether this worked out well, but it's at least a hell of a lot better than the last time this scenario was tried.

To file under "things that people act like are new, but really aren't": in recent years, the films of the Conjuring franchise have come under a small amount of fire for wasting precious screen time introducing characters who have obviously no function in this movie, but will show up as the main villain in the next movie. This is annoying, but it's a well-established bad habit that goes much further back than the 2010s' vogue for shared universes. Television has been playing this game - under the name "backdoor pilot" - since the 1960s - and though it's rarer in movies, it still crops up now and then. For example, in 2001, when the much-promoted sequel The Mummy Returns was heading towards its debut in the first weekend of May, one of the things that was front-and-center in the marketing was the appearance of beloved wrestler The Rock in a brief appearance as the Scorpion King, a villain also played by a world-historically bad CGI effect. The Scorpion King was almost exclusively an off-screen presence in The Mummy Returns, but we were all promised that we'd love the character so much that we wouldn't hardly be able to wait for him to get his own starring vehicle just eleven months later, giving beloved wrestler The Rock his very first chance to be a leading man, after The Mummy Returns let him do his first big-screen acting.

The degree to which this worked out for Universal can be attested to by the relative success of the two movies: The Mummy Returns made $433 million worldwide, $202 million in the U.S. and Canada, while The Scorpion King made $165 million worldwide, $91 of that coming from the U.S. and Canada. And look, $91 million is a decent amount of money in 2002, but it's quite a big fall-off. Which is maybe due to it being the case that, actually, we were not that excited by the Scorpion King, who looked like a shitty polygon glob by the standards of 2001-era video games, let alone 2001-era movies. And maybe it's just to to it being the case that, even if we did want a Scorpion King movie (I mean, Christ knows I didn't, but I didn't want The Mummy Returns, either), we didn't want this movie. The Scorpion King is, to be blunt, completely fucking awful: awful as a prequel, presenting a version of the character who doesn't resemble the one we met in the 2001 film in any way except in The Rock's extremely distinctive physique. And awful as an action-adventure set in a generic "Ancient Middle East and North Africa", by which the film means that everything that isn't the desert is cities made out of sandstone.

It's a little weird going to back to this film, years after beloved wrestler The Rock fully completed his transformation into beloved comic action star Dwayne Johnson, and realise that once upon a time, this kind of trashy third-rate Conan the Barbarian bullshit is what Hollywood thought was the right use of his talents. It's not that he's exactly bad in the role (though he is pretty bad in The Mummy Returns if my years-old memories are right). It's just that he's profoundly generic. Ever since Johnson successfully recalibrated his career from "muscly dude being in muscly movies" to "big comic cornball" - which, as I count it, was hinted at in 2005's Be Cool, started in earnest with 2008's Get Smart, and was solidified no later than 2013's Pain & Gain, in which being goofy while also being muscly was the joke - he has become such a big personality onscreen. We need not to commit to loving or hating this personality in order to agree that, at least, he's got a lot of it. Not so in The Scorpion King, which only gives him about five minutes to pal around with a doe-eyed child and demonstrate his big weightlifting teddy bear vibe, one opportunity to do that eyebrow thing that he does, and unless I have forgotten something, not one actual laugh line. He's basically just playing "the guy with large arms and larger pecs", a role that has been written more or less the same way since the 1960s. And, of course, why wouldn't that be the case? The track record for wrestlers-turned-actors has always been dire, so why would the filmmakers want to risk having Johnson play anything other than a bland slab of perpetually underdressed beefcake intensely stating tedious expository lines before soulfully bedding the slightly less underdressed female lead. It's just weird to realise that The Scorpion King is sitting right on a secret weapon and is patently unaware of the fact.

That's of minor historical interest, at best; what it leaves us with is a generic beefcake in the kind of movie that generic beefcakes tend to get cast in. Though I am paying The Scorpion King an unwarranted compliment by calling it "generic". It's pretty basic stuff: many thousands of years ago (unsurprisingly, the film is confused on the details: the phrase "Scorpion King" points to a pair of Egyptian rulers from around 5000-5200 years BP, and this accords with The Mummy Returns, but a big deal is made about how Johnson's character is Akkadian, which makes it around 1000 years later. But what the hell, you can almost hear the screenwriters yawning, it's all ancient shit), an ancient tyrant named Memnon (Steven Brand), who is presumably from what is now Egypt, was laying waste over some region that we can pinpoint as "either the Levant, Mesopotamia, or the Arabian peninsula". Three Akkadians, of whom only Mathayus (Johnson) will be around long enough to bother learning his name, have been hired as assassins by the peoples currently failing to fight off Memnon's hordes, and they fail in this attempt. Mathayus commits himself to revenge, after Memnon kills his brother, and kidnaps the warlord's virgin seer Cassandra (Kelly Hu), who of course doesn't really want to serve Memnon anyway, but also doesn't much hold with being kidnapped. They end up finding their way, along with excruciating comic relief Arpid (Grant Heslov), into the camp of the anti-Memnon resistence, led by suspicious king Balthazar (Michael Clarke Duncan), and Mathayus has to prove himself trustworthy and capable enough to lead an assault against Memnon's stronghold. In the Biblical city of Gomorrah, no less.

This is the plot of basically every ancient world movie, right down to the virgin seer who'll lose her powers after she has sex with the hero, oops, spoiler alert. So here's what I don't get: how did screenwriters Steven Sommers, William Osborne, and David Hayter (working from a story treatment by Sommers and Jonathan Hales), along with director Chuck Russell, make such a fucking hash out of it? You don't need to take my word for it. It's matter of record that the film was so undernourished that new material had to be written in the fly just to get it up to feature length, and I do mean just: the theatrically-released cut of the film is 92 minutes long, and while I greatly appreciate that (this is already suffocatingly boring three times over without trying to crack the two-hour mark), it's not the kind of running time that a film with pretenses to epic adventure status was going to settle for in 2002. That's a chintzy B-movie running time, and to be sure: The Scorpion King is a chintzy B-movie. But it has some serious delusions of grandeur.

Let's not lose the thread, though: the movie had to be refashioned and padded out, and I imagine for this reason, it's more or less incomprehensible. The plot is, again, so boringly clichéd that it almost doesn't bear talking about it, and there are dozens of models one could copy, and yet somehow, it's completely mystifying how we get from one point to the next. At every point, it feels like we're all of a sudden in a new scene, in a new location. It is the choppiest damn movie. It's no shock that's true of the editing qua editing: this was 2002, and a certain illegible flurry of shots was what you expected of lousy, CGI-heavy action B-movies-on-steroids in 2002. But for the overall story structure to be choppy? Now that's something.

At any rate, it's hard to follow and doesn't reward the effort of following it. It's not good drama, and it's not good spectacle: the film is kind of scuzzy and washed-out with a dirty yellow hue that only calls attention to how fucking much of the movie takes place in lifeless deserts of a sort that no human civilisation would ever call home, but it's how Americans imagine the ancient Middle East must have looked, so we're stuck with it. The sets are boring, the costumes (when they are more than loincloths) are colorless. The CGI is utterly hideous: nothing is as bad as the Scorpion King effect from The Mummy Returns, largely because The Scorpion King mostly eschews any and all paranormal plot elements (just Cassandra's psychic abilities), which is an odd choice for a movie that claims to be the origin story for a messed-up scorpion man. But it does mean that the film can limit its attention to mostly old-fashioned sword & sandal type of VFX work, with fancy CGI left mostly for touch-up detail; the creation of unbelievably shitty-looking cobras, and the like.

The whole thing is a grating, anti-fun mess, with almost nothing entertaining in any way, unless it's the limited amusement provided by the jarringly casual, modern performances that Johnson and Duncan bring to bear on their arch, Ancient Tymes dialogue. They're both extremely charismatic actors, something not really true of anyone else in the cast (Bernard Hill, as the anachronistic inventor of gunpowder, at least has his "cute grandpa" thing), but The Scorpion King can't even figure out how to use charisma, and so they're both charmless and painfully straitlaced, but unable to find anything like the right kitschy vibe to at least pretend like it's several millennia ago. Did I say "limited amusement"? I suppose I meant "cringey embarrassment". Which is, to be sure, the most active emotion The Scorpion King is ever able to spark, so better than than nothing.